David Brooks defines ‘moderation’ by Political Observer

I read and thought about Mr. Brooks essay of October 25th 2012, What Moderation Means while I was reading, and wanting to concentrate on Jurgen Habermas' The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. But I found that this essay contains some of the central intellectual conceits, that govern the political opinionating of Mr. Brooks. It is long but I hope it offers some insights.   

In the past month, Mitt Romney has aggressively appealed to moderate voters. President Obama, for some reason, hasn’t. But, in what he thought was an off-the-record interview with The Des Moines Register, Obama laid out a pretty moderate agenda for his second term.”

Let us consign this opening bit of campaign detritus to it’s rightful place. But consider the arguments about ‘moderation’ as a description of Mr. Brooks’ political faith, his belief in his concept of ‘moderation’.

“It occurred to me that this might be a good time to describe what being a moderate means. First, let me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that.”

Mr. Brooks is unashamed of his ignorance of the evolution of the idea of moderation, but he also a political propagandist with no compunction in attacking the Golden Mean of Aristotle: symmetry, proportion and harmony. Buddha, who taught the middle way,  or Confucius who taught that excess is similar to deficiency. “St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Philosopher, in his Summa Theologica, Question 64 of the Prima Secundæ Partis, argues that Christian morality is consistent with the mean. He observes: "evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it;…Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mean_%28philosophy%29 )         Mr. Brooks self-servingly re-describes moderation as a political notion of his own making, producing an easily manipulated political shadow.   

“Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.”

The notion of ‘moderation’ is historical/philosophical/political, not to speak of abstract and concrete; theory and practice. Reverence is not a part of the theory and practice of ‘moderation’ but a betrayal of Mr. Brooks’ theo-political bias. Live and let live is an old America credo, reverence is the province of the theologian. The attachment to the idea of social mobility as a product of hard work, of the cultivation of the virtue of sacrifice for future goods is pillar of the American idea, a political embodiment of the protestant ethic, but not an idea that fuels modern American Conservatism, except as amenable cliché.

“This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.”

Conflict/violence is the lynchpin of the Schmitt/Strauss political philosophy, based upon violence or the threat of violence as the root of the political. Here Mr. Brooks carefully grooms this construct as an in-order-to of his domestication of that unpalatable, yet utterly necessary argument of Modern American Conservatism. Aristotle’s idea of the concomitant birth of ethics/politics is another discard of Mr. Brooks’ historical/political re-write, complete with a dialectical garnish. Conformity to the prevailing political wisdom is the bane of American existence.    

“The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.”

The political moderate seeks consensus not to preserve ‘conflict’ but reach the middle way of political consensus, that is the practice of moderation as the ‘art of the possible’.

“Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve kept a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power. At any moment, new historical circumstances, like industrialization or globalization, might upset the balance. But the political system gradually finds a new equilibrium.”

The most elementary ‘political science’ or should we call it un-enlightening cliché, used here as intellectual filler. Balance/equilibrium is the agenda of the Republican Party of 2012?  

“The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.”

Political pragmatism is a part of the Republican Party platform and standard bearers of 2012? One need only cite Mr. Romney’s thundering 47% as proof of what?

“For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.”

Mr. Brooks and the ‘moderates’ are the middle way, the mean between the extremes: the Paul Ryan budget, or the failed practice of ‘austerity’ that we view as collaborators, spectators of the European and domestic successor to the ‘Free Market’.   

The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.

The Republican as nimble political pragmatist?, like the Eisenhower Republican, non-existent.

“Today, we face our own set of imbalances. Inequality is clearly out of whack. The information age, family breakdown and globalization have widened income gaps. Government spending and government debt are also out of whack. The aging population and runaway health care costs have pushed budgets to the breaking point. There’s also been a hardening of the economic arteries, slowing growth.”

Imbalances: Income inequality, family breakdown, globalization, government spending and debt, aging population, runaway healthcare costs, slow growth. A collection of Mr. Brooks favorite topics on which to found his moralizing chatter, in service to a ‘political renewal’ based on market principles, not on republican values and practice. Mr. Brooks fails to mention the obscene profits of American Capital in this period of recovery, and the scarcity of decent well paying jobs, that any worker could buy a home and start a family.

“The moderate sees three big needs that are in tension with one another: inequality, debt and low growth. She’s probably going to have a pretty eclectic mix of policies: some policies from the Democratic column to reduce inequality, some policies from the Republican column to reduce debt.”

Do Boehner/McConnell embody the political pragmatism Mr. Brooks advocates?

“Just as the founding fathers tried a mixed form of government, moderates like pluralistic agendas, mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don’t, at first glance, go together.”

Mr. Brooks replaces thinking with more high-flown, clichéd political chatter.

“Being moderate does not mean being tepid. It will likely take some pretty energetic policies to reduce inequality or control debt. The best moderates can smash partisan categories and be hard-charging in two directions simultaneously.”

The Radical Center of American political lore: fostered by opinionators, who somehow must add some vulgar window dressing to their shopworn goods.  

“Moderation is also a distinct ethical disposition. Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.”

The moderate is nothing if not self-congratulatory in the search of the two roads taken simultaneously. With Mr. Brooks anything is possible.

“There are many moderates in this country, but they have done a terrible job of organizing themselves, building institutions or even organizing around common causes. There are some good history books that describe political moderation, like “A Virtue for Courageous Minds” by Aurelian Craiutu, a political scientist at Indiana University. But there are few good manifestoes”

The reader doesn’t discover that   Mr. Brooks builds upon a book titled “A Virtue for Courageous Minds” by Aurelian Craiutu. The complete title is A Virtue of Courageous Minds: French Political Thought, 1748-1830. The French context is simply left out, and the context in which Mss.  Craiutu makes his argument for ‘moderation’ is within the intellectual and political thought of pre and post-revolutionary France; political radicalism, political extremity and moderation take on a very different hue given this historical context. But  careful editing make for a shift that might appear to be just a bit disingenuous, although politically useful, as rhetorical frame for his argument for an heroic political moderation. Mr. Brooks styles himself as an enlightened moderate, in the heroic mould. One might even say that his extensive use of third person feminine pronouns in his argument tends to distance that emotion, and is a kind of rhetorical pandering , masquerading as political correctness. It also acts as a mask for Mr. Brooks’ palpable defensive anger.     

“Therefore, there’s a lot of ignorance about what it means to be moderate. If politicians are going to try to pander to the moderate mind-set, they should do it right. I hope this column has helped.”

Mr. Brooks both banishes ignorance and answers non-existent questions.

Political Observer







About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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