The Chronicle Review

The Neglected Middle of U.S. Politics

The Granger Collection, New York

John Quincy Adams (left) and John Adams (right), the sixth and second presidents of the United States, respectively.
January 22, 2017

Like accountants, historians are drawn to order and routine. We like to establish patterns and baselines — the longue durée against which the punctuations of battles, bills, and barricades can be more easily seen. By this rationale, historians should prefer to study the moderates of history, those mechanics of the status quo who try to keep things from building to a head. Yet historians of the United States have lavished attention on the insurgents of the right and the left. Most centrists gather dust and populate footnotes.


Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, From the Founding to Today, By David S. Brown

(University of North Carolina Press)

That is the altogether reasonable contention of David S. Brown in his new book, Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, From the Founding to Today, which is as sweeping as its title. Proceeding in closely narrated case studies, Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College, wants not only to challenge the way political history is written — it currently emphasizes ideologues and idealists and "relegates moderates to mere factions within parties," he writes — but also to shake up the way political culture mirrors this historiographic fixation on the outer edges of the political spectrum. Americans, he believes, largely agree with Rush Limbaugh, who has said: "By definition, moderates can’t be brave! They don’t have opinions."

Brown argues the opposite: Political moderates have had both a "cohesive identity" and a " ‘largeness’ of purpose" throughout the nation’s history, stepping in during crises to provide leadership and balance to prevent the United States from losing its own identity and largeness of purpose.

The book’s release coincides with the inauguration of a new president, and there are indications of how Brown believed the election was likely to play out. "The question of political moderation today is of special importance to the Republican Party," he writes, whose "hard right wing is incapable of making a majority within the party, let alone around the country." His closing pages now exude a sort of wistfulness: "There is good reason to believe that America is in the midst of a moderate era. … Ideologues may come and go, but as long as the republic persists, the prevailing tradition trends moderate."

The impulse to discard Brown’s history of moderation because of poor foresight should be resisted. He is correct that Americans are least reflective about the nature and history of centrism. Perhaps he is even correct that scholars have been less than sensitive to the mentality and intentions of those men (all of Brown’s studies are of men) who have engaged in what he calls "the delicate art of deal making," striking compromises that placate rivals and encourage stability. Scholars have published dozens of books on the conservative movement, studying in depth the world­views and felt traumas of crusaders from the right. Perhaps it is time for the center’s close-up.

Some obstacles stand in the way, however, and Brown doesn’t fully clear them. He never truly defines moderation — or centrism or pragmatism or "deal making" — or explains how it differs from opportunism on the one hand and from personal virtues like honor on the other. Is a moderate a fence-sitter or a bridge-builder? In his case studies, moderates are typically men who place nation over party, and they generally do so under conditions that promise personal loss rather than personal gain.

In that way, Brown’s book recalls John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which effectively announced his presidential ambitions. Both books have a slight feel of "Great Man history" to them, but more important, both venerate men who placed their own judgment of the national interest over partisan consistency or loyalty.

Brown quotes the 19th-century editor Hezekiah Niles, who wrote, "Gentlemen must give way a little. It does not become a republican to say, ‘I will not submit to this’ or ‘I will have that’ — his great duty is to regard the general good and suffer the majority to govern."

The lordly phrase "suffer the majority to govern" is not incidental. It is easier to survive public condemnation if one bears a great name — a lesson that the Kennedy dynasty learned well. Moderation gravitates to the dynastic: Brown’s chosen band has a family feel to it, as if U.S. history has been held together by the same few clans. He features the Adamses, the Cabots, the Roosevelts, the Tafts, and the Bushes, with a handful of one-offs including Lincoln, Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama. (In the case of the Roosevelts and the Tafts, Brown chooses the Progressive Era figures — Theodore and William Howard — but not their New Deal relatives.)

What does it mean for moderation as a political principle if its best instances tend toward the patrician? Brown doesn’t appear discomfited by the question. Instead he resurrects the term "Patriot Kings" to describe John and John Quincy Adams and George Cabot. "Patriot King," from the Viscount Bolingbroke, refers to a figure who will "defeat the designs and break the spirit of faction, instead of partaking in one, and assuming the other." Such, apparently, is the moderate’s ideal vision of democratic leadership — monarchic/aristocratic origin be damned.

That blue-blooded tint might be a better explanation for why historians of the United States have tended to neglect centrists. Perhaps it is not, as Brown contends, that "ideologues and idealists" have hogged the limelight because historians like them better. It is simply easier to explain why they do what they do in historical terms — as products of structure and necessity.

If moderates tend to be as patrician in origin as Brown implies, their actions reactivate a long-running philosophical debate about the role of free will in history. Because moderates often break class ranks — a fine example are those "New Deal Republicans" like Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. — but do not go full apostate and champion the oppressed, their actions can appear almost impulsive. Moderation appears to be an act of will, not of self-interest.

It is no coincidence that many of the men Brown cites have been described as noble: Nobility is a temporary admission that maybe some individuals do act freely out of higher principles — that they intervene from above the order and routine of political interests and factions. But the description applies in another sense as well: Often what moderates are protecting is not a class interest but a family legacy — a tendency particularly pronounced in the Adams family.

In a way, then, Brown’s identification of moderates as aristocrats makes historiographic sense. The family name was one of the few palpable pressures on the actions of these "nobles." They were bound to uphold dynastic traditions even if other considerations could be scorned.

The United States has had few "noble" families, and we have just seen the failure of two dynasties with Hillary Clinton’s loss and Jeb Bush’s humiliation. If Brown is right about moderates’ importance in U.S. history, we will have to expand our scope beyond these prominent clans. That will challenge Brown’s own equation of moderation with blue blood. Yet if his study opens more questions about moderation than it answers, it nonetheless has opened a promising line of inquiry.

Corrections (1/25/2017, 12:21 p.m.): The caption for the photographs accompanying this article originally switched the identifications incorrectly for the two presidents. John Adams, the second president, is at the right, and John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, is at the left, not the other way around. The article also originally rendered the book's title inconsistently. It is Moderates, not Moderatez. The caption and title have been updated accordingly.

Andrew Seal is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Yale University.