If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
Over the last couple of weeks a question has been percolating in the back of my mind, in a way that combined both importance and vagueness. It was only just now, as I sat down and weighed which of the many topics I should choose to hold forth on this time, that it finally crystallized into the question I’m using for the title. “When is moderation not appropriate?” One assumes that the application of this question to the most recent election is obvious, but it’s also a far bigger question, encompassing things like war, morality, and existential risk. (We’ll see how much I can actually cover.) Additionally, and perhaps more important to me personally, it’s a question I’m not sure I have a very good answer for, so in part this post will be about working through various situations, hypotheticals, and arguments to see if I can arrive at or at least approach an answer.
First let’s cover the situation which spawned this post, the election outcome. It’s easy to imagine, that as close as it ended up being, that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate on some of the issues, slightly less belligerent on Twitter, spoken a little bit more about the need for unity and a little bit less only to his base, or perhaps if he had just been less combative during that first debate, that he would have won. Or to put it another way it’s hard for most people (including me) to imagine how he could have been less moderate. And I understand all the points about firing up the base, and turnout, but it’s hard to imagine that his most ardent supporters would have stayed home from an election they widely viewed as an existential crisis, even if he had exercised a little more moderation, and there were lots of groups, like Cuban and Veneuzeulan immigrants who held their nose, and voted for Trump. (Without whom he probably would have lost Florida.) Might not even more people have done that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate?
Further, even if you acknowledge that some extremism is necessary to fire up the base, there’s the argument to be made even there that he was too extreme, with the result that now his base can’t imagine a way for him to have lost the election without fraud. Something which will almost certainly haunt the country in the coming weeks and months, if not the coming years. (For a discussion of the actual allegations see my previous post.)
The same case for moderation might be made when it comes to Democrats as well — though one doesn’t want to spend too much time questioning Biden’s strategy, he did win after all (absent something unprecedented happening). But outside of Biden there is plenty of room to question whether the larger Democratic strategy would have benefitted from greater moderation, particularly given that, contrary to expectations, the Republicans are very likely to hold on to the Senate and they did far better than expected in the House elections as well. Suggestions for moderation on the Democrat’s part might include slightly greater patriotism, more nuance in the conflict between police and protestors, less discussion of court packing (recall that Biden refused to comment on it for quite a while before eventually declaring that he was not a fan) and in particular less extremism in the culture war. One common assessment of the election I heard is that even if Biden won, wokeness lost.
I suspect that some of my readers might push back on this last point so in an effort to anticipate potential objections let me offer two further points: First, how many people were voting against Trump rather than for Biden? Does anyone think the enormous turn out had anything to do with excitement around Biden? If not, then it matters a lot less what Biden’s positions were, he had the “anyone but Trump” vote locked down. “Okay,” you might retort, “That frees him to take whatever position he wants, but doesn’t mean he should have been more moderate, perhaps he should have moved more to the left.” Are you sure? While we can’t recreate the world, start over in 2018, and choose Sanders or Warren in place of Biden, does anyone imagine that, in what ended up being a very close election, they would have done better? Certainly none of the polls conducted back when all three of them were still in contention bear that idea out.
All of this leads me to conclude that Trump and the Democrats would have done better with more moderation. Does this mean that moderation is always good? Well, that is my question isn’t it, when is it not appropriate? As I said above I think the case for Biden being more moderate is kind of ambiguous, if the results hold (and I have every reason to suspect they will) then he won, and second guessing success is always dangerous, particularly if you define success narrowly. But as long as we’re on the subject of the most recent election, would the Republicans have done even better in the House and Senate if they had been more moderate? Here we have the same situation we had with Biden. If we assume that the Republicans don’t lose both senate races in January’s special election then they will maintain control of the Senate. And if we suggest they should have been more moderate we are once again in the position of second guessing success. Though here, when talking about greater moderation among Senate Republicans, the elephant of confirming Amy Coney Barrett can’t be overlooked.
From a Republican/conservative perspective, the nomination of Barrett would appear to be a huge win. Not only is it something which fundamentally tilts the balance of power in the branch of government which increasingly appears to wield the most power — though I have already mentioned I don’t think her confirmation will be as consequential as people expect — it’s a change which will last far beyond the next election, presumably all the way until Justice Thomas retires or dies. I know lots of people who voted for Trump primarily because his Supreme Court picks would be better than Clinton’s, and who were overjoyed that he put in three justices. In the time between the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the election their attitude seemed to be that losing the presidency and the Senate to get that final appointment was a trade they were more than willing to make (I definitely agree about the presidency, I’m less sure about the Senate).
Of course all of this presumes that the Democrats don’t come along later and pack the court, or otherwise change the rules of game, but by keeping the Senate, that option is temporarily off the table, it’s like eating your cake and having it, and here we get the first example of where, at least from a certain perspective, moderation seems not to have been a virtue, certainly the moderate thing to do would have been to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, and then, presumably the Democrats would have had no room (or at least less room) to object to the replacement of RBG by a more conservative justice. But for the moment it would appear, at least from the Republican perspective, that they were correct to not exercise moderation. That by being extreme they won. It is of course a whole other question whether the country is better off because of their relative extremism, certainly there’s a very good argument to be made that it’s not. Nevertheless we can at least begin to see (if we couldn’t already) the shape of an argument for extremism.
