Untangling modern partisanship is a thankless job, and yet one that may become more necessary as tempers rise, mandates proliferate, and a sense of drift from our constitutional moorings continues. Moderation and principled thinking are compatible. We need a deep breath.
The argument: Principled, historically grounded, factually accurate leadership, however, applied, requires a degree of moderation.
Put differently, openness in conversation, respect for differing opinions is essential for distilling truth – and distilling truth is vital for a republic’s preservation.
Two reasons explain why we do not have good conversations these days. One is that some think truth does not matter. The other is that impatience overwhelms us.
So, here is the rub. Far too many times, we think respect by others for our views is out of reach. We give up before we begin, avoiding a conversation sure to fail.
Sadly, we are not always wrong. Given public discontent, disinformation, and raw nerves, we often walk in a jungle full of mutual recrimination, coiled to pounce. Too often, we encounter what we expect; and worse, some bad actors want this.
So, what is happening? Three things.
First, many Americans are irked by what they hear, grow disaffected, and recoil. Second, many stumble into conversation, only to hear things they do not want to hear – and snapback, fulfilling their own prophesy, eliciting an excited reaction.
Third – no matter where you are in this process – you can lose faith in it. This is the beginning of wisdom – or rejecting that conclusion is. Some caves are tunnels.
Failure to see the light at the end of the tunnel is part of why public dialogue is a mess. Some do not want to find truth, while others have lost faith in finding it. Yet, our Republic’s future depends on us having faith in the process and in finding truth.
In effect, we have grown tired of distilling truth from differences until, at last, we hold the gem in hand, too labor-intensive. It might have worked for the Founders, even post-Civil War, post-Depression, post-crises, but not in our time.
Wrong. That view breaks faith with those who got us here. They differed violently but then figured out how to “spin down” after they got “spun up.” They had to relearn patience, to recognize they had the power – in each generation.
In practical terms, as one party’s adherents cancel, chide, default to calling the other a “cult,” we break with our past. We break the system of recovery, break laws in the name of justice, fail each other.
This is what needs to stop. It is also what our Founders feared most – that our worst instincts would overwhelm our better ones. Washington was deeply concerned about this kind of runaway temperament, one that subverted common cause for emotion and power. Much could be said, but a few lines explain.
Whatever your views, they got there from persuasion, listening, reading, living, learning, being you over a lifetime. What our Founders put in motion allowed that.
What did they say, warning us of today? Washington was a believer that stability required balancing “firmness” with “prudence” and “conciliation.” As none among us is God, we must approach things with conviction and humility.
Not all do, but we must – and in that way teach. Washington modeled that behavior, which is why he was universally respected – and not just on the battlefield. As John Adams noted, “He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew.” All this is hard.
A sustainable society ebbs and flows with preferences, but within constitutional parameters, only by a “spirit of moderation,” wrote Hamilton, not an “intolerant spirit … ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”
For honor, he and his son died at the hands of those who disagreed, but the legacy he left was one of sober reflection on unity, liberty, and the “spirit of moderation.”
John Adams, like George Mason, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe, understood mankind is subject to error, inducement, ambition, avarice.
Still, these Founders were all optimists – as they would never have staked all on ideas in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and – remarkably – faith in us.
Wrote Adams, the political realist, “without the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation … every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” That is why an appeal to our better selves is part of the constitutional understanding. A degree of maturity, morality, and concern for the future – as well as respect for the nation’s past and each other – was expected.
One other thing. They all imagined that we understood that pursuing truth mattered and was only possible collegially. They thought we would understand the obligation of inquiry, persuasion, and need to untangle partisanship to find truth.
In short, principled, historically grounded, factually accurate leadership demands moderation. It still does, and all the constitutionalists among us know it and must promote it. Our Founders would expect that of us, as it is what they did.