(From The Best of Human Events: Fifty Years of Conservative Thought and Action, edited by James C. Roberts, 1995. Reprinted with permission of Huntington House Publishers. Originally published in the March 24, 1956 issue of Human Events)
When you drive your car, do you drive in the middle of the road? This seems a silly question to ask because you don't, of course, if you want to stay alive and get somewhere.
But a lot of people have been sold on the idea that the middle of the road is the safest place in politics and on all sorts of controversial questions. They have been led to believe that in the middle position you are out of harm's way and you are more likely to be right than those who are on either side of a question. A little thought will show that this idea is born not of wisdom but of confusion or fear or both.
Properly speaking, middle-of-the-roadism is not a political philosophy at all. It is rather the absence of a philosophy or an attempt to evade having a philosophy. All great movements in the past have grown out of and have depended upon some self-consistent view of man and society. They have presented a program embodying clear principles, and people have gotten behind the movements because they wanted the principles to triumph. In no case did they labor and fight to see the principles bartered away for a few concessions by the opposition. The great sacrifices of history have not been inspired by political trimming and unmanly compromise. Try imagining the figure that Washington would cut in history today if he had decided on a compromise settlement with the British.
Middle-of-the-road politics have a false attraction for some people because they keep them from having to think a position through. All they have to do is borrow a little from the parties on either side of them, add this up, and tell themselves that this is the "sound" position. But a position halfway between right and wrong is not a sound position. It only postpones and makes more difficult the eventual decision. And there are different views of man's destiny which can never be compatible.
Middle-of-the-roadism is seldom anything more than shortsightedness. It is not an insight into political matters because it is wholly dependent upon what other parties say, or stand for. It takes its bearing from them. And far from being safe, it is just the spot to catch brickbats from both sides.
When you ask people why they have adopted a middle-of-the-road position, you nearly always discover that they fall into these two groups. The first group has been deceived into believing, as we have just noted, that you find the right by averaging right and wrong. If this were true, there would never be any use for intelligence and moral conviction.
The second group is usually fearful of taking a position which an enemy might characterize as "extreme" in spite of the fact that many ideas are attacked as extreme for no other reason than that they express clear-cut principles. Nearly all advocates of principles have been attacked at one time or another as "extremists." But if the principles were sound, the leaders generally prevailed. It does take some intestinal fortitude to champion an idea that has powerful enemies. But people who are frightened by this kind of criticism are usually afraid to stand up for any principle.
There is a third group of middle-of-the-roaders which is even less admirable than these two. These are the opportunists, the believers in pure expediency, who think that the best chance is to take a middle position and play off both sides against each other. Then while the parties on either side are fighting they try to run off with the bacon. These are the ones who believe that you cannot really stand for something and win an election. They are generally afraid of all ideas because their sole object is to get into office. They are politicians in the worse sense of the word. Everybody recognizes this type of political "leader."
History, however, shows that they are dead wrong even about the matter of winning. Occasionally dodging about in the middle of the road does lead to a temporary victory. But these are fleeting successes for the simple reason that you can't fool all of the people all the time. In their hearts people despise a trimmer and, as soon as they find him out, they leave him. The great causes that have triumphed and the leaders who have led them have never been found in the middle of the road. They have set their course by some ideal and have resisted all temptations, which have sometimes been many, to come halfway to the other side. And the parties that have played the game of compromise on vital issues have seen their glory and their power vanish. For proof of this, let's go to history.
A century ago this country had an important and powerful party called the Whigs. Its leader was the attractive Henry Clay and he had support from the best elements in all parts of the country. But his party made the fatal mistake of trying to straddle the fence on major issues. As a result, it was not Clay, "the Great Compromiser," who went to the White House, but the hard-hitting Andrew Jackson. By 1856 the Whig Party was dead. Stephen A. Douglas tried the same trick, looking for the middle of the road between issues that were in direct conflict. He lost to Abraham Lincoln, who had taken a definite stand on one side. Even when the Democratic Party has won, on issues that many do not approve of, it has done so in taking a decisive stand for something. Better an opponent whose position you are certain of than a supposed friend whose only interest is in dodging the crucial issues. Such has generally been the judgment of the American voters on those who were merely looking for the line of least resistance.