Rather than pick around the edges of this argument let’s go straight to what most people would agree is the clearest example of the benefits of extremism: World War II and in particular the fight against Nazi Germany. Much of Churchill’s deserved reputation is based on the fact that he didn’t have a moderate bone in his body, and during the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood entirely alone, he wouldn’t even consider some kind of peace deal, treaty or accommodation. On the other hand, one imagines that the Germans would have been better off with significantly less extremism, which is to say that Churchill’s extremism was mostly justified by Hitler’s extremism. And there are definitely some people who would argue that the extremism of turfing Garland and shoving through Barrett and before her, Brett Kavanaugh was justified by liberal extremism, like Roe v. Wade, the Bork nomination and Obergefell v. Hodges. And the fact that it was justified is why they weren’t punished for it, why the Republicans seem likely to hold on to the Senate.
At this point all that’s clear is that much of the time moderation is better, but that sometimes things have gotten so bad that only extremism will save the day, but how do we know in advance which is which? I imagine Churchill would have answered that he didn’t, that it could have gone the other way, but that it didn’t matter because he was following correct principles. That he was determined to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Of course saying that extremism is appropriate when it’s the right thing is just a tautology. If something is the right thing it’s always appropriate. But it also just moves the question deeper from a question of extremism vs. moderation to a question of right vs. wrong.
Questions of right and wrong automatically suggest morality, and from there it’s only a short trip to a discussion of religion. Many people argue that it is precisely the certainty of being right that makes religious extremism so prevalent. These same people often go on to point to the many harms committed in the name of religion, but at least with religion there exist comprehensive rules and commandments designed to carefully control what sort of extremism is and isn’t justified. Do these rules aways work? Are the commandments always followed? No. But I think it’s important to have some kind of measuring stick for determining when to seek a compromise and when to stand fast and refuse to retreat. And before we return to a discussion of the present political moment it might be useful to dig into what religion says about when to be extreme and when to be moderate.
Obviously the first thing we need to do before we can proceed is select a scope for our inquiry, which is to say we need to choose which religions we’re going to examine. Obviously I have a bias towards Christianity, and an even more specific bias towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which is my own brand of Christianity, but given the foundational nature of Christianity to the West and its contribution to the West’s government and institutions I think it’s fair to restrict our inquiry to just Chrisitianity rather trying to be more comprehensive and make a broader survey that might include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the rest. Beyond all of the foregoing I have an additional bias towards using Christianity because moderation holds such a prominent place in the doctrine. Yes there are times when extremism is urged, but what made Christianity revolutionary was how much it emphasized moderation, with injunctions about turning the other cheek, the critical importance of forgiveness and repentance and mercy, and even bits about separating religion from politics (particularly important in a day where politics increasingly is religion.)
From this assumption of Christianity as somewhat foundational, I’m going to cut to the chase and condense two thousand years of history, commentary, and practice down into a single observation: when you’re talking about Christian-influenced Western Civ, moderation should be presumed to be the default. Moderation doesn’t need to be justified, it’s assumed to be the best course of action absent a compelling argument to the contrary, but rather it’s extremism which requires special justification. So when and under what circumstances is extremism justified? I think given the tenuous linkage of religion to politics and the aforementioned separation that it’s going to be easier to look at examples of extremism and ask whether they might be justified based on some interpretation of Western/Christian values than to work the other direction and create a set of rules that covers all eventualities.
The first consideration I want to deal with, since it’s already come up, is whether, in our examples, success should have any bearing on whether extremism is considered justified or not. If Trump had won instead of lost (or if he manages, improbably, to still pull out a win) there would be a lot of people celebrating his extremism rather than questioning it. As it was he certainly did better than most professional pollsters predicted. Does this mean that his extremism would have been wholly justified if he had won, but still partially when you consider the results? No, and I think this is where the benefits of drawing on an underlying foundation of religious principles comes in handy, because under that framework “winning” is not one of the acceptable justifications for extremism. To look at the example everyone agrees with, it’s clear that extremism in the war against the Nazis would have been justified even if we had lost. And lest there be any confusion I’m talking about refusing to surrender in the early years of the war, I’m not talking about extreme behavior. For example, I don’t think the fire-bombing of Dresden was justified even if the city was full of Nazis. (Which it wasn’t.)
Now Trump’s extremism might have been justified on other grounds, but it isn’t justified solely on the grounds of getting him what he wants. The ends he’s pursuing have to be justified, i.e. does a Trump victory save lives, prevent disaster or build a better future? Of course his supporters believe he is doing all of those things, and his opponents believe that he’s doing the opposite, and only time will tell who is correct, and I could imagine certain events over the next three years that would lead me to conclude that not only was Trump’s extremism justified but that he should have been even more extreme. Similarly I can imagine events that would lead me to believe that his extremism was incredibly harmful. But “time will tell” is different than, “well it succeeded didn’t it?”
