The moderate tradition in American politics.
“Ideologues may come and go, but as long as the republic persists, the prevailing tradition trends moderate,” writes Brown (History/Elizabethtown Coll.; Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing, 2009, etc.). In this welcome academic study, Brown—who wrote a biography of Richard Hofstadter, the noted historian who famously traced the paranoid strain in U.S. politics—considers the pragmatic, centrist leaders who have shaped America. From the skeptical New Englander John Adams, who avoided the partisanship of post-Revolution politics, to “consensus-driven realist” Barack Obama, there has always been a moderate style of leadership that “has on occasion proven to be a saving grace of sorts in American politics.” In densely detailed prose, Brown traces the centrist coalitions of various periods, from anti-slavery advocates to patrician-led opponents of political corruption, and examines the actions of their leaders, including Teddy Roosevelt, an honest broker between capital and labor, and Bill Clinton, who claimed “the prevailing middle ground in a post–New Deal, post-Reagan political culture.” The author’s other noted centrists include Abraham Lincoln and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Brown notes that before the Civil War, people expected to compromise on issues. Centrism reached a significant low point with the 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, who deemed moderates timid and indecisive. From our present politically divisive perspective, many of the author’s observations are jolting—e.g., moderate Republicans controlled the GOP from 1936 to 1976, and three generations of the primarily centrist Bush family influenced U.S. politics from 1952 to 2009. Brown quotes former Secretary of State Colin Powell approvingly when he urged his party to “drift a little bit back [to the center]…because that’s where the American people are.”
While mainly for specialists, this provocative and obviously timely analysis is an important reminder of the role that reason and compromise have played in bridging the gap between political extremes.