Middleness, Moderation, Compromise, and Other Inflexible Positions

Some Democratic politicians and commentators are wistfully wondering whether Occupy Wall Street and its national counterparts might not be a progressive equivalent of the right’s Tea Party Movement.

A bit late–dontcha think?   And ironic as well.  Because it signifies a 180 degree turn.   And one that may be way too late for President Obama.   Indeed, if President Obama loses the next election, it surely won’t be because he embraced the progressives or the left.    On the contrary, if President Obama loses the next election, it’s much more likely that the explanation can be found in numerous, very non-ironic, photographs much like this one:

President Obama and the OIRA Administrator

For those of you not privy to the small and insular world of law professors or D.C. regulatory agency lawyers, the other guy in the picture is Cass Sunstein, head of an obscure, but very important subdivision of the executive branch: OIRA (the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.)    Cass Sunstein, a law professor from the University of Chicago and then Harvard Law School, is mostly known in the legal academy for his repeated advocacy of moderation and middleness in all things (save, of course, moderation and middleness itself–a theme he rehearses with great vigor on an impressive number of jurisprudential terrains including political philosophy, legal reasoning, constitutionalism, and regulatory policy.)

Like Cass Sunstein, (and up until about a month ago) President Obama also embraced middleness and moderation–both in ideology and staffing.  Hence, Cass Sunstein.   Hence, also the sundry other members of President Obama’s administration–the vast majority of whom have been middle of the road Democrats.   Now, in defense of both Obama and Sunstein, one can say that their moderation has been of the mindful eclectic “pick and choose” heterogeneous variety as opposed to the mindless let’s average everything “one size fits all” homogeneous brand.

But there are nonetheless serious problems with their moderation and middleness stance. And these, I would suggest, have been vividly demonstrated in the so far unhappy evolution of President Obama’s presidency.   What follows is a consideration of the virtues and attractions of moderation and middleness (followed in each case with a gentle reminder of the considerable vulnerabilities of exactly those self-same purported virtues.)

Perhaps the first great virtue of middleness and moderation to be considered is exactly the one described above–namely, the mindful eclecticism of a pick and choose openness to the best political ideas offered by any and all sides.  (I really do mean to say this is genuinely admirable.)   The problem is that without more (say, a critical repertoire) this mindful eclecticism has a real tendency to devolve sub rosa into the second kind of middleness and moderation–the less than entirely thoughtful, let’s average everything and take the middle way approach.  Why?  Because for all its mindfulness, the eclectic “pick and choose” approach seems to be unaware of the ways in which politics and social forms will transform and channel its best self into the far cruder variant.   Perhaps the clearest sign of this devolution in President Obama’s administration was the disarming of his left flank. That was surely not a good idea.   Clearly not for the left flank.  But also not for Obama. See here.  (From heterogeneous middleness to monolithic middleness in one short easy step.)

Moderation and middleness can credibly lay claim to other political virtues: flexibility and the avoidance of ideological rigidity.  This all sounds very appealing as well as very American.   As it turns out, however, moderation and middleness are no guarantee whatsoever against intransigence and ideological rigidity or any such thing.  Why not? Well, because the announced substantive position–moderation and middleness–has absolutely no necessary effect on the way in which one actually enacts or deploys it.   And, as we have seen so vividly with President Obama, it is entirely possible to hew to moderation and middleness in a persistently intransigent and rigid manner (and in total disregard of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working.)

Moderates can make still other claims.  They often present their stance as a sage compromise between extremes.  This, of course, could be an admirable position to hold–were it not for the fact that it’s utterly derivative:  Your position is always determined by positions advanced by other people. You have, in an important sense, surrendered (and worse, announced that you have surrendered) control over the identity of your political positions to the extremes that define it.  It’s practically, an invitation to the opposition to polarize.  (And it’s also why some people will often claim, and not without justification, that while you claim to be middle and moderate, you are in fact in the service of some other political position.)

There are still more virtues to be considered: Moderates can claim to be pragmatic, mature, and adapted to things as they are. And that is a really good thing–unless, of course, things as they are (whatever they may be) are slated to go down. In which case, being reconciled to things as they are is not very pragmatic at all.  It is instead short-horizoned and self-defeating.  And these days, if there is any position that is not realistic, not pragmatic, not mature, it is to take our institutions (and the state they’re in) as a given.  See here.

All of this makes me wonder there is anything deeper, something of a more structural character, to be said about how and why this middleness and moderation stuff can go so wrong?   Perhaps the problem–and this would be quintessentially Obama’s problem and Sunstein’s problem–is that middleness and moderation presents as a politics.  And yet it is not.  In fact, it is not even a theory of governance.  And when it thinks it is either, it is not so good.  (For my elaboration see here.)   Viewed from the standpoint of politics, middleness and moderation is an attitude, a temperament, a response, a tactic. Sometimes a good one.  Not invariably so.

Which leaves us with Occupy Wall Street.   A sign of hope.  And paradoxically (at least in the context of this post) an incredibly practical, well-grounded, sensible, and truly American phenomenon–with a long and honorable history.

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