Saturday, January 16, 2010

Moderation, once a virtue, now a dirty word in politics.

Hi everyone,

So, my editor apparently thought it'd be a good idea to top the column with a headline that contradicts everything I say in the column -- about Senator Feingold being the best example of the virtue of 'moderation'.

They did the same thing with a provocative front page headline last week about abstinence and sexual fantasy so, it's nice to be reminded that the opinion page's true function is to sell papers. -- more of which, next week.

In the meantime, what I'd hoped to note in this column was that political moderation is no longer popular but that it remains a virtue, well demonstrated by our own Russ Feingold.

He said.

Anyway, here's what the paper ran:

Feingold, the moderate

Push aside ethics and you’re left with politics [<- editor's contribution]

Lately I’ve been wondering whatever happened to political moderates and why being a moderate in politics is almost a dirty word. Aristotle argued that moderation is the key to virtue. Moderation encourages you to follow the middle path between extremes in order to live happily. History agrees with him. (The fancy technical term for moderation, by the way, actually showed up in the championship round of last years National Spelling Bee: it’s sophrosyne.)

Wisconsin’s tradition of progressive thinking embodies this virtue: It’s a healthy blend of fiscally conservative and socially liberal – it nails the mean between these two extremes and takes the best of both. Sen. Proxmire was a great example of this tradition: so is Sen. Feingold.

I’ve been watching along with everyone else as Congress gets ready to give away more of our money to giant agribusinesses that threaten family-sized Wisconsin farms, to Wall Street CEOs who will spend it on pheasant hunting and yachting, and to the health-care potentates who are, apparently, in bed with the leadership of both parties.

Mapping the corn maze of hidden costs by which taxpayers subsidize the food industry – mainly through massive subsidies for corn production – led me to Sen. Feingold’s Control Spending Now Act, designed to reduce the deficit by $500 billion over the next 10 years. I thought it looked like a great idea. Go Russ.

But I noticed that Sen. Feingold had to cope with some well-organized disruption during his listening session at Milwaukee Area Technical College this month. The conservative blogosphere complained that Feingold refused to listen to their grumbling about health care or about his support of Louis Butler for a federal court appointment. Frankly, the transcripts I’ve read tell a different story, but I find this complaint particularly ironic since Sen. Feingold continues to visit each county in this state every single year.

These complaints also manage to overlook the fact that he consistently embodies the virtues of our progressive Wisconsin tradition. Famously, he warned against the negative effects of NAFTA and was the only member of the Senate, apparently, who bothered to read the Patriot Act before, in an act of courage I can still barely fathom, standing up to cast the only vote against it. He doesn’t think government should legislate morality.

He voted against the initial Wall Street bailout, against the additional $350 billion in bailouts requested by the current administration and even against last year’s Omnibus Appropriations bill which had $7.7 billion tucked away inside more than 8,500 earmarks. He’s been pushing to bring back pay-as-you-go budgeting (which worked well enough, even during the testy Clinton-Gingrich era, to put the US budget into the black), and continues to refuse to accept increases to his Senate salary; the money goes back to the Treasury.

He routinely works with his Republican colleagues. He and Congressman Paul Ryan are introducing a “Janesville Line-Item Veto” that would let the president block earmarks and, of course, he continues to work with John McCain on both campaign finance reform and ending unauthorized earmarks. Doing what makes sense by avoiding the extremes defines a virtuous performance of ones duty so, go Russ.

The Tea Drinkers who disrupted Feingold’s listening session are unhappy not because he wasn’t listening to them, but because he disagrees with them. I’m still left confused by this since even the most knee-jerk Washington and Ozaukee county conservatives should be happy that the Concord Coalition put him on its “Honor Roll” for fighting government waste, or that Taxpayers for Common Sense named him their top “Taxpayer Guardian” in the Senate, or that he’s been recognized by the famously not-Democratic-Party-endorsing Club for Growth for his effort to curb wasteful government spending.

So, what’s gone so wrong that moderation has become a dirty word?

At the end of his book on ethics, Aristotle comes to the tragic conclusion that because morality requires rationality, and because “those who are governed by their passions are not amenable to reason” – which, alas, includes most of us – ethics probably won’t work most of the time. Instead of ethics, he sighs, we’ll have to make due with politics. He’s probably right.

When you reason carefully and support positions that aim for the mean between extremes, you can figure out what the real questions, and sometimes even the real answers, are – and nobody in politics wants that.



Kevin Scheunemann said...

Are you implying Feingold is a moderate?

That's hilarious.

What's next? Bill Clinton as an example of marital fidelity?

Mpeterson said...

What's ironic to me is that if you look at his actual record, Feingold is more fiscally conservative than Reagan was... or most any Republican in the past 30 years.

As for what 'moderate' means in this context, you really need to read the material you comment on before you comment on it.

DanBack said...

Call it the Belling-effect? If you are not 100% in line with his views you are a bleeding heart liberal who wants to spend $89 billion on a choo-choo train from Racine to Oak Creek with a special car that performs taxpayer funded, no questions asked abortions on demand. Most listeners don't care enough/are unable to do any research on their own and over time anyone with a D next to their name becomes "amoral and anti-God ", to quote our local crazy Mary W.

Anonymous said...

