The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' Richard Posner tells NPR that he has "become less conservative since the Republican Party started becoming goofy." An admirable admission, which has received wide coverage of both cold harrumphs and warm embraces, although I suspect its relativity is being misinterpreted.
As Einstein noted (and I'm paraphrasing here): If you're sitting on a train, one perfectly parallel to another train only inches from yours, and thus you can see nothing else but the other train, you have no way of knowing if the motion you're visibly experiencing is that of your train or the other's. Likewise what Judge Posner is saying--I think--is not at all that he has "become less conservative"; only that the pseudoconservative train, carrying its "crowd of lunatics," as Posner put it, has left him at the station.
But of that we can't be sure. Perhaps Judge Posner really has mitigated his conservatism--out of primal doubts.
Every "ism," or ideology, coarsens and mutates into the monstrously unrecognizable. Authentic conservatism contains the seeds of a rigidly stratified class structure which unavoidably will result in the pseudoconservative wealth-concentration of plutocracy; and authentic "participatory" progressivism, taken to its logical end, would result in quite the opposite--the dizzying anarchy of ochlocracy. My own democratic socialism I keep mindfully at bay, since the "ism" itself implies "right thinking"--hence GroupThink--and in due course the democratic half tends to fade into the singular "propriety" of the imposed second half.
Which leaves us with that happiest, most American and least "is"-matic of all isms, pragmatism. Yet even here there's danger in the extremes. For confirmation we need look no farther than Mitt Romney. What Romney practices isn't so much the lunatic pseudoconservatism that's demanded of him, but the bottomless pragmatism of absolutely anything goes, if there's even the slimmest chance it might work. An actual principle here and there? Piss on it--unless of course it translates into 50.1 percent of the vote.
What separates President Obama's pragmatism from Romney's is his distinct, underlying layer of principles. Obama is intellectually capable of combining the two: if, for instance, killing the infamous "public option" meant saving near universal healthcare, then kill it he would; if gutting near universality meant political progress elsewhere, he nonetheless drew the line.
All of which means, I suppose, that intellectual integrity is more essential to virtue than whatever one's high-minded "ism." President Obama and Judge Posner have it; Mitt Romney and Antonin Scalia do not.