Aurelian Craiutu and Constantine Vassiliou have an excellent article articulating, defending, and pleading for us to turn from a politics of warfare to a politics of moderation. As Craiutu and Vassiliou argue, for both sides politics has become a zero-sum game in which they either win completely or the other side wins completely. This explains why presidential elections have become so important. We think the defeat of the other side in a presidential election is a matter of life or death.
They attribute part of the problem to social media: “There is a significant difference between executing an idea and finding gratification through the digital sphere on the one hand, and actually achieving something valuable and constructive through the slow and patient exercise of politics on the other. It is easier to win a culture war on Twitter than it is to win a policy battle, for example, on reforming the health care system or fixing the student debt problem.”
But I would suggest that the problem is deeper than that. It comes down to a question of our moral sensibilities. We think that morality is only pure if it’s absolute. Moderate politics can’t be taken seriously because it’s obviously insufficiently committed to its cause. It’s insufficiently virtuous to be unwavering in its commitment. Lord Charnwood’s magisterial biography of Abraham Lincoln makes this point well in his description of John Brown: “Men like John Brown may be fitly ranked with the equally rare men who…have consistently acted out the principles of the Quakers, constraining no man whether by violence or by law, yet going into the thick of life prepared at all times to risk all..[he] saw in slavery a great oppression, and was very angry, and went ahead slaying the nearest oppressor and liberating–for some days at least–the nearest slave.” By comparison to John Brown, Lincoln’s “moderation” almost looks timid. But Charnwood describes Lincoln as “a patient being, who, long ago in his youth, had boiled with anger against slavery, but whose soul now expressed itself in a policy of deadly moderation towards it: ‘Let us put back slavery where the others placed it, and there let it rest in peace.’ We are to study how he acted in power. In almost every department of policy we shall see him watching and waiting while blood flows, suspending judgment, temporising, making trial of this expedient and of that…All this provoked at the time in many excellent and clever men dissatisfaction and deep suspicion; they longed for a leader whose heart visibly glowed with a sacred passion; they attributed his patience…not to a self-mastery which almost passed belief, but to a tepid disposition and a mediocre if not a low level of desire.” But, in fact, “this balanced and calculating person…did of set purpose drink and refill and drink again as full and fiery a cup of sacrifice as ever was pressed to the lips of hero or of saint.”
In other words, the challenge for moderate politics is that it often looks “tepid” or “mediocre.” Seeking compromise with one’s opponents, proceeding cautiously, these aren’t the stuff of real virtue. But moderation doesn’t have to be that. Lincoln’s “deadly moderation” teaches us that moderates can actually be as committed, if not more, than those who participate in the fiery politics of commitment. The latter, who are more interested in virtue signaling than in achieving, lack the patience and commitment to pursue their ends through paths by which they’ll actually achieve them. What we need now isn’t just a politics of moderation but a defense of the surpassing virtue of “deadly moderation.”