Commentary Magazine


Moderation and Moderatism

To the Editor:

COMMENTARY is to be congratulated for publishing the thoughtful, brilliantly argued essays of Dennis H. Wrong. I believe, however, that in his latest contribution, “The Perils of Political Moderation,” (January) Mr. Wrong confuses two kinds of moderation. If they are disentangled, I think Mr. Wrong’s central thesis would have to be modified.

One form of moderation can be called “systemic moderation,” which is held by most students to characterize the American political system. In this view, the political system acts as a vast arena in which more or less universally satisfying collective decisions are produced in the course of intergroup conflict. That this theory of the political process does not sufficiently account for the role of innovation and political leadership is no reason to deny that innovation and leadership exist in the system itself. This Mr. Wrong implies, by confounding the “moderate system” with the role of political moderates within the system. He rightly takes to task advocates of excessive moderation on substantive issues on the grounds that they play into the hands of extremists who oppose them. If these moderates err in claiming that they serve the system best by denying that politics has substance, Mr. Wrong errs in leaving this illusion undisturbed. The peculiar advantage of the moderate political system of the American type is that it deals successfully with most of the immoderate claims put upon it. Presumably it is the task of sophisticated analysts and teachers like Mr. Wrong to persuade disillusioned students and fainthearted political leaders that the system will welcome a great deal more goal-directed activity than they are accustomed to contributing to it.

Nelson W. Polsby
Bethesda, Maryland

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Mr. Wrong writes:

Mr. Polsby’s distinction between the moderate solutions usually achieved by the American political system and moderation as an ideological position (“moderatism” was my term for this) is well stated. But it is precisely the distinction that I thought I made, with the aid of John Stuart Mill, in my article.

Mr. Polsby seems to overlook another relevant distinction. The “American political system” includes at least three things: the formal structure of government as laid down by the Constitution, the political parties, and the “substratum” of politics—the welter of groups with conflicting and overlapping interests that constitute American society. The substratum does not impose one and only one kind of party system—the kind we have—that is compatible with our formal structure of government. Our system, it is true, has been forged out of the necessity of adapting political competition to the pluralistic nature of American society, but it does not follow that a different system might not prove to be even better adapted from a number of points of view which I suggested in the article. To argue otherwise is to be guilty of a sociological determinism that denies the autonomy of politics no less resolutely than crude Marxism. And anyway, American society is changing.

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