The conundrum of so-called ‘moderation’

Written of Israeli election results,[1] this should sound familiar:

The most eye-catching projected result is the performance of far-right firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party, which, as part of a bloc of other right-wing parties, secured what may be the third biggest tranche of seats in the Knesset. No matter the steady rightward shift of Israeli politics over the last two decades, Ben-Gvir’s extremism was until not long ago seen as beyond the pale. As my [Ishaan Tharoor’s] colleagues detailed, he has his roots in the overtly racist Kach party, which was founded by radical American Rabbi Meir Kahane and banned by Israel for its racist and violent incitement. Ben-Gvir was once dubbed “the David Duke of Israel” and lionized Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli terrorist who killed 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.[2]

It’s part of a pattern:

The result has been a similar quest for nationalist solutions in country after country, and a growing bond among the far-right autocrats in those places. For example, Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, and Italy’s likely new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, have spoken to acclaim at gatherings of the Conservative Political Action Coalition — a group that has helped propel Trump’s movement in the United States.

“The trend we are seeing reflects a disillusionment around the world that the democratic process fails to produce effective, charismatic leaders,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “In country after country, the idea spreads that we need strong leaders who get things done. And it’s not just in politics: We see the valorization of tech [chief executive officers] like Elon Musk as problem solvers who get the job done.”[3]

The far-right has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream, not only influencing the political center but also entering the arena of power.

“There is a normalization of far-right parties as an integral part of the political landscape,” said Cathrine Thorleifsson, who researches extremism at the University of Oslo. “They have been accepted by the electorate and also by other, conventional parties.”

Cooperation between the center-right and the extreme-right has become less taboo.

“The rise of far-right parties is only part of the story. The facilitating and mainstreaming of far-right parties as well as the adoption of far-right frames and positions by other parties is at least as important,” tweeted Cas Mudde, a leading scholar on the issue.[4]

The politics of moderation and compromise, which I have derided for years, are failing in Israel like they are in other countries, including the U.S.[5]

My own views on actual issues are not substantively unlike those of other scholars in the human and social sciences and are in fact solidly grounded in the work of these fields. While our goals are similar, we often disagree on politics because, like most so-called “moderates,” many scholars enjoy a certain privilege of being able to tolerate the status quo, and so they may therefore embrace “incremental progress” occurring over a period of many decades if not centuries,[6] even on existential issues, like the climate crisis, where solutions are needed on a much shorter timeframe.

These scholars succumb to a notion that compromise is necessary for political progress. As Hillary Clinton said in a 2016 primary debate,

Clinton, of course, went on to win the Democratic Party nomination and lose the general election to Donald Trump. There were a number of issues in that election but, at least for me, and I think for most progressives, the “moderate” Clinton was a creature of a neoconservative “Washington consensus,” that embraces neoliberalism as a moral imperative[7] and therefore is not progressive at all. Increasingly for us, this so-called “compromise” had come to mean an ever rightward shift in Democratic Party politics that has been abeyed but not reversed under Joe Biden.

What we increasingly see around the world with illiberalism, however, is that in the name of “getting things done,” which has come to mean that little to nothing gets done on any reasonable timeframe, moderates have negotiated themselves out of power. In the U.S., I’ve been forced to the conclusion that they even prefer being out of power.[8] And for most people, whether on the left or right, who do not enjoy that privilege of being able to tolerate the status quo, they may resort to ever more extreme positions in an effort to budge the status quo even a little bit, and as those positions are repeated, they seem ever less extreme.

The conundrum of “moderation,” then, is that in failing to address dilemmas that are existential for many people, as the Democrats still do under Biden,[9] so-called “moderates” actually facilitate the rise of extremism.

  1. [1]Michael Bachner, “With 86% of votes tallied, Netanyahu headed for decisive comeback victory,” Times of Israel, November 2, 2022,
  2. [2]Ishaan Tharoor, “After Israel’s election, it’s the Palestinians who need to vote,” Washington Post, November 2, 2022,
  3. [3]Marc Fisher, “Leaders of democracies increasingly echo Putin in authoritarian tilt,” Washington Post, October 16, 2022,
  4. [4]Barbara Moens and Cornelius Hirsch, “How the far-right got out of the doghouse,” Politico, October 3, 2022,
  5. [5]Zack Beauchamp, “Ron DeSantis is following a trail blazed by a Hungarian authoritarian,” Vox, April 28, 2022,; Ishaan Tharoor, “The Orbanization of America: The U.S. right walks in Hungary’s path,” Washington Post, May 17, 2022,; Ishaan Tharoor, “The Orbanization of America: Florida shadows Hungary’s war on LGBTQ rights,” Washington Post, May 18, 2022,; Ishaan Tharoor, “The Orbanization of America: How to capture a democracy,” Washington Post, May 18, 2022,
  6. [6]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Democrats and contradiction,” Not Housebroken, September 2, 2022,
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Democrats and contradiction,” Not Housebroken, September 2, 2022,

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