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What does “moderate” mean when we talk about political, cultural, or moral matters? Is it like the Aristotelian Golden Mean, the middle path between two presumed extremes?…

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics from the Founding to Today by David S. Brown(University of North Carolina Press, 2016)

republican patriciansA prolific historian and my successor as Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, David S. Brown, has recently published a thoughtful study as an Americanist, Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics from the Founding to Today. Two unifying themes in this book dealing with various American public figures since the late eighteenth century are the “moderateness” ascribed to Dr. Brown’s subjects and up until the last chapter, their white Protestant patrician backgrounds. Almost all sections are worth reading, if for nothing else than their consistently graceful prose. Dr. Brown has carefully polished every sentence; and unlike most of those big-name academic historians, whose pot-boilers line his walls, he is a stylistic perfectionist. He is also an anchorite who has devoted his life (outside of the classroom) to his texts. A few years ago, he published a widely acclaimed biography of the historian Richard Hofstadter; and here too he labored to make every sentence work. The biography was admiring but also critical, although I may have been the only reviewer (writing in The American Conservative) who picked up, or bothered to pick up, the strictures aimed at his subject, a liberal icon.

Clearly Dr. Brown has favorites, and if I were to choose any chapter in which his personal predilection is most fully revealed, it is the one that he assigns to “The Last Patrician,” Henry Adams. Adams is the central figure in a section reserved for “Progressives,” and Dr. Brown tells us how this grandson and great-grandson of American presidents (and son of Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James) collaborated with reform Republicans (Mugwamps) in the post-Civil War era. Like other “genteel reformers,” Adams was hoping that his coalition would “serve as a balance wheel between the major parties. It may have been the most hopeful political action of his life.”

But eventually, Adams would withdraw from political life utterly disillusioned and pour his frustration and wounded patrician pride into his prodigious output as an author. This included his anonymously published political satire Democracy: a Political Novel, his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, and his magnum opus History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889). This last, a classic for the study of early American presidencies, is aptly described by Dr. Brown as a “rewrite of Gibbon’s majestic The History and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” According to Dr. Brown: “Frustrated with the patrician’s fall from grace, he performed in the History’s two thousand plus pages an elegant autopsy on his kin, his caste, and their failure to produce the Best Men in his own day with a living, usable past.”

Adams is also remembered for his tribute to the Middle Ages Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), in which the medieval celebration of the Holy Virgin is dramatically contrasted to the “dynamo” of the American Industrial age. Mixed in with his discussion of medieval churches is Adams’s dirge for his own lost America, one of degrees and orders set in a pre-industrial world. Adams’s personal correspondence indicates that his respect for the Catholic Middle Ages did not lead him into blithely embracing the Catholic immigrants who were then arriving in Boston and New York. This last patrician found their presence a further sign that the America of his youth was rapidly vanishing. He also complained that German Jewish bankers and gold speculators were wreaking havoc on proper American society. To his credit, Dr. Brown does not rage against these opinions. He recognizes this repining as nothing more significant than someone bewailing the eclipse of his social class and the disintegration of the world in which he grew up.

Only in the third part of the book, dealing with “the pragmatists,” does Dr. Brown fully reveal his models of moderation. Here he discusses the Lodge and Bush families, who are generally given high grades for avoiding extremist positions. Dr. Brown’s emphasis on moderateness looks the most appropriate when he gets to the Bush family. Beginning with the one-term, undistinguished senatorial career of Prescott, George W. Bush’s grandfather and our U.S. Senator from Connecticut during my early childhood, the Bushes have been generally impeccably centrist Republicans. Although George H.W. Bush did vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he made that decision as a congressman from Houston, when he was represented a still identifiably traditional Southern district. During his presidency, H.W. Bush did nothing to my knowledge, outside of nominating strict constructionists to the federal bench, which would distinguish him, however remotely, as a man of the Right.

Dr. Brown is also justified in bracketing three generations of the Lodge family as regular Republicans, from the “high Brahmin” Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) to his grandson with the same name, who was Ike’s Ambassador to the U.N.. In one respect all Lodges were recognizable pillars of the Eastern Establishment. Even the grandfather, who famously—or infamously—opposed American membership in the League of Nations, was an ardent internationalist. Henry Cabot Lodge, Senior was an Anglophile interventionist in the Great War and a co-founder of the Council on Foreign Relations. He did however warn against the U.S. becoming too deeply embroiled in post-War European quarrels, and he thought participation in the League of Nations would entail this risk. But, as David Brown reminded me, the elder Lodge did favor making a defensive agreement with France to help prevent any attempt by the defeated Germans to threaten France’s Eastern border as hammered out at Versailles in 1919.

