In Praise of Moderation


Quiz time! Who said it: "...Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Well? Do you know it? And don't you dare take your eyes away from this blog to Google it. That would be cheating.

Anybody guess it was Bernie Sanders? Don't be too embarrassed if you did; after all, he's built his campaign around positions that many in the United States consider extreme: breaking up big banks, making health care and a public university degree into universal entitlements, and paying for it all with redistributive taxation. And he's not shy about using extreme rhetoric. Here's something he actually said: "We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to say 'enough is enough'!"

Anybody guess Donald Trump? He certainly has said some extreme things, all of them related to defending America: waterboarding, targeting the families of suspected terrorists, expelling immigrants, barring Muslims from entering the United States, and, of course, the wall. But no, these are not his words, either; Google "Trump quotes" and you quickly learn that soaring rhetoric is not his forte; in fact, I was hard pressed to find anything he's said that sounds even remotely eloquent.

I guess that leaves Hillary. Anybody pick her? No? Whyever not? Come to think of it, that's not a fair question, as I well know: Google "Hillary Clinton" and "extremism," and you get "extremism thrives amid ignorance and anger, intimidation and cowardice." So, no surprise, Hillary Clinton is no fan of extremism, and while her speech writers can put some excellent quotes in front of her, none of them is going to sound revolutionary.

So here's where I admit that the picture at the top of the page is a triple red herring. The speaker of that quote was Senator Barry Goldwater, on the occasion of accepting the 1964 Republican nomination for the Presidency. He went on to lose that campaign by a historic landslide to Lyndon Johnson, a consummate politician who, despite doing more than any other President since Lincoln to further the rights of African-Americans, and to expand the social safety net to include millions more impoverished Americans, was a thoroughly unlikeable man.

Goldwater failed miserably at turning the 1964 election to the right, but his defeat laid the groundwork for the modern conservative movement best embodied by Ronald Reagan. Trump's nomination will, I believe, mark the end of that movement, as white working class Republicans have finally realized that this movement does nothing for their own interests. For all his flaws, Donald Trump personifies their anger as no other politician can. He'll lose--there just aren't enough angry white Republican men left to win him more than a handful of states in November--but it behooves both the major parties to pay attention to that anger, find a way to address it, and make sure Trumpism doesn't morph into American fascism.

Enough about that side show that threatens to become the main act. What about Bernie and Hillary?

As I noted above, Bernie Sanders on the stump comes the closest to sounding like Barry Goldwater. Like the conservative Republicans of 1964, the left wing of the Democratic party has become more frustrated with each passing election cycle at the moderation practiced by party leadership. There have been no great social programs since the Johnson administration created Medicaid, half a century ago. Presidents who followed Johnson--including Nixon--took stabs at some kind of universal health care, with the most serious attempt being made by Bill Clinton (whose health care czar was then-first-lady Hillary Clinton). Expanding, but not universalizing, coverage remains the signature accomplishment of the Obama administration, but the compromise under which we're living now is an arcane chimera of a blended corporate-public bureaucracy that makes no one happy. Like Goldwater Republicans, leftists long for a purer, simpler approach to governance, for a leader who will not make concessions to the other party, who will unswervingly pursue justice, casting out the moderate voices that might contaminate their vision with nuance and realism.

I have a great deal of sympathy for these idealists. I share both their values and their frustration. I understand the temptation to demand that just this once, Americans elect a President who is purely representative of the left, whose positions and policies are unadulterated by outside influences or concessions to practicality. Their platform is my platform: single-payer health care for all! 100% government-subsidized university education for all! Elected officials beholden to no one but their constituents! Truly progressive taxation that shifts the burden to those who can most afford it! Eliminating the influence of money on politics!

All of these things would be wonderful if they could happen--emphasis on "could." And this is where I part ways with Bernie Sanders and his followers: as Sanders readily acknowledges in his speeches, only a revolution can bring about such an extreme change in the way Washington, D.C., operates. True majorities would have to be identified and mobilized to put the White House, not to mention Congress, in the hands of socialists who could then go about implementing the transformation of America to a true welfare state. And sadly, there just aren't enough American socialists to make it happen.

American democracy is, and always has been, a republican (small R) institution. We're too big and too diverse to have a functional direct democracy, so we elect representatives to speak on our behalf and work together to create laws and programs that protect and benefit the majority of Americans while protecting the well-being of minorities. When it works, it's the embodiment of Baha'i spirituality--unity through diversity--but it doesn't always work. Lately, it's not been working at all. And even when it does, representing that diversity leads to some ugly compromises.

It would be so much easier if one pure vision could dictate what's best for Americans, whether they like it or not: if a socialist President could just tell Congress what to do, and they would click their heels together and do it. Overnight, we'd have universal single-payer health care, free college for all, a truly progressive tax code, everything genuinely progressive Democrats have longed for since the Johnson administration.

There's just one hitch: we'd no longer be a republic, or any other kind of democracy, for that matter.

It's been done before: strong, charismatic leaders have risen through the ranks of democracy to the point where they could take advantage of party rules and install themselves in high office, whence they instituted policies that appeared to benefit the vast majority of their citizens. Once in office, they've proven extremely difficult to extricate, often changing their nation's constitution to stay in power far longer than they had originally promised.

I don't believe Bernie Sanders intends to stage a coup on the Democratic party to subvert the will of the majority of primary voters who have not pushed him through to the nomination, though such has been hinted at in statements by his campaign staff. But when they talk about contesting the nomination, and getting super delegates to upend the will of the vast majority of Democratic primary voters, I can't help but here echoes of extremists who employed similar tactics to put themselves in power in Russia, Germany, Italy, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and so many other countries in which true democracy was compromised in favor of political expediency.

Democracy is messy. Its results are rarely satisfying to extremists on either end of the spectrum. It is, without a doubt, the least efficient means of bringing about social progress. It's also the best.

That's why I'm not voting for either extremist. Oh, there was a time when I voted the purity ticket, finding the farthest left politician on the primary ballot and putting my mark there. But that time is gone. I want a President who understands that what comes out of Washington must be compromised if it is to represent the greatest number of the people, while protecting the rights of minorities who disagree with those in the majority.

So with apologies to all the virtuous extremists out there, whether they be pacifists, socialists, libertarians, free marketers, puritans, or monster raving loonies: you've got it wrong. In a representative democracy, the only true virtue is moderation.

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