All things immoderation

Peter Wehner is one of the more sensible voices from the right I've come across in recent times. Caught up with his December 18th op-ed today, under the print headline "Moderation is Not a Dirty Word." Illustrating the virtue, after making his point, he generously says that "Mr. Trump deserves the chance to prove his critics wrong." Now four weeks later, it's safe to say that Mr. Trump continues to outpace his critics' forbearance, starting with the unpredictability Wehner correctly forecast. And this:

"Moderation, an ancient virtue, will be viewed with contempt. After all, the most temperamentally immoderate major party nominee in American history ran for president and won because of it. Victory spawns imitation, and the Trump template is likely to influence our politics for some time to come.

"Moderation, then, is out of step with the times, which are characterized by populist anger and widespread anxiety, by cross-partisan animosity and dogmatic certainty. Those with whom we have political disagreements are not only wrong; they are often judged to be evil and irredeemable. ...

"Moderation does not mean truth is always found equidistant between two extreme positions, nor does it mean that bold and at times even radical steps are not necessary to advance moral ends."

Also out of style just now are those "general characteristics we associate with moderation," prudence, humility, aversion to fanaticism, acceptance of complexity. "Its antithesis is not conviction, but intemperance." No one can accuse our incoming president of having any undue habits of restraint. "[I]f he governs as he campaigned, [Trump] will summon forth and amplify the darkest impulses in our nation."

“If you must be indiscrete, be discrete in your indiscretion.” ― Mark Twain

When our good old Secretary of Education, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and tobacco addict Bill Bennett cobbled together his Book of Virtues from the pantheon of Western males' writings 20 years ago, Moderation did not rise to Table of Contents material. It seems too plain perhaps, the vanilla of virtues, not visible for the taller trees of self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith. (Neither did it make an appearance in the index.)

Mr. Trump is not much for book reading, and it's safe to say that Bennett's book did not find its way to his dinner table, bedtime, or anytime family reading. Not even the Children's version.

With the benefit of a month's history, we can compare today's piece by Wehner, even before we fetch it from the driveway. Eight Was Enough, he says, not longing for a third Obama term, for various reasons, even though "it would be silly to lay all the blame for this at the feet of Mr. Obama." Yes, yes, he "turned out to be great at poetry and bad at prose," and his opposition was quick to read "arrogance" in Obama's every move. And his failure, if that's what it was, "in a manner and on a scale that damaged his party, undermined faith in the institutions of government and left the nation more riven than he found it," all on him?

Let's get back to that talk of moderation, shall we?

For most of Wehner's Republican fellow-travellers, two years of Obama as president was more than they could bear. Given the power, Mitch McConnell was willing to sacrifice the capacity of the U.S. Senate to accomplish anything in order to sabotage Obama's re-election. Speaking of epic failures. By the end of the 2nd term, McConnell was willing to throw in the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as well, obstructing a well-qualified (and arguably moderate) nominee by violating the spirit of the Constitution in favor of the crapshoot of the 2016 presidential race.

The "listlessness" of the economy is a symptom of the intentional manipulation of systems for winners to take all. It reaches back to the 1990s, when technology and globalization were spreading prosperity to the far corners of the world in unpredictable ways, and we shipped jobs overseas faster than we manufactured them at home. From EPI Issue Brief, 2012

It reaches back to the Reagan years, when the steadily increasing productivity of the middle class stopped steadily increasing wages.

It crashed and burned first in the excesses of the dot com bubble, the war-mongering response to the 9/11 attack, and finally the all-American bubble of real estate financial engineering.

And no, Obama did not quite fix all that, nor race relations to boot. He did not eliminate "the conditions that allowed a cynical demagogue to rise up and succeed him," but to imagine that it's Obama's fault that the Republican Party was hijacked by anti-government extremists—not in 2015 or 2016, but starting with Newt Gingrich leading the revolution against Bill Clinton—is a tale of scapegoating that reeks of fanaticism and denial of complexity.

To absolve the people who brought us to this point based on the perception of Obama's "arrogance" is to deny the source of the problem before us. Obama was so arrogant, we... elected Donald J. Trump? That's too easy and too absurd. As Wehner told us just a month ago, "victory spawns imitation," and if we don't figure out this puzzle better than blaming Obama, it's going to be a long way down.

My four week reading backlog juxtaposes Wehner's thoughts on moderation with the holiday weekend and Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail, with its criticism of white moderates "more devoted to 'order' than to justice." I took the time to read the whole thing and consider the context from more than half a century ago. We've moved beyond "Colored" and "Whites Only" drinking fountains, at least. We outlawed poll taxes with the 24th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and extended by Congress and Richard Nixon in 1970, Gerald Ford in 1975, Ronald Reagan in 1982, and George W. Bush in 2006.

As Obama prepared to run for his second term, and Congress turned itself into a useless swamp of partisan obstruction, Republican-controlled state legislatures went to work, passing a record number of restrictions to voting: photo ID requirements, cuts to early voting, hurdles to registration. By the 2016 election, there were sweeping court victories in four states (North Carolina, Kansas, North Dakota and Texas) to offset them, but 13 other states kept theirs in place. The ACLU has lawsuits going in fifteen states.

Four white "moderates" and the incomparable Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby Co. v. Holder that things are just way better than they were in 1965 (or at least not matching the old coverage formula), discrimination not nearly as pervasive, flagrant, widespread, or rampant as it used to be. Mirabile dictu, Congress did not answer the president's call "to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls." (Legislation was drawn up and duly buried in committees.)

Those conditions favoring a cynical (and race-baiting) demagogue's rise make a better scapegoat than Obama's uppitiness, as a matter of fact.

Tom von Alten, January 15, 2017