Another great Brooks column, on the nature of moderation

In response to my praise of David Brooks’ column from earlier in the week, Cindi Scoppe Tweeted this:

.@BradWarthen It’s a very good column, but if it’s the best you’ve seen in years, you obviously missed THIS one http://nyti.ms/QJ87fm 

Well, she knows what I like to read, which shouldn’t be surprising, since I first became her editor in 1987.

The column, from Oct. 25, 2012, was headlined “What Moderation Means.” Excerpts:

First, let me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that.

Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions….

The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.

For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.

The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order….

Very, very good stuff. I can see why Cindi would like it, and not only because Brooks uses the trick of an inclusive “she” rather than the traditional inclusive “he” to indicate a hypothetical person whose gender doesn’t matter, which is something Cindi does.

More to the point, it should be easy to see why I would like this column as much as the one I praised earlier this week. Both of them speak for me, and the way I see the world. (Which is an argument for why Brooks should have used “he” instead of “she.” Hey, there are bits where he should have just gone ahead and written “Brad.”) There are particularly sharp insights in both columns, expressed in ways that had not yet occurred for me. Some of the highest praise I’ve gotten from readers over the years is when they say, “You write what I think, but don’t know how to say.” Brooks did a better job of explaining some things that I believe than I have been able to do.

I particularly appreciate this statement: “The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right.” That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to say in everything I’ve written about the UnParty and the Energy Party and the Grownup Party. (Brooks later says that moderates are misunderstood because they don’t write manifestos. Well, I’ve at least tried to do so….) This is such an important point because there are so many deluded souls out there who fervently believe that there are policies that ARE right in every instance. Promising, for instance, always to vote against tax increases (or, as Brooks said, for higher taxes for the wealthy) is as arbitrary as promising to vote “yes” on all bills that come up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I don’t know that I like that column from October better than the Snowden one. But they are both really, really good, and I wish everyone would read them. They say things that are profoundly true, but counterintuitive for too many Americans. These things need to be said as often as possible, and by someone who says them as well as Brooks does.

59 thoughts on “Another great Brooks column, on the nature of moderation

  1. JUan Caruso

    “Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. ” – David Brooks

    Easily refuted by political adherents of the Global Warming scam who replace history with false science for the promise of higher taxes and government spending. Want more examples? I assume readers can think for themselves. Why were “Blue Sky” laws passed? Why are shamanistic cultures backward?

    It is safe for charlatans to claim dire problems and require confiscatory sacrifice, because average people are ignorant of planet history and will die well before the next ice age arrives. Guess what? Scientists cannot prove me wrong.

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    1. Scout

      You seem to be assuming that acknowledging scientific evidence that industrialization has influenced global climate patterns would automatically bring about higher taxes and government spending. Why?

      To try and stay on topic here I’ll just point out that a moderate’s response to acknowledging climate change research wouldn’t produce any automatic knee jerk response like raising taxes and increasing government spending.

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  2. Doug Ross

    Everyone thinks he’s the moderate in the room. A moderate would not allow amnesty for illegal immigrants (breaking the law is not a moderate activity), be opposed to abortion (need to consider the situation pragmatically), believe in Blue Laws (extremely conservative view), want single payer healthcare (an extreme liberal view)…

    Averaging out those viewpoints to come up with “I’m a moderate” isn’t being a moderate.

    You can be a moderate on an issue but there are very few moderates generally. Except for libertarians – who assess each situation based on personal liberty.

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    1. Mark Stewart

      Doug,

      Hate to say it; but I am far more moderate than you (or Libertarians generally). Cheers!

      Yes, I am being arch and ironic. But not necessarily self-effacing…

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    2. Brad Warthen

      Well, Doug is obviously joking with us (libertarians are moderates, and black is white).

      But for anyone is out there sincerely confused, anyone who “assesses each situation based on personal liberty” clearly cannot be a moderate, as Brooks so clearly explains. A moderate doesn’t assess every situation based on ANY abstract principle.

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    3. Scout

      Doug, I think you missed the point. A moderate can be any of those things depending on the situation on the ground at the time. The point is that the response is relative to current conditions. You can’t qualify whether any response is moderate or not without knowing the current conditions at the time of the response. So if you just throw out a list of positions and proclaim them to be conservative, liberal, or moderate or not – without any reference to the current situation – then you have missed the point.

      At least that is the point I got out of Brooks column. I don’t care what you call that approach, but it is an approach that makes sense to me.

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      1. Doug Ross

        @Scout

        I didn’t miss any point. Brooks’ (and Brad’s) definition of moderate appears to be “what I believe is right based on my interpretation of the situation”.

