Democracy and the Golden Mean

A naive visitor arriving in the United States from abroad might conclude from the popular emphasis on “moderation” in contemporary American political discourse that Americans live under a government that represents a moderate theory of the appropriate scope and power of the state and harbors only modest political ambitions.  If he happens to be a very naive and inattentive visitor, he might even persist in this delusion for a full six months or so before enlightenment finally strikes.

The highest approbatory term liberals (a category that nowadays includes most Republicans) can bestow is moderate—as in “moderate Republican.”  No one ever hears of a “moderate Democrat,” since, for the majority of liberals—the liberal community after the radical liberals have been subtracted from it—Democrats are moderates by definition, while their radical brethren are well-meaning, though not always entirely practical, idealists.  While moderate, according to liberal understanding, may in certain contexts be distinguished from left-wing, in other contexts the two words may denote the same enlightened position, as for instance when they are opposed to the term right-wing, with its overtones of “extremism.”  Connoisseurs of contemporary American usage cannot fail to be bemused by the indignation inspired...

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