“For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.
The mark of a moderate man
Is freedom from his own ideas.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
When Hillary Clinton selected Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016, he made his public debut on Meet the Press. One of the first non-questions he was asked by David Gregory was “Some people worry that you’re ‘too boring.’” Kaine replied—with wide-eyed enthusiasm, ironically—“Yes, I’m boring!” Donald Trump was many things. Boring was not one of them.
Ever since JFK, boring has not played well in American politics, but Trump represented the near total fusion of politics and entertainment. Amid the carnage of his presidency compounded by the chaos of the pandemic, many Americans had a moment of clarity: desperate for deliverance from the unbearable volatility of Trump’s America, they pulled a George Costanza, and “did the opposite.” They traded the tantrums of Trump for the boredom of Biden. There is arguably no virtue in which Trump is more lacking—and which Biden has more of in spades—than moderation. He is precisely how Plato described the tyrant: ruled by lawless appetites and utterly lacking in self-control.
An excess of moderation is what his monkish, seven-almond-eating former boss, President Obama, was criticized for. But as Aristotle would point out, you cannot have too much of a virtue, since a virtue is precisely a mean between two extremes. Obama did not have too much moderation, but not enough courage and, despite his formidable intelligence, not enough wisdom. As Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Wilde was likely talking about the need to go on a bender every now and then (or more often than that), but another way to understand his aphorism is that moderation and boldness are not mutually exclusive. Moderation does not mean constant caution or risk-aversion. For Plato, the cardinal virtues work together—the truly moderate person is just, wise, brave, and moderate. That means that in a desperate time, the moderate man is willing to take desperate measures, and because he has “freedom from his own ideas,” he will know when that time has arrived. He will throw caution to the wind when the wind threatens to tear his house apart. He will abandon “bipartisanship” when one party is acting in bad faith. He will know when to distrust his own inclination to play to the middle, seek consensus, and find common ground. He will know when to go big, and how big to go.
Because he is believed to be boring—because he is moderate—he can do big things.
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