“Extremism” has become a common term in political discourse, particularly since the 2016 election and the surrounding events. Most often used in reference to right-wing activists and agitators, it applies equally well to left-wing opponents of the same. One imagines as typical of “extremists” the circulating images of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, or of roving bands of black-clad “Antifa” protestors in the Pacific Northwest. Though “extremism” strikes many people as negative, with plentiful op-eds decrying its rise, there are perhaps equally plentiful defenders of the extremes to be found. Indeed, there are elected officials in the United States Congress who have been labeled as such, and essayists in major magazines regularly argue for various no-holds-barred political strategies as necessary to meet the challenges of our day.

Against the proponents of extremism or radicalism of various sorts, enter Aurelian Craiutu. Taking the imaginative form of letters to two young, radical students, one on the right and one on the left, Craiutu’s new book Why Not Moderation? probes the value of moderation as both a personal and an institutional virtue. Building on his previous work on moderation in the history of political thought, Craiutu moves between interludes, which take the form of dialogues between himself and his radical students, and full-length letters on diverse topics such as the meaning of moderation, the difference between moderation and centrism, and the practical and applied nature of moderation.

Craiutu takes great pains with the form of the work to convince his reader that he is not tilting at windmills, that there are real proponents of radical politics active today against whom he feels compelled to argue. His interlocutors defend these radical political strategies against his preferred politics of moderation not solely in their own words but in quotes Craiutu has pulled from contemporary public sources. Into his fictive students’ mouths, Craiutu places arguments sourced from The Jacobin, New Criterion, or from an assortment of scholars and activists who variously defend the destruction of property and the radical reformation of our political institutions in the pages of journals, magazines, newspapers, and blogs.

The radicals, both inside and outside of the work, to whom Craiutu responds may ostensibly be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they share a common agreement: that moderate liberal values and institutions have failed, that we now require passionate, extreme activists to accomplish what is necessary to address these failings, and that these radical activists must mount campaigns for new principles, practices, and institutions if we are to survive the harms moderate liberalism has passively allowed and directly caused.

Craiutu’s left-radical student might think the existential threat comes from fascist tendencies on the right, coupled with systemic oppression and populist demagoguery. Craiutu’s right-radical student might think that the existential threat comes from the infectious tendrils of critical theory’s Marxist roots, coupled with the pervasive creep of revolutionary ideas designed to undermine traditional values. The Venn diagram overlap between these two positions, Craiutu suggests, is significant. Both blame liberalism for their favored ills, decry moderation in any form, and as a result demand extreme action. Craiutu then takes on a heavy task. Against strong forces on the contemporary American left and right, Craiutu must defend the notion that what our current moment calls for is not the fervor of the impassioned justice warrior or the Christian nationalist crusader, but the careful, balancing, restraining tendencies of the moderate stalwart.

Certainly moderation or temperance is a virtue for individuals, something we should all practice and strive for. This seems to be the constant testimony of those who have thought seriously about politics from at least Plato onward. As Socrates tells us in Book IV of the Republic, the model of the city developed in the early books of the Republic is an analogy. The reality is that justice is a matter of the ordering of one’s internal condition, one’s soul. The virtue of moderation that the three classes of the “ideal” city all possess alike, then, is analogously shared by the three parts of our individual souls: in our appetites, our passions, and our reasoning, we must be thoroughly moderate to be truly just.

But more than simply this individual virtue, Craiutu argues, moderation is a political one. It is in our institutions that moderate our political passions that we see the importance of moderation at scale. The rule of law, constitutionalism, checks and balances, separation and sharing of powers—these are all applied forms of moderation in our political institutions that we ought to be grateful for rather than frustrated by.

A related argument may help illuminate Craiutu’s point. In her essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties, French philosopher Simone Weil decries the tendency of factional parties to guide the thinking, or really the unthinking, of their members to the extremes. A party has an agenda, amorphous though it may be, and demands loyalty above all, above even the pursuit of truth and justice. Weil asks the reader to imagine a man who, elected as a representative of a party, publicly declares that in all his political actions he will “absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.” What would happen to him?

Weil answers: “Such words would not be welcome. His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal. Even the least hostile would say, ‘Why then did he join a political party?’—thus naively confessing that, when joining a political party, one gives up the idea of serving nothing but the public interest and justice.” Parties, on Weil’s account, are “machines to generate collective passions.” They create dogmatists and activists but not free, just men.

As an antidote to this totalizing tendency that Weil sees in parties, Craiutu defends the value of an eclectic politics, one that admits of splitting differences, finding nuance, and collecting a variety of unexpected opinions free from party platforms and purity tests. Moderation values diversity and discourse, Craiutu explains, and does not rush to squash difference and disagreement as a radical, exclusionary political movement would. Parties, as Weil understands them, and radicalism, as Craiutu understands it, both seem to abolish the space necessary to pursue justice in fraught situations.

Weil’s position on the abolition of parties is, ironically, quite extreme, and I do not intend to imply that Craiutu would sign on to her proposals. I expect that Craiutu would list parties as potential mechanisms of institutional moderation: when parties are strong and effective, political scientists tell us, extreme candidates do not often succeed. When parties are weak and ineffective, the extreme candidates can rise. The difference may be that effective, moderate parties have platforms, not dogmas, principles, not ideologies. An effective moderate party in line with Craiutu’s ideal would be a true big tent, amenable to discourse and disagreement that Weil’s idea of a “party,” based on her lived political experience with parties in fraught historical times, simply would not permit.