        I think I am moderate on taxes. I believe they should be spent on the highest priority items serving the most people in the most efficient manner. Isn’t that moderate? What’s extreme about that?

        I am moderate when it comes to war. I think the military should be used as a last resort in cases of direct attack. I believe the Iraq War was unnecessary, a waste of human lives, and made the United States less secure in the long run. Is that extreme?

        I am a moderate on public education. I think teachers should be paid more but based on merit and not tenure. I think we owe every child as much opportunity as possible including vouchers to allow parents to choose the best option possible. Is that extreme?

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        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Doug, a moderate — by Brooks’ definition — doesn’t apply ANY abstract test to taxes or anything else all of the time. Even one so reasonable as that “they should be spent on the highest priority items serving the most people in the most efficient manner.” To a moderate, sometimes that should be the case — perhaps even most of the time. But sometimes not.

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          1. Doug Ross

            Are you trying to suggest that you (or Brooks) have no guiding principles? you are an empty vessel awaiting each situation and starting fresh with no bias, no preconceived thoughts, no preference? Just feed in the facts and a moderate opinion comes out?

            Sorry, but I don’t buy it. You have certain overriding principles that influence you. Communitarianism is no less a mindset than libertarianism. You like groups. You like rules. You like bigness over smallness.

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          2. Brad Warthen

            No. To have no principles at all would be immoderate, I think.

            But sometimes one principal is more relevant in a given situation, while another day a different principle may override it.

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  3. Scout

    It is a little scary to me that a person who actively monitors current conditions and tempers their response to make sure it makes sense for that situation needs a special definition. I would think that should be standard operating procedure for any functional adult.

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  4. Brad Warthen

    Also, there is nothing moderate in taking personal liberty or self-determination (“controlling one’s body) to the point of giving an individual the power to decide unilaterally, without courts or due process, that another person (who is completely defenseless and has committed no crime) should die.

    Which is what abortion on demand is. And it amazes me that people who support it are so often called “moderates.” They are anything but.

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    1. Brad Warthen

      And some will say that a lot of what I just said describes the president’s drone program — which is why so many reasonable people would be troubled by it. But there are important differences that allow me to support it, thus far.

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    2. Doug Ross

      A moderate would understand the abortion issue has been debated and a decision has been made to allow it.

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      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Not one bit true, as Brooks explains:

        This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.

        The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.

        A moderate doesn’t see issues as “settled.” They are always subject to questioning, further debate, even “conflict,” within reasonable bounds.

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        1. Doug Ross

          I know it’s an internet cliche once a topic turns to abortion (or when Hitler is brought up)… but what could possibly be the moderate position on abortion? or slavery? or women’s right to vote? or racial segregation?

          No progress has ever come through moderation. Moderation is a drag on change.

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          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually, it is not. As I just said, VERY clearly, a moderate does not view issues as “settled.” A moderate believes in a constant dynamic process of deliberation, even conflict, as Brooks puts it.

            You’re confusing “moderate” with “conservative.” Conservatism, properly understood, is a resistance to change.

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          2. Doug Ross

            Yeah. we should up a dialogue on whether slavery should be reinstated or whether those women folk really deserve to vote.

            A moderate has an opinion and wants to “win” the argument just as much as anyone else.

            Who are the great moderates of the 20th century?

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      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Which to me is not a moderate view, or even a reasonable one. It’s a chilling rationalization. Our species has a long and unfortunate habit of dehumanizing those we would kill.

        A moderate person, and certainly a humble person, should never be so persuaded of another’s inhumanity. Not to the point that killing is so lightly excused.

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      1. Mark Stewart

        True that, too. On this, as on other issues as well, you occupy the conservative position and not the moderate one. That’s absolutely fine, but call it what it is.

        I like that idea though of the moderate holding debate in tension and that there are only partially true viewpoints. Good things for everyone to keep in mind.

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          1. Mark Stewart

            I disagree. I look to source the best available info; then make a commitment and run with it. Sometimes it takes me awhile to feel I have gathered the necessary info; but I’m decisive once I do.

            Moderates are more open to believing other people have value to add and may in fact know more. I’d rather keep that outlook.

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          2. Scout

            Moderates by this definition are sounding more and more like Perceiving types on the Meyers Briggs scale. Perceivers typically hold off making decisions as long as possible in favor of gathering information. Perceivers are more likely to be able to live with the tension of not making a decision because they can see value in both sides.

            That doesn’t mean Perceivers never make decisions though.

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  5. Bryan Caskey

    It’s harder (intellectually) to be a moderate than to simply follow an ideology. When you’re a moderate, you have to look at each issue on it’s own merits, (with your own thoughts) and try to solve it the best way you know how. Also, I’m assuming that moderates don’t look to use issues as political wedges against another group, which both parties do.

