I rise in defense of the “muscular moderate.”
I like the term. I aspire to it.
“Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too,” historian Gil Troy wrote in 2008, when his book “Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” released.
Muscular moderates expose themselves to differing points of view, but resist the temptation to demonize those with whom they disagree.
They are put off by the shrill partisanship of arguments on cable television and the mindless insults, from the left and the right, that proliferate on social media. “Moderation,” the journalist Bob Greene wrote several years ago, “is traditionally a conscientious objector in the universe of bellicose language.”
In political terms, the moderate avoids the “my way or the highway” approach to governance, recognizes that perfect need not be the enemy of good, and is not afraid to be seen working across the aisle.
Granted, the definition of a moderate may be whatever the speaker wants it to be.
A remembrance of a departed Talmudic scholar offered this: “Yet he was a moderate in this sense: He taught us that whether in Talmud study or life, we are often confronted with opposing goals, values, and ideals. But rather than assume that one is correct, and the other is false, we should hold them both in what he called a “dialectical tension,” that is, to see each value as positive in its own right and then explore how competing values may work together.”
Such exploration can prove difficult when a clash of values cannot be resolved. Muscular moderates do not retreat when their principles are challenged. That which is unjustifiable remains unjustifiable, and not subject to compromise.
Moderates need to guard, however, against being content to maintain calm and decorum, when changing the status quo may require more direct action, as in the civil rights movement. This was a central message of the Rev. Martin Luther King, notably in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
A decade ago, Troy wrote that America has a “long and vibrant tradition of cultivating civility and seeking the center.”
Today, civility has been plowed under and political road maps highlight the left and right lanes, though self-proclaimed moderates try to bolster the center.
“Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last year, in an attempt to explain “What Moderates Believe.”
“Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. . . Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons,” Brooks said.
Troy recently wrote an open letter to Yossi Klein Halevi, “a muscular moderate,” whose new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” he called both “a patriot’s embrace of Israel” as well as “a peace offering to Palestinians.”
“Partisans love dismissing centrists like us as spineless marshmallow moderates, lacking their passion, their clarity,” Troy said.
A muscular moderate is neither spineless nor a marshmallow.
What partisans see as clarity, moderates see as being blinded to any but their own beliefs.
What partisans see as passion, moderates see as an appetite for confrontation.
The extremes do a disservice when they mistake the moderate’s avoidance of ideological rigidity for weakness. In fact, moderates demonstrate commendable strength in their efforts to lower the volume, cool the heat, and engage in the kind of productive debate that too-often is drowned out by ill-tempered discourse.
I messaged Troy, asking whether there is room in today’s hyper-partisan political universe for the muscular moderate.
“Yes, our balance is needed now more than ever. The challenge is ensuring that those who reject Trump don’t replace his extremism with a mirror image of leftist extremism. Instead we need true leadership consensus building and old fashioned patriotism in the best sense of the term,” he replied.