A frequent refrain of American political discourse is that “we have become terribly polarized,” and that radicals on both the right and the left have pushed people towards the extremes of our political spectrum, opening an ideological void that prevents any common ground. At the same time, another frequent refrain is that our political crisis extends from the fact that the two ruling parties of our establishment—the Democrats and the Republicans—are practically indistinguishable in that both are willing to compromise their core beliefs to maintain their own power. This is an interesting paradox of our time.
Centrism is an urgent concern because the dignified image of the centrist—relentlessly venerated by the mainstream media—ultimately incentivizes more centrism.
These two narratives (our dangerous polarization, on the one hand, and the lack of any meaningful philosophical difference on the other) have one thing in common: they represent a consensus that America is, in fact, in crisis. Both accounts are explanations of how we arrived at our current state of dysfunction, a situation where a nation cut in half takes turns questioning the very legitimacy of the American regime. And yet, the high stakes and the urgency of the moment have not saved us from one of the most obnoxious political types of the ages: the self-professed centrist.
Some contemporary names that we might place in this category are “Republican” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, commentator David French, and Bill Kristol, former editor of the thankfully defunct Weekly Standard. The American centrist is a problem today for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that centrists routinely deny the existence of a crisis. Centrists also wield considerable influence in the public sphere, an influence that might actually undermine the ability of the nation to weather this crisis, which likely cannot be resolved through half-measures and well-intentioned efforts at “compromise”—the centrist’s favored forms of political action.
Centrism is an urgent concern because the dignified image of the centrist—relentlessly venerated by the mainstream media—ultimately incentivizes more centrism. One way to mitigate this incentive is to re-characterize the centrist type and give a more honest description of his motives and his ethos—one that dispenses with the flatteries of the institutional elite. A character study of the centrist type is in order.
THE IDENTITY-CENTRIST AND THE DISPOSITIONAL CENTRIST: TWO TYPES
First, it is important to concede that some people do, in fact, have a natural tendency toward a politics of moderation. That kind of centrist is mostly useless in our current situation and can only serve a mediating role between factionalists on the right and left, helping them cobble together some slipshod “compromise” which will ultimately please only the other mostly useless centrists (Obamacare is a prime example). This “dispositional centrist” can be a problem in his own right, but my primary target is another sort of centrist. People in this second sub-species of centrism may also possess a natural tendency towards moderation, but they go a few steps further: they advance “centrism” as a moral position, and they turn this moralism into a personal identity.
The centrist’s posture of neutrality assures the left elite that he will not offer material assistance to those on the right who challenge their hegemony.
“Identity-centrism” can be hard to recognize in the wild. In fact, the identity-centrist might not actually use the term “centrist.” He might say he is a “moderate.” He might say things like, “I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” Don’t be fooled. These are just code for identity-centrism, and they conceal why this type of centrist is a threat. He is dangerous in part because he is almost never actually a centrist: generally, you can bet that the guy who calls himself a “centrist” votes for Democrats 9 times out of 10. The “centrist” simply likes the implications of the term—he likes how it feels. But the centrist won’t admit this to himself; in his mind, he is steadfastly “neutral,” and he will often remind you of this.
For these reasons, the identity-centrist is worse than the dispositional type. Whereas the latter is only mostly useless, the former is a politically impotent and a useful idiot, and he is rewarded and valorized for this by our institutions. After all, his “centrism” ensures that he poses no meaningful threat to the power monopoly that the left currently enjoys. The centrist’s posture of neutrality assures the left elite that he will not offer material assistance to those on the right who challenge their hegemony. This is why left elites in media, academia, and politics glorify the identity-centrist: consider the many friendly profiles of Chief Justice John Roberts, the chief saboteur of conservative jurisprudential prospects. Another example would be the valorization of Rep. Jeff Flake, the “Republican” who assisted the left’s attempt to poison the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh. The media glorifies centrists because doing so creates more centrists, which undermines the efforts of dissidents and thus strengthens the left establishment’s hold on institutional power.
Below, I describe four of the most essential characteristics of the centrist type, characteristics that create an image that is starkly at odds with the hagiography of centrists in media discourse.
RISK AVERSION AND THE IDENTITY-CENTRIST
The overriding quality of the identity-centrist is that he is conflict and risk-averse. This is why he will not even concede that there is any meaningful battle unfolding between the left and the right. Consider Kyle Smith, a fellow at the National Review Institute who routinely reminds everyone that everything is fine. To acknowledge the conflict and its urgency would require the centrist to take a firm position, to cast his lot—an acceptance of risk, and thus, something that he cannot do. Instead, he will maintain that the stakes of this conflict are wildly overblown, that it is simply driven by “radicals” and “extremists” at the very ends of the political spectrum, one on which he situates himself precisely in the middle. He will further insist that he senses no real instability in the American order. And he will claim that the conflict is just an illusory production of a mainstream media desperate for ratings.
