Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today


The fierce polarization of contemporary politics has encouraged Americans to read back into their nation’s past a perpetual ideological struggle between liberals and conservatives. However, in this timely book, David S. Brown advances an original interpretation that stresses the critical role of moderate statesmen, ideas, and alliances in making our political system work. Beginning with John Adams and including such key figures as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and Bill Clinton, Brown charts the vital if uneven progress of centrism through the centuries. Moderate opposition to both New England and southern secessionists during the early republic and later resistance to industrial oligarchy and the modern Sunbelt right are part of this persuasion’s far-reaching legacy. Time and again moderates, operating under a broad canopy of coalitions, have come together to reshape the nation’s electoral landscape. Today’s bitter partisanship encourages us to deny that such a moderate tradition is part of our historical development--one dating back to the Constitutional Convention. Brown offers a less polemical and far more compelling assessment of our politics.


A sane person … someone whose political beliefs seem quiet and
mild, and as such always ignored by the media, which seeks out people
from the screechy Left and shrill Right because they make for better
sound bites.

—The web-based Urban Dictionary’s definition of “Moderate,” 2003

One could be excused for thinking that moderation has no place in today’s polarized political culture. It has long been fashionable for such periodicals of note as the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post to trumpet some variation of what one Post headline called in 2014, “The End of Moderates.” The presumed historical trajectory that informs these stories dates back to the 1960s when liberal Rockefeller Republicanism began to give way to what would later be called conservative Reagan Republicanism. A half-century on, we remain captive to this clean, neat narrative. For beyond the occasional header, “the end of…” argument has become the dominant paradigm in modern American political thought, embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. Unabashedly presentist, it suggests that moderates make up little more than a faltering wing of the contemporary GOP, as if centrism had no history outside of that party or prior to our times.

One might expect to find richer and more reflective treatments of the country’s moderate persuasion in the scholarly literature, yet on the whole that has not been the case. Although we have several excellent studies that explore moderation in a particular era or context—John Patrick Diggins’s biography of John Adams, Daniel Walker Howe’s study of the American Whigs, and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s recent assessment of the Republican Party since Eisenhower are examples of the genre—we lack a synthetic treatment of centrism as a vital and inclusive tradition reaching back to the nation’s eighteenth-century partisan roots. As a result, much of the historiography relegates moderates to mere factions within parties and thus lacking a cohesive identity or “largeness” of purpose.

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