- Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today by David S. Brown
David S. Brown must have either the soul of a contrarian or the courage of a lion. At a time when politics in the United States has become tribal and Americans have become so polarized and partisan that Democrats and Republicans not only have different political values but also may be less likely to marry or be friends, Brown wants to rehabilitate centrism as a "vital and inclusive tradition" (p. 1). He argues that there is a "distinctively moderate leadership line" that stretches from John Adams to Barack Obama and suggests that "there is good reason to believe that America is in the midst of a moderate era" (p. 267).
Brown believes moderates have been denied the credit that they deserve. Moderates are not opportunists who lack convictions, he argues, but men of principle and profiles in courage who buck party loyalty and ideological orthodoxy. They are pragmatists who can find common ground amid factional and partisan conflict and often do so at great risk to their political careers. The center is defined by the polarities that these bold moderates have to navigate. For instance, according to Brown, John Adams steered a course "between Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism," John Quincy Adams "between Jacksonianism and Cotton Whiggery," Abraham Lincoln between abolitionists and states' rights advocates, Henry Adams between robber barons and radicals, Theodore Roosevelt between Mugwump reformers and corporate capitalists, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. between New Deal Democrats and Republican traditionalists (p. 111). Furthermore, three generations of the Bush family leaned against the rightward drift of the contemporary Republican Party, and the last three Democratic presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—leaned against the leftward pull of their party. Brown argues that the virtues of "'inspired moderation'" as exemplified by these visionaries have existed since the Constitutional Convention and have served us well ever since (p. 4). [End Page 147]
Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today is learned, well written, and panoramic, stretching from John Adams's through Barack Obama's presidencies. But the portraits in Part 1, "Patriot Kings," which covers John Adams, George Cabot, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln, are much more detailed and sophisticated than Brown's descriptions of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama in Part 3, "Pragmatists." This last section feels forced and rushed. Three chapters are devoted to John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Adams, while the author's analysis of the last three Democratic presidents is condensed into a single thirty-page chapter. Part 2, "Progressives," which focuses on Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, occupies the center in terms of quality between the most and least satisfying sections of the book.
Moderates is refreshing in that it reminds us that the center is not simply home to opportunists without principles or careerists who blow in the direction of the wind. Compromise sometimes requires political creativity and a dialectical ability to see a new synthesis. It can also require political courage for politicians to stake out lonely positions against party orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to distinguish conviction from expediency. For example, was Clinton's so-called New Covenant a novel, daring synthesis or simply Republicanism with a Democratic accent? Brown is willing to give many in his pantheon of moderates the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, it is not clear that the vital center has had much coherence through time, as moderates from different eras do not seem to share common principles. Finally, the vital center may serve as a valued keel in American politics that stabilizes the ship of the state, but it continues to be defined not by its own principles but by more powerful forces above deck that propel and steer the ship.