While it is true that the media amplifies and distorts conflict in today’s political climate, the fact that the nation is in crisis does have a reality outside media discourse.
Consider the crisis at our southern border (one of many fronts in the larger crisis in which America is embroiled). Famed “moderate” Joe Scarborough used his show on MSNBC to ask, “How stupid are Americans who still believe there is a crisis on the southern border?” The opinion page of the oh-so-neutral New York Times ran a piece headlined “Trump Dreams Up Another Immigrant Crisis.” As these examples show, the media plays a critical role in spreading this sort of centrist denialism.
While it is true that the media amplifies and distorts conflict in today’s political climate, the fact that the nation is in crisis does have a reality outside media discourse. A week spent anywhere outside the eastern power corridor (whether it is in northern Montana, the Texas borderlands, Wisconsin, or the Florida panhandle) would surely demonstrate this. But most identity-centrists eschew such cultural backwaters—how else can they stay blind to what most Americans recognize at their core? Ultimately, the identity-centrist must deny the conflict so he can justify his non-participation. Because he is unable to admit to himself that his own disdain for conflict is the actual cause of his non-participation, he convinces himself that no conflict exists and that those who feel otherwise and take a stand are merely pawns of a media game.
INTELLIGENCE, VANITY, AND THE IDENTITY-CENTRIST
There are a host of other reasons for the identity-centrist’s refusal to take a side and make a stand. In the institutional flattery of the centrist, a common theme is that centrism is intelligent and reasonable. It would seem, then, that intellectual vanity is characteristic of the centrist type.
There is some evidence that suggests centrists tend to be of above-average intelligence, and most smart people want others to recognize their intellect. One way to do this is through rhetorical contestation: showing others the superiority of your own ideas and beliefs in the context of debate and argument. Unfortunately, the centrist’s aversion to conflict rules out this method of demonstrating his intellect. But the perceived link between “moderation,” reason, and wisdom provides another way to scratch this itch. By openly identifying as a moderate, the identity-centrist subtly lays claim to rationality and wisdom as his personality traits.
Half-assed approaches to problem-solving rarely solve large-scale social problems: in the best cases, such interventions merely mitigate the problem, and in the worst cases, they exacerbate it.
Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that this association between moderation and reason is a fallacy. There is no evidence that the “moderate” solution to any given problem will necessarily be better than any other solution—it may, in fact, be worse! Consider the Obama administration’s decision to add 30,000 troops to stabilize the war in Afghanistan. This number was chosen because it was in the middle of the highest and lowest estimates that the generals said the task would require. It is now clear that the “moderate” approach didn’t do the trick. Of course, “stabilizing” a war zone would seem to be a fool’s errand, anyway. The “catch and release” policy that supposedly addresses the illegal immigration crisis provides another example. This policy (favored by the Obama administration and now resumed under Biden) cites people who are found to be in the country illegally, then releases them with a summons to a court hearing that will determine their fate. It should surprise no one that very few of those cited show up for these hearings. This is another arguably “moderate” approach, one that acknowledges the law but stops short of enforcing it. Thus, moderates’ efforts to address the border crisis actually work to worsen it.
Half-assed approaches to problem-solving rarely solve large-scale social problems: in the best cases, such interventions merely mitigate the problem, and in the worst cases, they exacerbate it. Young centrists often haven’t learned this yet. For them, the ability to balance competing interests is a form of prudence, prudence is a form of wisdom, and wisdom means you’re smart.
But if the association between moderation and wisdom isn’t true, then why is this association so readily accepted by most people? The moral status of moderation doesn’t derive from the erroneous idea that moderate solutions are better. Rather, it derives from the fact that political moderation, in practice, requires negotiation and compromise, which are efforts that are coded as virtues because of their therapeutic and conciliatory connotations—connotations that make “moderation” naturally attractive to the conflict-averse identity-centrist. “Moderation” isn’t a moral good because it results in better solutions; it is a procedural benefit because it greases the rails of administrative governance. Unless you happen to think that the smooth functioning of the administrative bureaucracy is the highest social good, you have good reason to ask: who, exactly, benefits from this “moderation”?
INDECISION AND AMBIVALENCE IN THE IDENTITY-CENTRIST
Although the identity-centrist is often more intelligent than most passive observers of politics, he generally lacks confidence in his convictions. Sometimes this is just because his commitment to “reason” causes him to recognize the merits of the proposals on “both sides.” Rather than judge which proposal is more meritorious and choosing it, he wrongly assumes that a “third option” is in order—one that honors the benefits of both proposals, but which also routinely undermines the integrity of each.
Conflict-averse individuals often have an affinity for centrism because it frees them from guilt by association.
The risk-aversion inherent to the identity-centrist compounds these non-committal tendencies. Because bold (immoderate) proposals have the potential to fail in a big way, “moderation” mitigates that risk. But the fact that the centrist’s primary concern is the possibility of major failure (rather than the chance of great success) reveals the cynical fatalism at the heart of the centrist worldview.