Perhaps some people have been gifted with this certainty, through what that means I don’t know. To return to religion, it’s a least easier to imagine the gift of certainty coming from religious devotion, than coming from Trump, but perhaps those people convinced of the value of Trump’s extremism are just that smart. I am currently watching with rapt curiosity people who claim with exactly that level of certainty that Trump will serve a second term. Perhaps they will be correct, and then I’ll have some new mystery to ponder, but I suspect that they and actually most people who imagine they can predict the future will end up being wrong, and that this represents one of the great achievements of classical liberalism, this realization and the subsequent injection of doubt. This realization that if certainty is nearly impossible and extremism is only justified under such certainty, i.e. that moderation should be the default, is one of the most important intellectual developments of the modern age.
This takes us back to the other example we gave of extremism succeeding, the Senate’s confirmation of three conservative justices, starting with refusing to hold a hearing for Merric Garland. Depending on your political leanings this is either an example of the worst political extremism in modern memory, of, “well it succeeded didn’t it?” or of “time will tell”. So far the answer is ambiguous. The court has yet to engage in much extremism itself, they have not overturned Roe v. Wade or done anything else the conservatives hoped for and the liberals feared. Meanwhile the whole process has definitely raised the temperature, and while it seems unlikely to result in an immediate reprisal from “the other side”, it certainly could. And here one can’t help but be reminded (if you weren’t already) of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
As I mentioned the last time it came up, if one conducts iterated games of Prisoner’s Dilemma some strategy of mostly cooperating ends up evolving to be the most successful one, with the caveat that constantly defecting can be surprisingly effective, particularly if the rest of the environment is composed of cooperators. At the time, I wondered if that’s what had happened to us. If we had reached a peak of cooperation and in doing so created an environment ripe for success by defectors. Certainly it seems that whatever the short term success of defecting that it leads to a longer term ratcheting effect that can’t help but end badly, even if you’re on the side doing all the defecting.
In this I’m also reminded of my discussion on the dichotomy between mercy and justice. Extremism seems to lend itself naturally to seeking justice, but is a poor fit if what we really need is more mercy, while the opposite could be said for moderation. And if, as I claimed, one of the problems currently plaguing us, is an overactive drive for justice, then this may explain as well the overabundance of extremism as well. This dynamic seems to be playing out in the immediate aftermath of the election. I have seen lots of people express a desire to be merciful in victory. Offering to accept Trump followers back into the fold so to speak (however condescending that my sound). This is oftentimes accompanied by calls for unity and healing. On the other hand, I will also say that I have seen what appears to be an equally large contingent of people arguing that what’s really needed is justice. That Trump and his supporters need to be punished, or at a minimum deprogrammed.
These additional connections of moderation to mercy, of which we appear to be running an extreme deficit, and to winning the continual games of Prisoner’s Dilemma we seem to be playing, on top of moderation’s critical role in Western Liberalism and the religion that underpins it, convince me even more of the importance of considering moderation the default. But in such difficult times, when the opposite seems to be happening and extremism is everywhere we look, how do we achieve more moderation? I don’t know and despite growing recognition that more is needed we seem to continually end up with less and less as time goes on.
Here let me put in another brief plug for my preferred Presidential candidate: General James Mattis. The primary reason I decided to write him in was because it was low stakes, there was no chance writing him in would lead to the death of the Republic (and I made my argument at the time for why no other vote represented the salvation of the Republic.) But beyond how low risk it was, he reminds me of Eisenhower to a certain extent. The fact that both were generals is the obvious point of comparison, but the other less well known fact about Eisenhower is that he identified with neither party and the first time he voted it was for himself. He was so non-partisan in fact that the first person to reach out to him about running for President was Truman, who, incredibly, suggested Ike for President, while he would be vice-president.
Mattis is similarly non-partisan, and one imagines that if we’re really going to have a chance of bringing moderation to things that we need someone who hasn’t been fatally tarred by their deep association with one or the other camp. And while admittedly Mattis did serve under Trump, there appears to be no love lost between the two, with Trump blasting him as the “world’s most overrated general” recently after Mattis said he hopes that Biden pursues a foreign strategy that’s not “America First”.
(As a brief aside, I myself think that we can’t remain the policemen of the world forever, and that Trump’s attempts to extract us from our various overseas commitments is a step in the right direction. That said, American hegemony is so critical to the peace we’ve enjoyed, that there is not only room for disagreement, but I could also certainly be persuaded that it would work better if it was more gradual with greater involvement from other nations.)
If I have any better ideas on how to achieve more moderation I’ll let you know, but beyond being out of ideas, I’m also out of space. When I started this post I had also intended to talk about environmental issues, x-risks and other issues where moderation appears to work worse than extremism, but those are big topics, so I’ll have to come back to them in a future post.
Sometimes things don’t come together in quite the way you hoped. Such was the case with this episode, and then the question becomes is it worth putting it out anyway? Can people listening to it still expect a positive return? I think so, and whether you feel that way about this episode, if you feel that my blog in general provides positive returns, consider donating.