The predominant passion of all men in power,” wrote John Adams in 1787, “whether kings, nobles, or plebeians, is the same; that tyranny will be the effect, whoever are the governors…if uncontrolled by equal laws, made by common consent, and supported, protected, and enforced by three different orders of men in equilibrio.”
David S. Brown—in a new history of America’s “vital center”—thinks Adams is right: Tyranny is around the bend whenever a political system strays far from moderation. Far from serving as transitory players in factional struggles, or as foils for the ideologues who shaped history, those who have constituted the political center represent their own distinct political tradition. They have not only, Brown argues, “constituted a separate force in American politics,” but also “one that continues to inform and give substance to our ideological choices.”
Brown—the author of a biography of Richard Hofstadter—defines his moderate tradition in a distinct way: His vital centrists do not just seek the space between right and left, but also elevate politics above the interests of any single faction or group. Brown’s exemplars aren’t just squishes who split the difference. At their best, they’re swashbuckling pragmatists cutting through extremists’ cant, and in pursuit of America’s national interest.
Yet precisely because moderates see the dangers of a society that tips too far in any direction, moderation must assume a mask of tragedy. When confronted with the plural interests and freewheeling populism of mass democracy, moderates find that their vision of faction-less politics breaks down, and they face a choice: If they harness public opinion in service to the common good, they risk demagogy. If they reject popular politics altogether, they retreat into a curdled elitism. If they set the interests of one group over another, they flirt with the very politics they seek to oppose. In the central paradox of Brown’s book, moderates offer a modernizing politics, but they’re less sure about modernity. And so the story of America’s vital center is, in Brown’s telling, all at once a celebration of meliorist politics and a narrative of decline and fall.
Brown makes his case for the moderate tradition inductively. Rather than defend it from first principles, or trace centrist voters over time, he focuses on the politicians: in particular, six “moderate coalitions”: the Federalists in the Adams mold; the Democratic-Republicans in the Era of Good Feelings; early free-labor Republicans before the Civil War; reform-minded Republicans during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era; moderate GOP-ers from Wendell Willkie to Gerald Ford; and, a final twist, Democrats in the age of Obama—who, by Brown’s lights, also fall squarely within the Adams tradition of moderation. To tell this story, Brown strings together lively capsule portraits of John Adams, George Cabot, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., before shifting to the two Bushes and the vital centrism of today’s Democrats.