Dr. Brown’s remarks about Robert A. Taft are a bit skewed because of his source. He relies all too heavily on Richard Rovere’s acerbic portrait of the Ohio Senator published back in 1948. Contrary to Rovere’s characterization, Taft was not at all homely, nor an “arid” philistine, “who stood on the verge of irrelevancy,” nor someone who suffered from a “Fortress America mentality.” He viewed critically the networks of entangling alliances that liberal internationalists advocated (and which helped draw us into the Vietnam War). But he stated his willingness to have the U.S. accept at least some of the obligations imposed by NATO, providing the commitments undertaken seemed doable. In 1950 Taft warned against deploying further American military forces to Europe. One might dispute this position, which Dr. Brown does, but the reasons offered by Taft made perfectly good sense. The forces sent to Europe would not equal the number of Soviet troops in their zone of control, but they would serve as a provocation, if the Soviets decided that we were trying to encircle them. And the timing, as Taft correctly underlined, couldn’t have been worse, since we had already committed considerable forces to the Korean conflict, which was then going on. One can appreciate Taft’s reasoning, even if one also recognizes Truman’s concern that the Soviets might use the deployment of American troops in Korea to take advantage of relative American weakness in Western Europe.

Taft was also a figure of enormous courage and occasional eloquence, who as JFK’s ghost-writer points out in Profiles in Courage, criticized (properly in my opinion) the Nuremberg Trials for German war criminals after World War Two. Although most of those whom the Allies decided to try were utterly despicable, as Taft readily conceded, trying these Nazi leaders and Nazi military for ex post facto crimes in a kangaroo court made a mockery of justice. Taft was also one of the few figures in American public life who spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. This was an act that betokened high moral character. Contrary to what Dr. Brown suggests, Taft was hardly a candidate whose appeal was limited to “hardcore conservatives.” Through most of his career he had broad Republican support outside the Northeast. In his own state he won senatorial races with the help of among other groups Jewish Democrats, who approved of Taft’s strongly pro-Israel positions. In 1950, Taft won a third term as a U.S. Senator with a record majority and carried even the working class vote in his state. Most Ohio workers then approved of the Taft-Hartley Law, which guaranteed open shops. At the time there was a reaction against bullying local union control; and the promise made by the Democratic Party to repeal Taft-Hartley did not resonate as well among workers as Democrats hoped.

The one entirely expendable part of Dr. Brown’s informative study is his celebration at the end of his tome of Barack Obama as the quintessentially moderate national leader. Supposedly Obama is an “instantly recognizable historical figure,” someone “linked to a longer line of moderates angling under various prods, pressures and convictions toward the center of the ever-evolving American political tradition.” In these passages Dr. Brown may be laying it on with a trowel, because he (quite rightly) assumes that such obligatory praise of the contemporary Left and its leaders can benefit a historian who hopes to get a manuscript published by a prestigious academic press. But Dr. Brown is also suggesting a question that goes well beyond the scope of his book: What does “moderate” mean when we talk about political, cultural, or moral matters? Is it like the Aristotelian Golden Mean, the middle path between two presumed extremes? And getting back to Dr. Brown’s subject: Does holding “moderate” political opinions mean standing in a zone somewhere between, say, Rachel Maddow and the Alt-right?

In Dr. Brown’s book, “moderate” carries two detectable meanings. Through most of the text it refers to Republicans who leaned left on the relevant social and economic issues of their time and who in the twentieth century favored a liberal internationalist foreign policy. Such a policy was exemplified or previewed in the crusading internationalism of Woodrow Wilson; and today it finds Republican champions in John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Charles Krauthammer. A figure like Taft stood outside this tradition since he opposed the centralized welfare state and was wary of foreign commitment. Toward the end of the book, “moderate” comes to be used in a slightly different sense, that is in the way in which the mass media and academy now apply it. It is a term of praise for those who share the politics of our journalistic, academic and entertainment elites. It is also made synonymous with the “vital center,” but where exactly that center lies is far from settled. That depends ultimately on the viewer’s perspective. When Professor Brown tells me that former President Obama is a “moderate” or perhaps “moderate conservative,” I answer only half-jokingly that my “moderates” are found somewhere between Robert Taft and Henry Adams. To each his own “moderates.”

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1 reply to this post
  1. Moderates have taken on a new meaning, having had it transferred over to a more doctrinaire, ideological position. The very size of budgets, the mass of regulations, the intrusions of regulations, none of these are typical at all of our grandfathers Republic. And we are all the worse for it.

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