The Corner

Moderation in Defense of Liberty

So Peter Wehner wrote a New York Times column praising the virtue of moderation, using the deep thought found in a fine book by my friend Aurelian Crăiuțu.

In Aurelian’s book, one model moderate was the great French political thinker Raymond Aron, who remained a mere liberal when everyone else was aiming at greatness through ideological fanaticism — through Communism (or even socialism) and Fascism. It takes courage — both intellectual and moral — to be a liberal when everyone thought that “liberal democracy” had been taken out by History. Moderation, as Aristotle says, is a virtue achieved through the right kind of experience, including learning from men and women with that kind of experience (which is why General Mattis takes books to the battlefield). It is the mean between cynicism (which veils despair) and idealism (ideological or otherwise).

So the distinctive virtue of America during the Cold War was the resolute deployment of moderate means in the confident service of enduringly liberal ends — the cause of human liberty. Confident moderation was certainly the virtue of Ronald Reagan.

Wehner says that to be moderate today is not to be like Trump. And, of course, we all read the manifesto put forward a couple of weeks ago by the Republican Bill Kristol and the Democrat Bill Galston about “liberal democracy” as the foundation of America’s new center, perhaps a new party that avoids the extremes of Democratic (idealistic) socialism and Trumpian Republican (cynical) populism. Let’s return to the moderation of our Cold War consensus, with men like Aron and Reagan as our guides.

I’m not going to dwell on whether this picture is altogether fair to Trump. It could be that he prevailed because in some ways he was perceived as more moderate or less conservative than the other Republicans, as more of a center-right candidate who had the backs of men and women who do skilled labor and belong to union families. It’s also true, of course, that he did the opposite of clamp down on the anger and the gullibility that undermine moderation.

The big issue is why did “liberal democracy” lose its attractiveness — even its moderation — as an American brand? It might be because our political elites became, for a while, too immoderate in their aspiration to transform the whole world in a liberal direction. It might be because our devotion to liberty became too abstract or detached from the relational concerns of ordinary Americans, such as both the observantly religious and those, such as skilled laborers, experiencing themselves as collateral damage in the dynamism of the global marketplace. 

It also might be because too many Americans take the future of liberty for granted and so have become much more concerned about their personal security. The progress of liberty can be perceived, after all, as the atrophying of the safety nets–not just government entitlements but stable,worthwhile work,  families, and local communities–that secured a dignified relational life from the unmediated demands of the marketplace. Moderation (with all its attendant virtues, such as generosity and respect for civic deliberation) depends on there being a lot of there there between the isolated individual and the enveloping state.

Our liberal democracy might now be weak on the experiences of personal significance that come through secure belonging and “man’s search for meaning.” So too many people are searching in all the wrong places — such as Sanders and Trump rallies.

But don’t worry too much. Our moderate mixture of personal liberty and democracy or equal citizenship securely persists in our constitutional forms.



Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...