The "Weakness" of Moderates



(Before explaining this common mistake, I should mention that neither conservative, nor moderate, nor liberal are very satisfactory terms for discussing political questions.  In a later essay, I will explain why they are not particularly coherent doctrines and do not adequately describe many people's political views.  They are reasonable shorthand terms for many activists here in the United States, and I will be using them as most activists would.)

Activists on the ends of the political spectrum often see those in the center not just as incorrect, but weak.  A strong conservative or liberal will often feel that those more toward the center are cowards.  The moderate, in this way of thinking, holds his views from moral weakness, not because he has come to them rationally.  Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh is probably the most prominent person who regularly makes this mistake, but it is easy to find it on the left, as well.  Jim Hightower, the former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, a man of the left, made a point Limbaugh might agree with when he titled his book, There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.  (Limbaugh can be quite funny on this subject, though unintentionally.  It is amusing to hear him rant about the crimes committed by the moderate Republicans in the distant past.  And it is downright weird to hear him denounce rich country clubbers, given his own wealth and background.)

Just a little bit of thought shows that Limbaugh and Hightower are wrong in principle; there's nothing in either extreme or moderate politics that is necessarily associated with courage or the lack of it.  If not in principle, what about in practice?  Limbaugh often claims that history shows the weakness of his foes, the moderates.  Limbaugh is wrong here, too.  You can not plausibly claim that moderates historically lacked courage, or were consistently wrong.  

Consider one of the examples Limbaugh himself likes to use, the American Revolution.   As the conflict between the American colonists and the British government escalated, most American leaders wanted a compromise solution, at first.  They were, by the standards of the day, moderates.  (The "conservatives" of the time opposed independence, a point that does not seem to have occurred to Limbaugh.)  Whatever one may think of men like Franklin and Washington, they did not lack courage, even though they were moderates, by the standards of their time and place.

The same is true of the American Civil War.  Again, by the standards of his time and place, Lincoln was a moderate.  He wanted to end slavery, over time, peacefully.  In 1860, he ran promising no further extension of slavery, not its abolition.  Radicals at the time wanted an immediate end to slavery, and conservatives opposed ending it.  Lincoln's leadership in the Civil War, whatever its faults, did not lack courage.  I would go even farther and say that his willingness to make the necessary, difficult, and even ghastly, decisions that had to be made during the Civil War show a higher level of courage than the raw physical courage a man might show in a battle.

One can find examples in other countries, as well.  In the Weimar Republic of pre-Hitler Germany, the extremists were the Nazis and Communists.  There were moderates in the center who resisted both extremes, sometimes with great courage.  To do what Konrad Adenauer (under house arrest) or Willy Brandt (forced to flee Germany for his life) did, requires a high level of courage.  That both men later became leaders of the new Germany, as heads of moderate parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, respectively, shows that there is, sometimes, justice.

The most famous moderate Republican, Eisenhower, had a war record that should end any idea that he lacked courage.  (Eisenhower was so moderate that, at times, he was not sure that he belonged in the Republican party.)

Or take a recent example that would infuriate Limbaugh.  In the past few years, Senator McCain has moved from being a fairly conventional conservative Republican to being a moderate.  Whatever Senator McCain's faults—and they are many—he has not lost his courage, or gained a yellow stripe, as he moved toward the center.

Let me end by making an even larger point.  Just as courage can be found all across the political spectrum, so can most other admirable qualities.

Last revised: 8:18 PM, 16 July 2002