I thought Newt Gingrich was the GOP's example of marital fidelity, until he tossed aside his sick wife for a secretary. I read if one wants to move up in his entourage, feminine lip-service goes a long way, and it doesn't make babies. Maybe Limbaugh's or Bill O'Reilly or Sen. Larry Craig or Mark Foley or Ted Haggard or Larry Craig or Bob Allen or Glenn Murphy Jr. or...

zulfiya77 said...

Damn the facts? Great article! Feingold (and Sessenbrenner) assisted me in acquiring my wife's VISA to come to the U.S.

Mpeterson said...

Anonymous... yep: his sick with cancer wife.

But in a country with a 50%+ divorce rate, I don't worry so much about their fidelity to their spouses as their fidelity to the tax payer. If they can do math and put public money to work for the public, then it doesn't bother me.

The hypocrisy is always an issue, but nobody is perfect.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


(Health care excepted)

The word you are looking for is "Libertarian". not "moderate".

A "libertarian" is fiscally conservative and socially liberal...hardly a "moderate" personality.

I'm not complaining about Russ being responsible from a fiscal standpoint. I'm complaining that you are using an inarticulate term to describe Russ if you are making the claim he's fiscally conservative!

Mpeterson said...

Huh... well, you hang out and support the views of Christian Fundamentalists who want to bend the US Constitution into a theocracy, so I'm confused by your new definition of libertarian -- unless maybe you aren't a libertarian anymore.

As for "moderate," since I went to some length to note that it's the word used for the Greek term sophrosyne, and that the traditional meaning of the term does precisely what I said it does.

Russ is fairly fiscally conservative, it's just that he's fiscally conservative in the long term -- what I'd call a true conservative -- rather in the short term -- what I'd call a Reagan Republican.

Grant said...

Hmmm. I actually have to agree with Kevin here. Kinda sorta.

I can definitely see Feingold as exemplar of Aristotelean virtue, "avoiding what is too much and what is too little."

But doesn't this also carry an implication that he's on a continuum with the teabaggers: drinking the same neorandian kool-aid, just in measured amounts?

I wonder if we're really talking about fundamentally different and incommensurable political paradigms.

Mpeterson said...

When Kevin speaks directly, and not in the cats cradle macrame he likes to perform on the language in order to amuse himself, he does make a certain about of sense... the nice thing about libertarians is that they usually have real arguments. While their logic is usually great, their grounding axioms are problematic. :^)

-- assuming Kevin is still actually a libertarian, that is. I notice he's been ducking that question on here although, if you Google him, the Libertarian Party thinks he's their man in Kewaskum.

Anyway, since you mention it Grant, I agree with you. The paradigms are incommensurable... I think it's because we don't have any real political paradigms anymore, no more real political principles governing actions and deliberation... what I think we've had for some years is simply good or bad marketing. I'm fond of saying that people don't really even have values anymore; they simply have tastes in things. You can see this in areas like the abortion debate or health care debate or, closer to home, that nonsense coming from our fundamentalist neighbors about abstinence based education... no one is actually interested in either deeper ideas or in the actual data -- all that stuff spoils the opportunity for self-righteous anger, or what they used to call "wrath" (the anger you like).

There's a long trail of bread crumbs you can follow that shows Aristotle's infinitely reasonable (and common sensible) view being sidelined over the years, mainly by Christianity's need for a black and white worldview.

I think Feingold easily embodies the old virtue (or "arete" =df: excellence, skill, virtuosity) of moderation.

Here's a nice little account: The mean in Aristotle.

Grant said...

Perhaps a pride/humility continuum would work. Libertarians think of themselves as Howard Roark, indebted to no one, particularly those they consider inferior, for their own success. A communitarian at the most extreme attributes virtually nothing to individual effort. The polarity kind of flips on the ethical axis, with communal, "traditional" religiosity on one end and Sex Pistol libertines on the other.

I think Feingold definitely hits the center of that dartboard.

Mpeterson said...

Grant, that sounds right to me.

The problem with the libertarian world view is that they tend to believe they're here alone... and sometimes they tweak in to Adam Smith's greyhound metaphor about pursuing one's own interest only looks like a joint effort (while forgetting, of course, that dogs are pack animals and, a bit worse for their case, that humans aren't dogs).

Kevin Scheunemannn said...

So one cannot be "Libertarian" and stick up for religious speech in the public square?

Hmmmmm.....when did Libertarian mean advocacy of stomping every last vestige of religion from the public square?

(I missed that at the local liberal conspiracy meeting.)

You googled me? I'm humbled that anyone would go through that much trouble to look me up.

I'm very fiscally conservative, I support Glen Grothman's position on medical marijuana, tend not to check my blog spelling, like religious speech as much as non religious speech, vote against every ridiculous regulation I see, don't like arresting people for victimless crimes, and like to tilt local philosophy professors into a minor twist and I Libertarian?

Sounds like a good reality TV show.

Mpeterson said...

grin, I think your politics would make a great reality TV show.

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that Kevin sees using Google as "going through that much trouble" should really concern citizens of Kewaskum.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


That was funny.

No one really has to look me up on google. If they ask, I'm honest about what I voted for in the past, where I stand, and really enjoy a good political debate.

What I'm saying is: google is not neccessary to find my libertarian leanings, just come ask me.

The biggest issue on Kewaskum residents mind these days is the doubling of their water bill (which I consistently opposed) from crazy, radical left wing DNR mandates that just keep on coming with no rational cost/benefit analysis!

The crazy, unchecked, dictatorial power of the DNR is on everyone's mind in Kewaskum!