    That’s probably why it’s easier for lots of people to simply assign themselves to a tribe and go along with everything that their tribe believes in. You don’t have to think.

    We all probably fall victim to that to some extent, and we should all try and push back against our respective tribes and think for ourselves. However, one of the problems with that is that almost every issue right now has clearly drawn battle lines, and as Brooks puts it we “often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.”

    That’s one of the largest problems with politics and political debate now. So many people have closed their minds to anything but their solution. Debates (and I’m including this blog) don’t really change people’s mind as much as they should; they’re just intellectual jousting between combatants.

    We could all do better to try to be more open-minded and focused on solving the problems.

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    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I often envy the partisans. They have a support group with which they can be comfortable, someone who will take their side, will always agree with them, etc.

      But I know I cannot join them. I would not be happy, because it would be dishonest for me to pretend to buy into the attitudes of either group. I could never convince myself, and no amount of warm fuzziness of having others to support me could make up for that. Just when everyone in the room was getting a contact buzz on their own solidarity, I would not be able to resist saying, “Yes, but…” and start an argument. And I would be cast out into the darkness, far from the warm embrace of their mutual agreement.

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    2. Doug Ross

      Let’s take the federal budget as an example, what is the position of a moderate on deficits? Yes, no, maybe? Because you either have a deficit or you don’t. You can believe in one or the other and not both at the same time. If you believe based on your understanding of economics that deficits are a bad thing in the long run, how could you support any program that increases the deficit?

      The are foundational beliefs that tailor the decision making process. Brad (and I) believe life begins at conception. Other people (apparently including the President) do not. Or if they do, they assign a lesser value to that life. Now how do you act moderately in that situation? For me, it means accepting that my view is not the majority view and that it will not be reversed in my lifetime if ever. To keep fighting for making abortion illegal is not behaving like a moderate. It would be better in my view to work from the angle of promoting other choices, providing more information to young people. etc.

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      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Well, deficits isn’t a binary issue at all. You may be okay with a deficit for military spending or welfare, but not the other.

        Are there really sensible people who oppose any deficit, all the time?

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        1. Doug Ross

          Depends on the size and duration. When you’re at multi-trillion dollars, would it be extreme to say “We need to shrink that down a bit”?

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          1. Doug Ross

            Even the President wants to shrink the deficit. He wants to do it through tax increases. Others want to cut spending. Is either an extreme position?

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          2. Kathryn Fenner

            But you posited that either one was cool with a deficit or not, no middle ground. There ought to always be middle ground on deficits. I doubt any reasonable person is absolutely opposed to any deficit under any circumstances, or cool with a deficit, no matter how large!

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      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Doug, I’m glad you asked that question. (Did I sound like a politician just then?)

        It allows me to further illustrate my point, or one of them.

        You say, “Let’s take the federal budget as an example, what is the position of a moderate on deficits? Yes, no, maybe? Because you either have a deficit or you don’t. You can believe in one or the other and not both at the same time.”

        A moderate doesn’t “believe in” one or the other. Whether to run a deficit or not is not a moral question; it’s a matter of what make sense under the circumstances.

        So let’s take some circumstances…

        In 1941, when the nation still hadn’t recovered from the Depression and we were gearing up to some extent for the biggest war in human history (in spite of the isolationists), deficit spending made sense. This was even more true in 1942, ’43, ’44, ’45.

        Let’s get closer to the present day. Thanks to responsible actions by Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans in the late ’90s, we actually almost eliminated deficits. That was definitely the right time to do at such a time, with the dot-com bubble percolating along, and no major national or international crises to deal with.

        Then came 9/11. We went wrong at that point. President Bush and the rest of our leadership in Washington should have seized that moment to do a number of responsible things. They should have levied a dramatically higher tax on gasoline, for several reasons — to pay for the war, to reduce our consumption and therefore our dependence on oil from the parts of the world that spawned 9/11, and to finance research into alternative forms of energy, mass transit, etc. The whole Energy Party agenda.

        Instead, the president urged us to go shopping, and leave the sacrifice to the volunteer professionals in the military (and our children and grandchildren, who would end up paying for it). And our deficits soared, unnecessarily. It was a big missed opportunity.

        I don’t think Bush should have pushed through the Medicare prescription drug program without coming up with a way of paying for it. In fact, I don’t think he should have done it at all, as what the nation needed was a comprehensive solution to paying for health care, not one that provided one service to one demographic group. And we needed to bite the bullet and pay for THAT.

