"Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue," writes David Brooks in his discussion of the moral character of Dwight Eisenhower (a previous blog post explored some other elements of this discussion). "Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there."
"On the contrary," he writes, "moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict." Moderates don't think the world can be fit neatly together. Brooks adds, "If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either. . . Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together."
So, a moderate must accept "that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life," because there will always be compromises between competing values.
Brooks uses the opportunity of discussing this virtue in relationship to Ike to give a warning to political leaders. Be careful what you do because "the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right." Ike is often criticized for what he didn't do. Maybe there was a good reason?
Brooks also contrasts Ike's farewell with Kennedy's inaugural. Ike spoke with humility about finding balance, while Kennedy challenged the nation to move forward with confidence. Brooks concludes with something that sounds like a dire warning at this particular moment,
Like the nation's founders, [Ike] built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power. He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new.
I have been energized by the strong opposition to Trump from the Right, even the Far Right. I've watched Republican college and high school friends--Southern Baptist pastors, mothers, Army guys--daily post their opposition to Trump
Which is one reason I'm worried that so much of the organized opposition is taking on a Leftward bent. Now is the time to build grand coalitions that cross traditional ideological divides. After twenty years of bitter partisan division, I actually hopeful for a new bipartisan consensus to develop in opposition to Trump. At the current moment John McCain looks willing to lead. Which, of course, may create a new partisanship and a new political alignment. Or it may simply signal the civil war that is clearly underway in both parties between their centers and their extremes.
David Frum gives some advice for the opposition of how they need to be more effective. I hope people will read his article. One thing that has bothered me the last dozen years I've been on the Left is how often ineffective things are done. The Right generally does think more strategically. I, for one, am a pragmatist.
I'm fascinated by studies in moral psychology, how some of us are temperamentally focused on different core values, which then lead to our political disagreements. One reason these things fascinate me, is that I don't think I fit the research. One on-line study I took once revealed me to be very conservative based upon my answers to the psychological questions, which compelled me to celebrate that my rational brain had succeeded in overcoming its basic wiring (a goal of all philosophy since Plato).
Here's a new article, which has some good advice for how political discussions ought to be framed in order to find more common ground. This is one of my goals, of course.
I do believe being a Christian minister and from the Heartland gives me a basic moral language that is more traditional. I am currently working on launching a podcast that I intend to call The Prairie Citizen, which will explore basic moral principles of a good society. Stay tuned.
I found this book to be a rather useless pile of shit.
But I did find some bits of advice that Trump should learn, and further criteria by which to judge him poorly.
"A prince must also show himself a lover of merit, give preferment to the able, and honour those who excel in every art."
"The choice of a prince's ministers is a matter of no little importance; they are either good or not according to the prudence of the prince. The first impression that one gets of a ruler and of his brains is from seeing the men that he has about him. When they are competent and faithful one can always consider him wise, as he has been able to recognise their ability and keep them faithful. But when they are the reverse, one can always form an unfavourable opinion of him, because the first mistake that he makes is in making this choice."
"he ought to be a great asker, and a patient hearer of the truth about those things of which he has inquired"
"It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised."
"Nothing does so much honour to a newly-risen man than the new laws and measures which he introduces. These things, when they are well based and have greatness in them, render him revered and admired."
"The prince must avoid those things which will make him hated or despised . . . and so contrive that his actions show grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude."
So, Trump's even already utterly failed at being an autocrat.
A thought-provoking essay on American civil religion and foreign policy that I encourage you to read. A good essay, in particular, to read after my recent admiration of Kittlestrom's Religion of Democracy, though I'm not sure that the Jamesian civil religion she advocates is identified in this article. Nevertheless, the essay is a good counterpoint.
What I miss about [George H. W.] Bush is that, while he had no program, and no principles beyond his bromides about service and patriotism, those bromides contained valuable ideas. Namely, that competence, the public good, and integrity matter, regardless of the party in power or the details of the legislation being debated. That there are rules and expectations of decency, which everybody ought to follow.
This essay for First Things celebrates the virtues of the old establishment. There are significant things I disagree with in this article, including some of its criticisms of the elder Bush, who any reader of this blog knows I admire. But I agree with the essays defense of the old civic and patriotic virtues, which I believe I was raised with and was taught in public school and church.
Unfortunately the author diagnoses our current situation-- "our politics has become absurdly high-stakes, even as character has been entirely devalued. There is no room for a politics of character that is not deformed by ideology and partisanship."
