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Everything in Moderation

By: James Poulos
September 20, 2017

o defend moderation moderately is a matter of necessity. But in our time, arguments from necessity are necessarily immoderate arguments for extremes. As “moderate” has become a discrediting slur in some quarters and a badge of honor in others, moderation as a principle provokes outrage, while ignorance of moderation as political thought’s cornerstone has become almost universal. Overturning these now-characteristic American excesses is a tall order, but in Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism, Paul Carrese addresses them calmly, methodically, thoughtfully, and pointedly. The result is a rich yet compact case for restoring the moderate virtues in politics today.

Today’s political moderate stands against political excess, but also against liberal democracy’s innate damaging, destabilizing tendencies. In Tocquevillean fashion, Carrese identifies America’s worst democratic liberal excesses as a rejection and deconstruction of natural right. This elevates his case above a fight over “centrist” respectability and “responsible” reasonableness, to a consideration of the moderate tradition as “holding a core concern with natural right, thus with limits to human will and political power.” Citing the political theorist Aurelian Craiutu, Carrese resituates rights talk within the moderate tradition’s historical context, appreciating “an intellectual, political, and moral virtue that was the underlying disposition connecting the virtues and supporting the distinct functions of each.”

Unmoored from the moderate tradition grounded in natural right, contemporary democracy tends toward a faction beyond political parties, that of “sects or schools” advancing visions of justice sundered from human nature. For Carrese, moderation’s true achievement is to order and discipline politics on the basis of natural right and law. To do this, moderates must recognize that their political moderation is “necessary while not sufficient,” without being elbowed aside by ideologues.

How best to return the body politic to both liberal moderation and classical natural right is the puzzle that defines American conservatives’ central challenge. David Brooks, also invoking Craiutu, recently attempted to cast moderation’s charm in stark terms, as the only alternative to the “warrior mentality” in politics. The radicalizing, “warrior” mentality, he says, “just means more culture war, more barbarism, more dishonesty and more dysfunction.” The moderate soul does “not see politics as warfare,” but as “a voyage with a fractious fleet,” or a method of “coping with the complexity of the world.” No sect can master the science of politics, because politics is a “limited activity” that can never save us or become the whole. Thus, the political art emerging from the acceptance of politics’s limits is a conversational art. Political arts require mediating between what are falsely propounded and marketed as airtight, mutually exclusive, comprehensive doctrines. Both extremism and careless moderation can cause disaster, but humility emerges from practicing political arts, properly understood. Politics is the art of reflectively choosing the least bad options—accepting human political wisdom and knowledge’s limits, instead of lusting and lurching after utopian visions of justice.

These themes also run throughout Carrese’s case for moderation. But Carrese, who taught political science for twenty years at the Air Force Academy, takes care not to treat the military spirit pejoratively. For him, moderation is a source for understanding the political world and our place in it, one yielding a more satisfactory and sober political lens than idealistic liberalism. His pacific tone comes despite liberals’ accelerating slide from pluralism and equanimity into a narrower, more militant, and exhaustive ideology.

Montesquieu, writing near the end of what Tocqueville calls the aristocratic age, identifies liberalism’s need for a moderating, tempering spirit. By conceiving of “a liberal polity that pursues tranquility at home and both commercial expansion and power abroad,” Montesquieu offered policymakers, statesmen, and common people a more capacious and forgiving space than early liberalism provided for conducting moderation’s challenging maneuvers. Montesquieu structures his polity to promote involvement, rather than offer an analytic framework “so refined and polarized as to repel both officials and citizens.” Moreover, foreign policy and strategy not only break down when dragged to liberalism’s extremes, whether scientistic or idealistic, but also when subjected to instrumentalism’s grim distortions. “Realism presumes we are from anywhere,” Carrese says of the realpolitik faction in contemporary international relations; “Liberalism presumes we are from everywhere.”

We can see the virtues of Montesquieu’s moderation in our dealings abroad and our domestic political affairs—and the development of our thinking about them. Montesquieu opens a window onto the latent moderate tradition more contemporary with the founders—especially Washington—than for us. For Carrese, Locke was “but one element” in founding thought’s “alloy,” there to be harmonized not just with Montesquieu but also with Cicero and other “classical and medieval sources.” In that sense, the moderate tradition running through Western culture, moored in natural right, provides a nobler foundation than mid-modern liberal rationalism without sacrificing domestic tranquility.

But why is moderation so difficult to sustain, so fragile? In his lucid examination of our first president, Carrese hints at an answer: Washington’s principled synthesis of moderation at home and abroad. Matching means to ends, remaining prudent and flexible, and ensuring that our pursuit of security and interest does not imperil liberty and justice are statecraft imperatives, the pursuit of which is the moderate’s art. Yet we view today’s choppy political waters as too challenging and pressing for anything less than toughness—as a science and an ideal—pushed to its limit, even though Washington endured turbulence and uncertainty. “Washington’s counsels thus are difficult and resist precise formulas,” Carrese concedes, “but are worthy of our efforts.” Carrese’s language is reminiscent of Tocqueville’s hardest counsel: “the best possible corrective” to idealism’s errant extreme is “daily, practical attention” to “details,” which lay bare theoretical constructs’ limits and weakness: “The remedy is often painful but always effective.”

Moderation, like Tocqueville’s democratic politics of self-interest well understood, demands a harsh sacrifice. We must close ourselves to the most tempting paths to swift, convenient advancement and renown. This sacrifice means relinquishing pride, but it is exactly pride, Tocqueville warns, that we are most keen to see others surrender. Moderation today seems—and is—particularly unglamorous and humble, a disposition belonging only to the status quo’s comfortable defenders. Carrese presents Leo Strauss’s contemporary Herbert Storing as an avatar of moderation toward political science and political theory. His inclusion in a pantheon that includes Washington, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, dares the democratic reader to chafe at the implications of elevating an obscure professor. Paradoxically, we are primed to see moderation as a self-conscious symbol or signal of pride among those above us, and as a token of humiliation among those at our status or below.

That is why, Carrese notes, “Tocqueville sought to leaven liberal individualism and egalitarianism by restoring higher aims to politics and civil society as guided by religious principles and practice.” He thus “moderates Montesquieuan liberalism,” which only began to moderate modern liberal philosophy and politics. Not just a plunge into the details would save us, says Tocqueville, but a simultaneous harkening to the transcendent truth that only sustained effort in pursuit of long-term goals can afford us a measure of greatness. Tocqueville’s statesmen, and his new political science for a world itself quite new, demand moderation in the presentation of that truth and in the manner in which the peoples’ imagination is captured.

Lectures on the need for more sacrifice, more national service, more of a taste for something bigger (if not better) than yourself are clichés of today’s managerial elite that may be well-intentioned, but will fail to excite even those already going to ambitious extremes. Nor will elites gain much from hard-charging rhetoric in the name of national greatness or, say, ridding the world of evil. Even an explicit call for extremism in the defense of liberty, the art of moderation suggests, will now do more to conceal than to reveal the commanding truth about our inalienable human endowments.

Nevertheless, Carrese leaves us to ponder an unanswered question. In today’s political landscape, the influence of fake “warriors,” for social justice or other causes, is maximized, while the deployment of soldiers, real warriors, is seen as a risk and burden to be minimized. Perhaps moderation can effectively respond to the organized enmity that has co-opted political life only by restoring bellicosity’s reputation. As the titans of the moderate tradition understood it, a fighting spirit was a dangerous but permanent part of our nature, which can salve envy with salutary honor, pride, and magnanimity, and which no degree of scientific or idealistic excess can ever succeed in suppressing or destroying.