        Then, when the economic collapse came in 2008, we found ourselves in one of those situations that call for deficit spending to try to stimulate the economy (both parties understood this; everyone but the Tea Party did). But we were already in a hole, thanks to irresponsible decisions made earlier in the decade.

        And decisions not made as well. The utter dysfunction of Washington, thanks to all those NON-moderates, meant our deliberative process was no longer able to belly up and make tough decisions. Every can got kicked down the road, so that when we found ourselves in a tight spot, we were unprepared to deal with it.

        The Tea Party’s right to worry about big deficits getting bigger. But they’re wrong to think deficit spending is always wrong. The problem here, again, is that our polarized, non-moderate “leaders” in Washington had let us get into such a hole before we found ourselves in a situation that actually called for deficit spending.

        I guess I could go on, but do you see what I’m saying? We had a moment of moderation as a nation there in the late ’90s, with Clinton at his Third Way best working with Republicans to accomplish something for the fiscal health of the nation. We have not, collectively, been so moderate or so wise since then.

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    1. Doug Ross

      Right. I am very much a snap decision, go with my gut person. And it’s worked for me. I proposed to my wife after three months. And look how lucky she is!

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    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I, too, think Scout made a great point.

      It’s an interesting coincidence that earlier today, I was paraphrasing something my former boss, Gil Thelen, said to me once…

      Gil was an INTJ, and I’m an INTP. What this meant was that we had a lot in common, and our time working together was a really fun and productive one for me. We chased intuitive abstract concepts left and right, and did a lot of cool things of which I’m proud. The “Power Failure” project was one of them; it arose from a conversation we had when Gil stopped by my desk one day in the summer of 1990.

      But he and I also had some pretty heavy-duty run-ins, which nearly ruined our productive working relationship. And they arose directly from the difference between J and P.

      Once Gil made his mind up about something, that was it. He charged forward in that direction from that day onward, in full confidence of the rightness of his cause. I might charge right along with him, having reached a similar conclusion. But then, as more information came in, as I had more experience with the thing, I sometimes changed my mind. That’s when the sparks flew, because I couldn’t resist explaining to him why, in light of new information, the course he was on was wrong. Explaining it in excruciating detail, I might add, and not very diplomatically.

      The difference between J and P is huge, and consequential.

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      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I want to stress, having told that personal anecdote about our differences, that I have the greatest respect for Gil, and a deep appreciation for the time that we worked together. He and Paula Ellis gave me more rope, more opportunity to try some of my wilder ideas, than anyone I ever worked for with the possible exception of my first boss out of college, Reid Ashe (who would say to me, “You have the authority to do anything you choose, as long as it’s the right thing,” in a way that communicated his complete confidence that what I chose to do would indeed be the right thing; it was very empowering).

        The context of my learning that I was an INTP and he was an INTJ was a management retreat that we participated in, and the point of it all was for all of the editors assembled to learn WHY the people they worked with had different ways of approaching certain things. Not that one way was the right way and the other way was wrong, but that, you know, it took all kinds to make up a world, and we needed to appreciate that.

        I had relatively few conflicts with Gil. The people with whom I more frequently had a failure to communicate were the people who were as strongly S and I was N. Those people used to really get irritated with me, and the Myers-Briggs exercise helped me understand why. I really, really tried their patience, just being the way I was.

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      2. Kathryn Fenner

        But these categories are not binary, just a continuum. Some Js are way out on the end, others, like me, are not. Also, Ps can learn to cut to the chase and Js to slow down and check their work.

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        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, and not to fly under false colors, I’m not at all an extreme P, or even an extreme T (much to my irritation, because I’d like to think I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from those ruled by emotion).

          I am, on the other hand, both extremely I and N.

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          1. Scout

            Maybe that’s why we agree alot. I am also very strongly I and N. More in the middle on F/T but very definitely on the F side, and moderately P – though I’ve definitely moved more to the middle as I’ve gotten older.

            Somehow most of my friends are S. They are amazed at the details I don’t typically notice, but I usually get the gist of things faster. I don’t see the trees for the forest.

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          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            It’s very difficult to have a meeting of the minds with an S. I tend to get really impatient at their failure to see what is obvious to me, and they get really irritated because they think I’m just making stuff up. To them, it’s positively immoral, or at least reckless, to make decisions by extrapolating from such a small amount of information, whereas I’m satisfied and ready to move on to the next thing…

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    1. Mark Stewart

      The other good profile is the strengthsfinder 2.0 – not as geek/armchair psych, but far better for sorting people in the workplace – where the Myers-Briggs gets a little too precious. It’s far better at one on one relationship sorting. If one wants to raise issues that won’t fade …

      The strengthsfinder is a lot better as helping one understand others’ talents and problem solving approaches.

      Reply

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