04 August 2011

Moderation, centrism and relativism

I'm just catching up with a column E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote last week in which he proposes a significant distinction between two terms that are often used interchangeably -- "moderation" and "centrism." The distinction matters, Dionne claims, because "centrism has become the enemy of moderation." The enmity is based on the distinction; moderation, as Dionne describes it, is a "philosophy," while centrism is "a position based on calculation" and essentially "reactive." On the first reading, this looks like a reasonable distinction. Dionne's idea of moderation reminds me of Aristotle's, which was about maintaining a balance between two opposites without tipping toward one extreme or another. The opposites were themselves constants -- frugality and liberality, for instance. For Dionne they are "a vibrant and innovative private sector" and "a government substantial enough to do what the private sector doesn't." Moderate politics, Dionne believes, should strike a balance between these objectives, as well as "balancing our love of individualism and our desire for community."

Centrism, on the other hand, is not determined by the fixed points of ideal constants. When Dionne calls centrism "reactive" he means that it's essential relativistic. That is, centrism seeks a middle ground between any two extremes that happen to be in the room at a given time. "It measures where everyone else stands on some political spectrum at a given moment and then frantically adjusts." This would be the principle of compromise in rawest form, while moderation, as Dionne defines it, isn't a matter of compromise at all. Dionne's moderation is itself a constant, while the extremes between which the centrist maneuvers aren't themselves constant. For Dionne, the centrist impulse explains the country's seeming helpless slide to the right. As extremist Republicans make ever more extreme demands, self-conscious centrists must rush rightward to continue splitting the difference in their supposedly evenhanded way. The moderate's role, as Dionne would have it, is a different one. Moderates aren't out to split the difference; their purpose is to call the extremists away from the extremes as a matter of principle, not for the sake of evenhandedness but because moderation is superior to extremism.

Centrism may be an inherent flaw in democracy. If democracy prioritizes consensus and an equality of viewpoints, that consensus may inevitably be skewed toward the most popular extreme position. Dionne's ideal of moderation, meanwhile, is arguably undemocratic, since it asserts that moderation is the correct course whether the majority wants it or not. To be paradoxical about it, moderation in democracy is itself a form of extremism if it insists that the people may not choose extremes. But it may seem so only when democracy itself is asserted on moral grounds as an end unto itself and the right to choose counts for more than the rightness of any choice. If democracy is only a means to an end defined as the collective good, however, and the good can be defined as moderation, than democracy could be obliged to teach itself moderation, by means to be determined. To cut things short, Dionne's moderation is not an impulse to compromise between opposites or extremes, but an imperative for everyone to abandon extremism for moderation.

Predictably enough, Dionne sees the President as an essential moderate who succumbs too often to the centrist temptation. The columnist wants Obama and all like-minded people of good will to "stop shifting with the prevailing winds" and take a principled stand against extremism. Centrists, he thinks, are too worried about being called "biased" or "partisan," while moderation, by Dionne's definition, is not and presumably cannot be biased. Dionne might want to touch base with Thomas Friedmann, who has been calling repeatedly over the past year or so for a new party of the "radical center." That term might not appeal to Dionne, but it might actually prove a strong synonym for his own principled moderation. The root of "radical," after all, is, well, "root." To be radical is to go to the root, to decide things at the fundamental level. A "rooted" center may not be exactly what Friedmann has written about, but a movement that claims the psychologically appealing ground of the "center" on behalf of fundamental values, and not only resists the pull of all extremes but pulls back, may be exactly what Dionne is after.

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