Nobody likes an extremist. Fanatic, radical, firebrand, extremist. We have an arsenal of pejoratives for the politician too far on this or that side of the aisle. Yet for all the societal antipathy towards zealous demagogues, nobody seems to like so-called “moderates” either. The latter are often called wishy-washy, flip-flopping, or unprincipled. It seems a political Catch-22.
But perhaps not. It’s often popular to campaign as someone who will “reach across the aisle” and get things done. We find appealing the image of the statesman who can rise above partisanship and polarization yet remain rooted in sound principles and firm conviction of what is right. Unfortunately, such leaders are few and far between in Washington.
Whether candidates or voters are to blame for this situation is not obvious. But I would like to suggest to you that the root of the problem is much deeper, and, moreover, that it is something we must combat during our formative years here at Princeton. I submit to you that the problem stems from a more general lack of moderation. Many of our political woes—particularly the much-bemoaned polarization and weak leadership—are symptoms of an immoderate society.
Let me define my terms. Moderation, properly understood, is not simply an inclination towards the middle ground between two policies or courses of action; rather, it is a virtuous disposition, a healthy wariness towards turbulent passions, and an even-keeled sense of reasonability. Immoderation, of course, is the opposite: a susceptibility to passions and controlling desires, an unwillingness to acknowledge reasons beyond our own, and disinterest in seriously engaging with others who think differently.
Cast in this light, you can see why moderation is the virtue that undergirds civil discourse. Without it, we talk over one another, speak past one another, or shrink from conversation altogether. Lacking the virtue of moderation, we clump together in our little cliques of political group-think or we grow apathetic and immoderately conflict-averse. This is the sort of immoderation we need to fight in our University community.
My predecessor in this position as Publisher of the Tory, David Byler, always hoped to see more political engagement on campus and wrote in this same column in favor of more student activism. While I share his general sentiment, I do so with this nuance: we don’t need student activism on campus; rather, we need civil discourse. And to have civil discourse, we need to cultivate the virtue of moderation.
While I believe that the University should instill all virtues in her students, I would say that moderation is foremost among the virtues that she should inculcate. Indeed, moderation is central to academic inquiry in community. The University is the ideal place for intellectual conversation, and such dialogue only thrives when there is mutual acknowledgment that reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. Yet, moderation is instrumental not only to the academic environment but also to the public sphere as well. And at Princeton, whose informal motto emphasizes the importance of serving the nation, it is doubly important that moderation be developed.
Our nation needs leaders from our generation; some of us Princetonians will likely step up to the plate in the future. But let us do so moderately. And let us practice that virtue here at Old Nassau so that we will be ready someday to lead with grace, dignity, and principled humility.
Thomas Z. Horton