IDENTITY-CENTRISM AND THE BURDENS OF POLITICAL ASSOCIATION
Conflict-averse individuals often have an affinity for centrism because it frees them from guilt by association. The enemies of any political movement will define that movement on the basis of its most extreme adherents. This is why mainstream media outlets talk incessantly about the dangers of groups like Q-Anon. It’s not that Q-Anon poses any real threat to the leviathan of American government; it’s that the legacy media is fully aligned with the political left, and thus, defining Q-Anon as a widely held conservative idea works to the left’s advantage: garden-variety conservatism becomes associated with “extremism.” By fusing the political right with the likes of Pizzagate and Q-Anon in the public eye, the left ensures that sensible people on the right cannot enter any reasonable debate without first disavowing their worst offenders.
The right does this, too: we imply that liberals and progressives are socialists and Antifa-enablers. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. But admitting that doesn’t do much to advance our cause—especially when we’re constantly defending against politically motivated charges of fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and the rest of it. Thus, the appeal of centrism is that by claiming to occupy the “middle,” identity-centrists shed the obligation of defending or disavowing the most extreme of their fellow travelers. Being freed from these demands minimizes the chance that the centrist will have to engage in hostile debates, which suits his aversion to conflict just fine.
THE MYTH OF THE CENTER AND THE USEFUL IDIOCY OF THE CENTRIST
Barry Goldwater was famous for saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This was an eloquent way of saying that certain situations call for immoderate responses and radical interventions, and to address those situations by insisting upon a “moderate” approach can sometimes be a moral failing. This is one reason that the association between centrism and wisdom is fallacious. But another reason is that “the center” is a conceptual phantom. How can we identify “the center” of American political thought? Do we try to locate the most rational voices on the news (if we can find any) and suppose they represent the middle? Do we assume that because the New York Times includes “conservatives” on their op-ed page, that the publication is a centrist one? Do we poll the population and try to find the most common points of view? These approaches won’t do.
When it became clear that he was a vocal opponent of Donald Trump, the same people who had actively smeared McCain insisted that he was a sacred Hero of the Republic, rehabilitating him so as to strengthen his efforts to resist the Trump agenda.
In short, the “center” of American politics is a rhetorical fiction, but one that does important ideological work. The “center” cannot be viewed as an objective consideration of where the middle actually lies because doing so would require a shared, qualitative measure of the “extremeness” of particular beliefs and a precise way to locate them on a political spectrum with agreed-upon boundaries. These preconditions do not exist, and, in a nation of 350 million people, they probably cannot exist. “The center,” then, is really a tool that covert ideologues use to limit the range of opinions and ideas that will be deemed as “acceptable” ones within the public dialogue. In whatever way people perceive the center, it really only emerges as a synthesis of the various ideas that have not been deemed as “fringe,” “radical,” or “extreme” by the institutional powers of our society. This happened with Trump’s border wall: an idea that had bipartisan support only a few years before was recast as “extreme” by a media that was uniformly opposed to the Trump agenda.
Of course, just because “the center” is a fiction doesn’t mean that “centrists” are. The centrist is all too real, and he often has an outsized influence in democratic deliberation. His devotion to a mythical “center” (and the politics of “moderation” that extend from it) shows that he is just another type of ideologue—and like most other ideologues, he usually refuses to admit his status as such. As political researcher David Adler documents in the New York Times, centrists are statistically more likely to support authoritarianism than other ideologues, for example.
The “center” simply does not hold. Remember John McCain. He was often characterized by the media as a “maverick” and a centrist. That was until he ran for President against Barack Obama, when he immediately became a warmonger and a closet racist. Some will recall the talking heads warning that a McCain presidency would bring “100 years of war.” But this characterization of McCain was short-lived. After Obama won, McCain was allowed to blend back into the wallpaper of the Senate as the aging “maverick” he had been before. But then McCain would be reinvented again! When it became clear that he was a vocal opponent of Donald Trump, the same people who had actively smeared McCain insisted that he was a sacred Hero of the Republic, rehabilitating him so as to strengthen his efforts to resist the Trump agenda.
When he died, McCain was the object of much puffed-up memorializing, and while it may have been well-earned, many of those elegies were written by people who had attacked his character relentlessly when it was necessary for their political objectives. McCain’s story arc teaches us that the centrist is a tool of the institutional elite—he unwittingly serves the dominant powers he claims independence from, as he daydreams of himself floating above the fray.
What, then, is the actual role of the centrist in the current political context? Centrism as a political persona is just one more manifestation of the boutique identity politics that dominate our era. Articulated as a particular form of personal identity, the “centrist” tacitly partakes in the identity-fetishism that defines the worldview of the left: a worldview in which “liberty” means state-accommodated personal autonomy where the entire field of the political is reduced to a consideration of how government can expand the conditions in which that autonomy might flourish. In this way, the centrist—notwithstanding the moral status that supposedly attends his professed “neutrality”—is, in fact, a collaborator with the radical leftism of the institutional elite.