An old friend of mine used to make a habit of interjecting the phrase “moderation in action and attitude,” always in an ironic tone of voice, at appropriate moments in conversation. The rest of us – this was in our car pool on the way to university – would chuckle appreciatively. It was a variation on the ancient maxim “Moderation in all things,” slyly (and acutely) modified in more modern times by Oscar Wilde to “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

I was reminded of all this recently when another friend recommended a book by Romanian-American political scientist Aurelian Craiutu: Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. Craiutu, who teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, argues that moderation is not merely a position adopted midway between extremes – though that can be its effect – but is also an approach to political debate and decision-making.

Following a path of moderation does not mean that one is weak-kneed, mealy-mouthed or opportunistic; moderates can be strong-minded, principled and committed. Nor does it necessarily mean that one’s politics are centrist; it is possible to be a moderate on the left or on the right.

Craiutu shows what he means through studies of five leading European thinkers of the 20th century: the Russian-British historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the French sociologist Raymond Aron, the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and the Polish historian and dissident Adam Michnik. All were active public intellectuals, none could be accused of being weak-kneed, and most of their thinking, despite their many differences, was marked by a disposition toward skepticism and an aversion to dogmatism.

In the Canadian context, one might note the political scientist Abraham Rotstein, a social democrat (like his mentor, the Austro-Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi); the liberal historian Ramsay Cook; and the conservative philosopher George Grant. Like the writers cited by Craiutu, they are all exemplars of moderation.

Too often, moderation is seen as a residual category, without substance when compared with ideologies such as socialism, liberalism and conservatism. While it is true that moderation is difficult to define in the abstract, that is an aspect of its virtue. It is always a position taken in a particular context, and what was moderate in the 1930s might not be moderate today, or what constitutes moderation in American politics might not be moderation in Canada. It is defined by character and style, a commitment to civility and prudence, and an aversion to the black and white.

Moderates are suspicious of ideology of any stripe and believe in the practice of politics, properly defined. The British political scientist Bernard Crick, a moderate of the left himself, once wrote that “Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions within a territorial unit under a common rule.” It also accepts the existence of different truths, and therefore of the recurring need for conciliation.

As his subtitle suggests, Craiutu believes that moderation might serve as a partial antidote to the extremism of the US and Europe today. The presidency of Donald Trump in the US, the triumph of the “leave” forces in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of hard-right parties elsewhere in Europe – Alternative for Germany, the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – all give grounds for thinking that we are living in an “age of extremes.” A nationalist revolt against globalization is a common thread (with a particular antipathy toward immigration and immigrants), as is a hostility to politics and politicians. The antipolitics of populist thought and practice – even if it sometimes seems that populism is based more on emotion than thought – is especially worrying, as it threatens a slide into neofascism.

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Canadians have taken some satisfaction from having avoided the worst aspects of this movement, at least so far. Moderation sometimes seems to be built into our national character, expressed in the understated celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the belief among some that it would be better not to celebrate it at all. It has often seemed that Canada’s history is downright dull compared with the drama of, say, American, French and Russian history, and recurring efforts are made to enliven it.

But it may well be that dullness is what makes Canadian history interesting, even if it sometimes masks varieties of populism, radicalism and revolt. Craiutu quotes Adam Michnik as saying something to the effect that the strength of democracy is its greyness, echoing Crick and striking an evocative chord in Canada: “Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of emotions, hatreds, and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.” Compromise and monkey business have been features of Canadian democracy since the time of John A. Macdonald, though in recent years the extremism that Craiutu points to elsewhere has manifested itself as hyper-partisanship in Canada.

In retrospect, the golden age of moderation in Canadian national politics was the quarter-century following the Second World War, even if at the time it might have seemed otherwise, with the Pipeline Debate and the personal animosity between Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker dividing the country. It was as a result of moderation that the welfare state, and the prosperity arising from it, emerged in full in the 1960s and early 1970s. The political challenges were significant. For example, some provinces had already introduced health insurance in one form or another, offering competing models ─ notably the Saskatchewan model introduced by the CCF government of Tommy Douglas, and the Alberta model favoured by Ernest Manning’s Social Credit government. In Ottawa, Diefenbaker appointed a royal commission, the traditional instrument of compromise and conciliation, which smoothed the subsequent passage of universal public health insurance by the Pearson Liberals.

The fact that some regard this as a triumph of social democracy and others as the implementation of managed capitalism is an indication of the differences that had to be negotiated by Pearson’s ministers and officials. Walter Gordon, Judy LaMarsh, Allan MacEachen and Tom Kent (behind the scenes) faced criticism from opposition parties and interests within their own party, as well as federal-provincial jurisdictional obstacles. They succeeded in introducing a national contributory pension plan (CPP), Medicare and a national social assistance program (Canada Assistance Plan), but not without hard work, political skill and courage, illustrating the truth stated by Isaiah Berlin and quoted by Craiutu: “The middle ground is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.” It didn’t hurt that during this time the country was basking in the glow of Centennial Year celebrations and Expo 67.

Berlin was also fond of quoting the philosopher Immanuel Kant, on human nature: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can built.” The idea of the crooked timber of humanity provided a foundation for Berlin’s moderation. Perfect solutions were beyond human ingenuity, as likely to lead to suffering as to failure. This offers little comfort to anyone seeking simple remedies, or to those who think they are in the absolute right and their opponents in the absolute wrong. It is a salutary thought, however, as one contemplates the domestic politics and international relations of the present day, and it highlights the need for a good dose of moderation in the coming year – the “elusive virtue” so shrewdly noted by Craiutu.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Evan El-Amin.

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Kenneth C. Dewar
Kenneth C. Dewar is professor emeritus of history at Mount Saint Vincent University. His most recent book, Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas, was published in 2015 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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