In Praise of Moderation Gerry OShea
To convey their distaste for extremist views scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages used a pithy Latin dictum, in medio stat virtus. They hailed the middle or moderate position on various controversial issues as most likely to represent the best and truest option. In today’s parlance, it suggests that virtuous and prudent behavior does not reside at the far edges of the left or the right but somewhere in the middle.
Some readers will remember Senator George McGovern, the Democratic nominee who faced Richard Nixon in 1972. He was a highly-principled and capable leader, but in those tempestuous days when the war in Vietnam dominated political discourse, Senator McGovern was successfully labelled as an extremist by his Republican opponents.
They claimed repeatedly that the senator was outside the mainstream, that he would concede everything to the communists in Hanoi to end the war. The scare tactic worked and he lost to Nixon in every state except Massachusetts.
Never mind that after unproductive negotiations by Nixon and Kissinger with the North Vietnamese, America left Vietnam in March of 1973 with its tail tucked low beneath its legs, defeated and thoroughly demoralized. Two years later with the fall of Saigon, Vietnam was re-united under communist rule.
Jeremy Corbyn provides another example of a leader who was identified not only by his opponents in the Tory party but by most media outlets as a far-left socialist, unworthy of support by sensible Britons.
In the recent election there he argued that the working week should be reduced to four days over the next decade, and he proposed free prescription drugs for all citizens and significant salary increases of around 5% for public servants. To pay for these and other new progressive programs, he set down a number of major tax increases on corporations and on workers earning more than 100,000 pounds sterling annually.
Some of these Labor Party proposals involve radical changes from the status quo in Great Britain but are they really far-out and extreme? I suggest that the answer to that question is a matter of perspective on - as the old saying goes - whose ox is being gored, who is benefiting and who is being left behind.
Corbyn’s main opponent, Boris Johnson, was identified by many commentators as a rather vacuous dilletante who avoided debates and rode along during the campaign on flimsy rhetoric about exiting the EU. However, he won the image battle with Corbyn who was portrayed as representing loony left policies and, consequently, Labor had its worst election since 1935.
The big debate in the Democratic Party centers on how to provide healthcare for every American – a goal that is shared by all sections of the party and, indeed, by a clear majority of voters.
On the one side Senator Elizabeth Warren and her colleague Senator Bernie Sanders argue vehemently that the time has come to replace the hodgepodge of current health coverage in favor of a single-payer medicare-for-all policy, and both senators promise that if elected they will move to implement a comprehensive reform program that will bring everyone into a public healthcare net.
This means that the estimated 150 million Americans with private health policies will have no choice but to join the new government plan.
All of the other candidates seeking the party nomination, led by former Vice-President Joe Biden, disagree strongly with this approach. They argue that expanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, to include a public option is far more practical and doable. The original version of the ACA did include a public option but it didn’t get into the final reading of the bill because of intense lobbying by the insurance companies.
Senator Warren says it is time to be bold and not settle for some half-measure. She points to the upsurge in young voters in the midterm elections when Democrats won forty seats previously held by Republicans as proof that the people want radical new policies in hospital and doctor care.
On the other side, Biden wants to build on Obamacare by adding a public option which would give an important choice to people who are dissatisfied with their present policies. However, unlike the Warren/Sanders proposal, people could hold on to their current plans if that is their preference.
Supporters of the Biden approach worry that ending all private insurance would make it easy for the current incumbent to daub his opponent as an extremist and could very well cost the party the election in 2020.
They also point out that the victories in the 2018 polls were due as much to women voters in the suburbs switching from Trump’s brand of Republicanism, including his stand on eliminating Obamacare and thus the currently mandated coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.
How will these suburban voters react if the official stand of the Democratic Party promises to end their healthcare policies in favor of an unknown government medicare program?
Speaking recently to students at the University of Illinois, President Obama, who is easily the most popular Democrat in the country, pleaded with the young people to get involved, to become agents of change. He pointed to the real progress that America has made since its earliest days. The movements forward from the Civil War to the War on Poverty a hundred years later were painfully slow and clearly a lot still remains to be done.
The former president seemed to be echoing Voltaire’s advice that the perfect is the enemy of the good. He questioned the wisdom of the purists who only want big steps forward; in his opinion legislation that makes life a little bit better, especially for poor and vulnerable people, should be lauded as real progress.
Obama did not decry the importance of idealism and high principle, but he urged his audience to be realistic and to think strategically. He didn’t mention the healthcare debate which can be viewed as a serious intellectual contest between the purists who think that this is the time for the big leap forward while the moderate progressives argue that three quarters of a loaf now is a far better choice.
In medio stat virtus shouldn’t be understood as advocating compromise with evil or an abandonment of sound principles but rather as an acceptance that historically positive progress usually involves baby steps rather than giant strides.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com