A naive visitor arriving in the United States from abroad might conclude from the popular emphasis on “moderation” in contemporary American political discourse that Americans live under a government that represents a moderate theory of the appropriate scope and power of the state and harbors only modest political ambitions. If he happens to be a very naive and inattentive visitor, he might even persist in this delusion for a full six months or so before enlightenment finally strikes.
The highest approbatory term liberals (a category that nowadays includes most Republicans) can bestow is moderate—as in “moderate Republican.” No one ever hears of a “moderate Democrat,” since, for the majority of liberals—the liberal community after the radical liberals have been subtracted from it—Democrats are moderates by definition, while their radical brethren are well-meaning, though not always entirely practical, idealists. While moderate, according to liberal understanding, may in certain contexts be distinguished from left-wing, in other contexts the two words may denote the same enlightened position, as for instance when they are opposed to the term right-wing, with its overtones of “extremism.” Connoisseurs of contemporary American usage cannot fail to be bemused by the indignation inspired in the liberal heart by the fact of there being a right wing in politics at all, as if the dread phenomenon were not necessarily implied by the saving existence of a left one. (There are even people who find it scandalous that, once upon a time, there was a Menshevik alternative to Bolshevism.) This reaction is especially surprising when one considers that the liberal spectrum of political opinion (reading, from left to right: extra-moderate, moderate, extremist) is so obviously a concept based on a relative measure, not an absolute one. If the second were the case, it would be an obviously undemocratic, and therefore inadmissible, concept. Instead, it is a positional, or relative, one. And because we are dealing here with relatives, unless everyone who thinks about politics at all thinks in exactly the same way (which of course is how advanced liberals tacitly believe they should), public opinion is bound to comprise gradations of thought conveyed through a spectrum of expression—which is only what right versus left is conveniently about and, in anything other than a totalitarian society, must be understood as entirely normal and expectable, if not (for a certain sort of person) desirable.
The problem with the left is that it will not tolerate the full spectrum of opinion, only the left side (or end) of it. Its refusal to do so is what politicians and commentators mean when they refer to “respectable opinion” and “defining the acceptable parameters of debate.” Moderation for liberals is either Solomonic or mathematical: Split the difference evenly or count the votes, exalt the average, tolerate a bit on either side, and lop off the right one almost entirely. In modern democratic society, truth is the mean of the liberal position on anything, and the truth is by definition moderate, even moderation itself. Hence the pro-choice position is a model of political moderation. Gay civil unions were, too, before public opinion “evolved” over the past ten years to the point where liberals now feel confident in claiming that opposition to gay marriage has been shoved rightward on the political scale, from moderation to near-extremism. Today, liberals also represent amnesty for an estimated 11-20 million illegal immigrants, a policy which for decades lay somewhere between extra-moderate and moderate, as a mainstream one and opposition to enforcing national immigration law as extremist. Similarly, they talk as if, during the past half-century, opposition to national healthcare has migrated from moderate to extremist. And so forth.
Liberals’ rhetorical appeal to “moderation” evokes echoes of the “golden mean” in the minds of political philosophers and people over the age of 50 who know or remember their Aristotle, whose name and writings still carry a kind of social-intellectual cachet even for postmodern liberals, whether they have actually read him or not. And Aristotle was strongly on their side in regard to moderation, wasn’t he? In Nicomachean Ethics, he says, “it is moral virtue that is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is in emotion and actions that excess, deficiency, and the median are found.” Aristotle adds that, “to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, that is a mark of virtue.” So there! The median—moderation—bears Aristotle’s imprimatur, and liberalism is moderation par excellence. Only, Aristotle not having been a liberal himself, there is a problem unsuspected by liberals lurking here.
The difficulty is that, as Aristotle hastened to add,
Not every action or every emotion admits of a mean. There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. . . . It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always to do wrong.
To this exemplary list of evil acts, Aristotle, were he writing today, could add abortion, no-fault divorce, and marriage between two members of a single sex. (Note that gay “marriage” significantly lacks a name of its own to connote its unique unspeakable baseness.) Just as it is proverbially impossible for a woman to be a little bit pregnant, so it is impossible for her to be a little bit of an adulteress—a moderate adulteress, we might say. It is equally impossible for an abortionist moderately to abort a fetus, or a homosexual “husband” moderately to practice sodomy. Indeed, the concept of moderation cannot be made to apply to everything, including a great many—if not most—political issues.
Probably the last American politician who was immoderate enough to attack the modern American political ideal of moderation was Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Aristotle, owing to his extremely refined sense of moral and intellectual discrimination (which could only have got him into inextricable problems with the affirmative-action agencies today), could probably have demonstrated that Goldwater’s statement is not entirely justifiable on logical and moral grounds. (For all I know, anticipating 23 centuries before the fact the issues debated in the violently bitter American presidential race of 1964, he did so.) Certainly, no candidate for public office in the United States would dare reprise Goldwater’s assertion in the present intellectual and political climate. Nor does one politician attack another for his immoderate moderation. Moderation has become a God-term, the equal in this respect of democracy, which, in fact, liberals view as synonymous with it. On the other hand, nobody has ever accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of extremism and made the charge stick, or argued to political effect that Mark Potok’s proudly professed hatred (often of merely presumed haters) is itself an immoderate emotion wanting in virtue.
Liberals have done American polity far more harm than good by pushing their perverse concept of moderation in political life. According to the classical view of politics, moderation means prudence, restraint, and responsibility in determining some mean, which Aristotle said was defined by a rational principle of a kind that a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it; a mean identified by reference to the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. The proper function of moderation in a healthy political system is not to establish justice, harmony, and peace by discounting truth through relativizing moral and practical values on a scale of popular acceptability, but to avert the sort of destabilizing or revolutionary change that makes genuine political life, and with it civilized society, impossible. If moderation in politics is not that, then it is either cowardice in action or a moral and political lie, a dishonest means to establishing a nihilistic totalitarianism.
When the liberal state, liberal society, and the liberal politicians that own and operate them exhort us to moderation, they are really resorting to an implicit command, progressively supported by the legal and administrative systems, that the rest of us conform our own genuinely diverse views to their rigidly uniform extremist ones. This is indeed what multiculturalism, inclusiveness, bureaucratic management and technocracy, the leviathan state, global democracy, and economic globalism are about. Subscription—and, if not agreement with, then at least obedience and conformity—to these projects are the essence of the “moderation” the masters of the universe enjoin on us in anodyne terms, as if they were not only the most reasonable but even the most humanly natural things in the world, rather than the inhuman monstrosities they actually are. It is true that the liberal state desires moderation in the Aristotelian and the Burkean sense of the word, as well as its own version of the thing. Like every government in the history of the world, it prefers to carry on its work, enhance and extend its power with as little opposition as possible and in the context of minimal social friction and dissent. But that, beyond the ideology of the thing, is the only kind of moderation it cares about. Because on this point, all liberals are agreed: Extremism in the defense of liberalism is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of liberalism is no virtue.