But, similar to what I've been writing in the last few months, he believes that a return to these virtues is the only viable path forward, as he concludes:
But all sides can learn from Bush to set up standards of behavior and decency that cross ideological and party lines. We can treat each other as fellow citizens, even if we have very different political beliefs. We can try to hold all politicians to the same standards. We can build a cross-party understanding of decency. And we could do worse than to start with some bromides about service and patriotism.
An argument that Bill Clinton's lying helped pave the way for Trump's lying. "Both men have offered the public the same devil’s bargain. Both have asked their supporters to set aside truth, honor, and decency in exchange for the presidency of the voters’ dreams." And so this analysis of the campaign:
[Hillary] Clinton chose to campaign against Trump’s character. In her advertisements, she did not focus on offering a better devil’s bargain. She chose to make the plainly absurd case that America needed to put the Clintons in the White House for the sake of integrity, decorum, and respect for vulnerable women.
An interview on the Atlantic website with R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things on why he's guardedly optimistic about Trump. The interview is interesting not just for his views on Trump but on the particulars of our cultural moment and this:
We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.
And here is Reno's essay on First Things' website.
This is not going to be easy. Our political culture is almost entirely captive to the postwar era. The Left advocates an administered, bureaucratic unity, characterized by state-sponsored identity politics and multiculturalism. The Right is captive to free-market ideologies that promise commercial unity organized around maximized self-interest. Neither program can meet the challenges of our time.
Interestingly, he calls for a renewal of virtue and covenant, both themes I've spoken, though from a different worldview. But one reason I've spoken in these terms is the chance for common ground, that encourages me.
In a six page conclusion to The Religion of Democracy, Kittelstrom surveys the influence of religious liberalism in the 20th century as liberalism became mostly a non-religious ideology (I'm really surprised that King isn't an eighth character for her, but maybe she thinks much has been written about the religious aspects of the Civil Rights Movement?). She also draws a few conclusions, one was that commercialism ended up being embraced as an expression of freedom and the concerns that Jane Addams developed were eclipsed.
This paragraph nicely summarizes much of the book:
For Addams, consumerism and the commercial interest were instead drags on freedom, the latest in a long line of determinisms that liberals challenged in defense of moral agency. John Adams had shied away from dogmatic religion and defied a government based on hereditary privilege rather than the consent of citizens. Mary Moody Emerson and William Ellery Channing also rejected autocratic government, extending democracy to religion by defending individual moral agency against the foregone conclusions of predestination and innate, total depravity. Slavery was a deterministic institution, and to a debatable extent so was patriarchy. After the Civil War, the new determinism of materialism, which William James called scientism, then threatened the free will of individuals with the explanatory power of biology that would make all social change the product of impersonal forces. James enlisted the power of the imagination, which Channing and the Emersons had already linked to religion, to restore moral agency. Thomas Davidson faced off against evangelical Christianity and socialism with a democratic deity of individual self-culture, which contested the determinism of class origin and ethnicity with a new social process of interdependent diversities, together producing a higher culture through their interactions. The fixed idea William Mackintire Salter challenged was the laissez-faire state, which pretended that the custom of not protecting laborers' rights was immutable, a natural law like gravity. Industrial capitalism also threatened liberty in the experience of Jane Addams, who saw the profit motive as a fixed idea that bore a haphazard relationship with human well-being, given that commercialism's quickest route to appeal was to play on desire, the basic human craving for pleasure.
In a sentence made sad by the recent election campaign, Kittelstrom wrote, "The discrediting of white supremacy may be the most significant parcel of liberal common ground cultivated in the twentieth century."
She does feel that many liberals became self-righteous dogmatists, which abandoned the core principles developed in the 18th century. "Once liberals became dogmatists, they were no longer pluralists." Of pluralism she writes:
Pluralism is a pillar of faith in the religion of democracy. It is not an easy faith and not suited to most people's minds. Pluralism takes a step past multiculturalism, which affirms the vitality and preciousness of every human culture. Pluralism forays beyond countable cultures into infinity, into the unknowable. It is essentially a religious attitude, whether pluralists avow a faith or not, because it includes an intangible something beyond what anyone already knows, what can be named or quantified. In this way it is supernatural. When William James asked his audiences to believe that this is "a democratic universe," he meant one that was both unfinished--infinite--and in need of individual's unique perspective on what is true and good.
And so she concludes the book by advocating a resurgence of the liberal virtues of "humility, sincerity, and openness."