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Moderates, Establishmentarians and Middle-American Radicals

Am I too late to this particular party? Is this David Brooks column too old to still be the subject of discussion? Well, let’s find out.

I admit to having limited enthusiasm for Brooks’s effort to define a “moderate” as a distinctive political tendency (one that, strangely enough, embraces much of David Brooks’s political agenda and doesn’t challenge that agenda on any point). “Moderate” if it means anything should be the opposite of “extremist” and hence can only be used in relation to some political tendency, not as a tendency in its own right.

I do agree, though, with Brooks on two points. First, that a moderate cannot merely be someone who splits the difference between opposing views. Second, there is something to the idea that a moderate has a relationship to history and contingency that differs from that of an extremist.

The particular views espoused by Brooks’s “moderate,” though, are more properly termed “establishmentarian.” That is to say, they reflect the prejudices and priorities of the establishment. The anodyne ideology that Scott Galupo identifies as Brooks’s is simply what our establishment assumes to be the inescapable underpinning of our political order. It’s no more or less abstract than “the principles of the Founders,” and it probably is closer to what many Americans actually believe, much as China’s true political legitimacy derives from economic growth and Han nationalism rather than from Marxist-Leninist theory.

But that doesn’t make the establishment moderate. The establishment includes many extremists in defense of the conventional wisdom. Brooks has been one himself at various points in the past.

If I had to offer a working definition of a “moderate,” it would be: someone whose allegiance to her political community trumps her allegiance to her political tendency. And an extremist would be the opposite, someone who’s definition of her political community is defined by her political tendency rather than by the historic shape of the political community as it actually exists.

Brooks suggests something like what I’m getting at when he talks about the idea of a “tradition of conflict,” and that part of what makes someone a moderate rather than an extremist is a recognition that these conflicts are legitimate, even defining of a community, rather than existential battles that must be won for the “real” America to survive. But Brooks takes this concept in, I think, the wrong direction, suggesting that the traditional axes of conflict permanently define the community, and so must be preserved. Debates over “liberty and order” are indeed inevitably permanent precisely because of their abstraction. But debates about concrete questions – slavery, or the income tax, or universal health insurance – can be resolved, even if that resolution changes the balance of forces within the community, ultimately alters that community’s historic direction. Reflexive opposition to such resolution doesn’t sound like moderation – it sounds like a peculiarly skittish form of conservatism.

When Barry Goldwater ran on the slogan, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” what that meant was that he considered Lyndon Johnson’s policies, from the Civil Rights Act to his proposal for Medicare, to be, collectively, one of those inflection points that could alter the trajectory of the political community. And he was saying that this potential change of trajectory was itself significant enough to justify extremism in response – implicitly, that it was worth redefining the political community around that response (hence that election season’s jokes about sawing off the eastern seaboard and the like). Well, the political tendency that Goldwater represented achieved ascendancy decades later with the rise of Ronald Reagan, and continued through the Newt Gingrich years and down to the present day, but we still have the Civil Rights Act, and Goldwater’s heirs now position themselves as the defenders of Medicare against green-eyeshade-wearing administrators. Extremism as a political style has become mainstream even as the supposedly radical inflection point recedes into the distance behind us.

And what about those “imbalances” that must be redressed, and that are the primary focus of a moderate? Well, what counts as an “imbalance” is a matter of perspective. Is America’s immigration policy “out of balance?” Many would argue it is – but might disagree radically on the nature of that imbalance. Is the imbalance that millions of people are “forced” to work outside the law because we will not structure a legal channel for labor to flow in? Or is it that millions of people are “permitted” to work outside the law and against the wishes of the majority of the citizenry, because we will not enforce the laws that are on the books? Is this an axis of conflict we want to preserve, by refusing either to enforce or alter the law?

Immigration is actually a good example for illustrating what I was saying about establishmentarian extremism. When establishmentarians today define something as “extreme” they are, more often than not, being extremists themselves, defining the relevant positions as ones that put the adherents outside of the political community. Thus, immigration restrictionism is defined as “un-American” and “extreme” rather than the opposite pole in an axis of conflict within the community.

The opposite pole of “establishmentarian” is not “extreme” or “moderate” but “populist” – what the late Sam Francis referred to as “Middle American Radicals.” This political persuasion is part of the intended audience for this magazine, and it’s a persuasion that I’ve never been comfortable with, because I instinctively distrust populism of all types, left- or right-wing. And one reason, I think, is that I instinctively distrust extremism, and populist political variants are more comfortable, generally, with embracing the “extremist” label, with defining their political persuasion with the political community as a whole, and implicitly defining their opposition out.

But sometimes the populists have a point that the establishment can’t seem to get. And I wonder if it might not be helpful, in terms of advancing those points, for the populist persuasion to develop its own moderate style.

I’m not an immigration restrictionist myself, but I take restrictionist arguments seriously. And I’ll never be a “Middle American Radical” for a host of reasons, nor will I be attracted to that tendency. But “Middle American Moderate,” now, that’s another kettle of fish. A political tendency that raised the same sorts of questions that populists rightly complain are excluded from political debate, but did so in a fashion consciously designed to recognize the legitimacy of opposition as part of the same political community, sounds exactly like what has been missing from American political discourse. And even if I disagreed with it as well, I think our politics would be significantly improved by its inclusion.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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