But, one might say, even if extreme parties or extreme ideologies are nothing but machines to generate collective passions, aren’t collective passions useful? Isn’t the mobilization of political energy important? If we, as Weil would have us, abandon party in favor of careful contemplation of truth and justice, will we not be sacrificing political efficacy to principle? If we, as Craiutu would have us, refuse to have radical methods as a tool in our toolbox, will we not simply be opening the door for our radical opponents to take our contemplative indecision as opportunity to enact their own political will? Why, in the face of existential threats to our political order, would we ever choose the careful path of contemplative moderation rather than the pursuit of extremism, dogma, and party membership?

This is a serious question. To remain moderate or to be a centrist (different things, Craiutu insists) in such times as Weil’s and ours is to cut ourselves off from pathways to political power, to repudiate those who ask us to forsake principle and embrace effective means when the opportunity is available. Yet if we hope to preserve the best parts of our politics, Craiutu argues, this is exactly what we must do.

The chief difficulty a reader might emerge with after reading Craiutu’s book, then, is the nature and extent of the “extremes” we ought to be avoiding. If, as Craiutu summarizes late in the book, a true and principled moderate is “ready to defend their view of the good society without ever going to extremes,” one wonders how to determine exactly where the extreme lies. Certainly, as Craiutu has acknowledged throughout the work, different situations call for different reactions; a moderate, on his account, is not an impotent or complacent participant in injustice.

For Craiutu’s argument to stick, this description must be an absolute. A moderate cannot, e.g., “defend their view of the good society without ever going to extremes” except when necessary. Any qualifier of this absolute statement tends toward radicalism, for both of Craiutu’s interlocutors would affirm that they are arguing in favor of extremes because necessity demands they do so. What precisely is always and everywhere extreme, out of bounds for the principled moderate, is left somewhat ambiguous within the text. But this may be intentional; perhaps the delineation of these bounds is best left to the functional moderation of dialogue and discourse in applied political practice.

For those attached to a moderate political principle that eschews even pragmatic concessions to radicalism, the dilemmas raised by the question of practical necessity are nothing new. Craiutu’s book then meshes well with another recent book on similar themes: Joshua Cherniss’s Liberalism in Dark Times. Cherniss draws on historical examples of defenders of liberal principles who were faced with terrible historical and political dilemmas, the like of which contemporary readers can hardly imagine. Camus concedes in his “Letters to a German Friend” that, for example, those who are willing to murder innocents to advance their ideology will always have an immediate advantage over those whose principles restrain them. In the ashes of World War II and the fights against the extremes of Communism and Fascism, Cherniss excavates a tradition of “tempered liberalism” that refuses to give way to “ruthlessness,” though such ruthlessness would doubtless be effective. This tradition, surely, is a type of moderation in the strain that Craiutu defends, and one that critics of liberalism would do well to study in attempting to probe liberalism’s limits.

Against those who cast moderation as a wimpy, passive, personal principle, Craiutu employs the useful analogy of the funambulist, a tightrope walker. The tightrope walker is no wimpy coward, unwilling to stake a position or happily occupying a loose, unprincipled center. No, the tightrope walker is engaging in a risky and active feat: carefully walking a fine line, constantly counteracting and compensating for forces that would attempt to topple him. The act of tightrope walking is itself courageous, taking action in the face of fear. The winds of change may come, but the tightrope walker must lean into them and remain resolute to avoid falling into the chasm on either side. This is the model of political moderation that Craiutu defends that, for all its difficulties, may be a welcome counterbalancing force to the radical tendencies of our political moment.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Very interesting review. I note that Kirk’s The Politics of Prudence has just been reissued in a 30th anniversary edition, and I wonder if there might be some resonance between that work and the two books mentioned in this piece. It’s been at least 15 years since I read the Kirk book though, so I’m kind of working from memory here.

    • I just got my copy of the new edition yesterday, and I realized I wish it had been at hand and in mind as I was writing this review! I think you’re right, Kirk’s articulation of a prudent politics, the art of the possible, has much overlap with what Craiutu is calling political moderation, or is at least one example of how to be politically and personally moderate.

  2. Very thoughtful essay. I particularly liked your careful challenge to the notion of “only if necessary” because it creates exceptions all across the political spectrum.

    There are two aspects that seem too narrowly focused on American politics.

    1. “Weil asks the reader to imagine a man who, elected as a representative of a party, publicly declares that in all his political actions he will “absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.” What would happen to him?”

    Answer: in Indonesia (and some other countries), this person could legally lose his or her seat in parliament. Representation doesn’t strictly mean that an MP is beholden to voters in her/his district. They are beholden to the party.

    2. “When parties are weak and ineffective, the extreme candidates can rise. The difference may be that effective, moderate parties have platforms, not dogmas, principles, not ideologies.”

    Not so in Indonesia, Thailand, and numerous other countries where parties are often formed by/around a prominent individual, with no enduring platform or principles other than the leader’s reputation and current political positions.

    One might argue that the US is getting that way, because we increasingly see “nepo babies” (a new slang term): people whose parents are famous. Or if they are “first generation celebrities” then they are known very widely for accomplishments in sports or entertainment. Name recognition wins elections, which ultimately may devolve into hereditary or feudalistic systems of government.

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