So much for the claim that the middle of the road is the path to success. Dodging issues and watering down solutions is not merely the way to failure; it is the way to extinction.
All great political parties owe their vitality to the importance of the things they stand for. And this is never truer than in periods of defeat which, in the normal alteration of political circumstances, must sometimes occur. A beaten party with a real issue has an excellent chance of coming back. A beaten party without an issue is a dead duck. And those parties which have tied their fortunes to some personality who happens to excite the masses are only setting a term to their effectiveness. When he goes, as he must, the wind is out of their sails. These considerations have a melancholy bearing upon the situation in our country today. There is one group, not clearly distinguished by a party name, but quite definite about what it wants and expects to bring about in this nation. Most accurately speaking, it is a party of collectivism. It works on various fronts and under various labels, but there need be no confusion about its objectives. It wants an America, new-modeled according to the Soviet Union.
There are two ideas in the philosophy of collectivism of which every American ought to be aware. One of them is a thoroughgoing materialism, which insists that man is merely a natural animal, which repudiates religion and all belief in the Divine Providence, and which maintains that happiness is purely a matter of gratifying this animal's appetites. The other idea is that the state is supreme and the individual nothing, that society should be managed down to the smallest details by a centralized authority, and that there is no higher power no human tradition, no conscience, no precept of religion by which this control can be criticized. An all-powerful state, designed along engineering lines to satisfy the physical wants of the masses, is their aim and goal, although often it is their method to admit only part of it at a time. In the writings of their prophets, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, however, it is revealed without any squeamishness.
There is a great segment of our population to the right of collectivism and morally committed to fight it. Strange as it may sound, however, a good many of its leaders have adopted the policy of appeasement. Instead of issuing a direct challenge, in terms of principle, they have tried to see how many concessions they could make without being accused of surrender. They have tried to see how closely they could approach the position of collectivism while still paying lip service to what they are supposed to be defending.
Logic and duty call for them to stand up for their side, not to fight the battle by retreating from it. They have sought a middle-of-the-road position between a militant collectivism and our tradition of freedom and individualism. Historical examples show that the next step is capitulation, or liquidation of the party which is so cowardly.
If this should come about, it will certainly be recorded by history that no people ever gave up so much for so little. We possess a great, beautiful, inspiring country. In our comparatively brief history we have created some traditions that any people would be proud to sustain; we have borne leaders and heroes to match those out of Plutarch; we have accomplished many things which by previous standards were thought impossible. We have combined equality with a method of rewarding success and distinction which has no parallel in history in its ability to produce social satisfaction and incentive to achievement.
Best of all, we have created a spirit of kindness and helpfulness which mitigates the lot of life's failures without trying absurdly to place them in the driver's seat. Every candid foreign observer is struck by this, and we feel intuitively that it is a very American thing. "Nowhere is cruelty more abhorred," Lord Bryce wrote admiringly of the America he saw. Now it is proposed to exchange this for the regimentation, the directives, the penalties, perhaps even the forced labor camps and executions of an alien and inhuman philosophy.
There is little doubt that the middle of the road today leads in this direction. The radicals know what they want; too many of the rest of us only temporize and hope.
Already a good many people are behaving as if their conscience hurt them over being American, so they give a little here and a little there in the hope of not being too offensive to the truculent enemy.
This is the reason that even the election of 1952 did not halt creeping socialism. Because no influential leader drew the line in terms of clear principle, the immense bureaucracy of the New Deal was allowed to consolidate itself further. This and that clamorous group has been able to extort state aid according to New Deal methods. All candid observers realize that the trend toward statism has not yet been reversed.
The need of the time is for a leadership willing to face the facts. Complacency toward what is happening is a betrayal of the America we have inherited. The kind of leader that people are willing to stay with, and to sacrifice personally for, is the kind that says, "I'm going to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." Wavering and self-defeat through compromise where vital points are at stake never yet held a following. To win this struggle we have got to get on the right side of the road and keep it with resolution.
- Richard M. Weaver
Richard M. Weaver was the author of the well-known book, Ideas Have Consequences. He was Professor English at the University of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the Foundation For American Principles and Traditions.