No one cares about centrism

The ideological center of Western politics is like a ghost town — no one lives there, and the few people who would like to can’t find anyone to go with them. Even for non-centrists, those empty centrist streets, formerly so vibrant, are not cause for optimism. Because democracies inevitably bestow a halo of goodness on anything majoritarian, and because centrism seems to be capable of the largest majorities and thus the most good, we democrats are naturally suspicious of movements away from the center, which can feel like moving toward the darkness.

Western democracies have moved away from the center, but that movement is explicable. Recent departures from the center are rooted in a politics of elite contempt for popular opinion and in a politics of domination, practiced largely but not exclusively by the Social Justice left. These forces are best illuminated by focusing on the political center as a relational fiction, since the “political center” is not a real place. It’s inherently relational, and has no sense without a reference to political poles in relation to which we locate the center. There are two primary consequences of centrism’s relational existence between two political camps.

I. Political elites form the political center

First, the center is not relational for people who don’t live in the left or right camps. As a theoretical matter, any belief can be related to the center. But as practical politics, not all political ideology relates to the center with equal force — not all belief points to and thus locates the center with the same urgency and power. Which is to say, more concretely, that the political center is largely defined by the relation of elite opinion on the left and right, and very much less so by common beliefs on the left and right. This explains, for example, why there is no “centrist” position that accounts for the existence of ghosts* which a majority of Americans apparently believe really exist, while there is a centrist position regarding admissions standards at the world’s most elite universities, which virtually no one attends. But the more pressing point is that a center defined as a relation between elite opinions may not notice matters that are disproportionately of concern to non-elites.

Elite opinion is highly sympathetic to ideas which benefit elite classes and which require elite supervision to administer. When certain policies can attract the sympathies of elites from both sides, those policies may be enacted without much reference to the people who aren’t “in the room.” The elites, on whom regular people depend to advance their policy preferences, have deviated from popular opinion, but since the other side is saying the same thing, the people can’t rely on the normal mechanism for expressing disapproval of political elites — the ballot.

Immigration reveals this dynamic at work. Permissive immigration preferences find a home in both elite camps — the free entry of non-white migrants into a majority-white country fits popular racial theories on the left, while the free movement of labor across national boundaries increases production and satisfies the largely libertarian economic ideas of the right. Anyone who opposes permissive immigration, for any reason — to maintain cultural continuity, to avoid straining local resource, to keep low-wage native-born workers from being priced out of jobs, to implement a generous welfare state — has no outlet for their appeal. Thus, even if there exists a popular center for views on immigration, this center is not manifested politically because it has no relation to elite views except as negation.

If popular beliefs have no reflection in elite circles, people can either ignore their own preferences and vote for elite choices, or they can recruit an outsider as a spokesperson for their own ideas. That this has happened in the U.S., the U.K., Austria, Hungary and elsewhere, is undeniable, and it’s caused an uproar from elites who feel newly confronted with resistance to their wisdom and benevolence. Much of this uproar, as we’ve seen from the Russia collusion fiasco, is a ridiculous and self-indulgent reaction to fading influence. But there are real problems with selecting outsiders: Donald Trump really is incompetent and dishonest, even if that fact doesn’t require the political consequences envisioned by his hysterical opponents.

Political elites would do well to understand their public rejection as an indictment of their failed leadership, instead of as a psuedo-apocalypse that caused half of the population to become suddenly irrational and evil. They are elected representatives empowered by popular consent, not philosopher kings who rule by right. To avoid a Trump presidency, avoid holding the people in such contempt that a man like Trump can seem favorable solely because he speaks to them. As another illiberal populist leader — Hungarian President Victor Orban — has pointed out, “it’s not possible for the people to have a will on a fundamental issue and for the government not to comply with it.” This is an important lesson for elites everywhere.

But elite contempt of popular opinion isn’t the only force behind a lack of centrism. The elite situation of the center explains why popular views are sometimes unrepresented — it doesn’t explain why elites themselves have abandoned the center. That requires an analysis of the center’s function.

II. The center is inherently unsatisfying for most people

Invocations of centrism are often cynical or self-indulgent. Barack Obama rose to national fame with a 2004 speech containing such seemingly centrist platitudes as: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” But it became clear as he governed that his centrism was narcissistic: he placed himself at the center, and assumed everyone who disagreed with him was partisan or corrupt. Obama’s centrism was so successful that his two major legislative items from his first term received zero votes from the opposition party, and by his second term, he was bragging about his ability to act unilaterally — “I have a pen and a phone.”

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Most invocations of centrism are cynical because most people are not centrists. Most people have some combination of considered, ideological views, and inherited or absorbed prejudices and intuitions. Whatever the mix in any individual, there is no reason — either ideological or prejudicial — that moving away from one’s personal beliefs toward a belief capable of majoritarian political consensus will satisfy one’s ideology or prejudices. Since everyone would prefer to be where they are, and not many people are in the center, the only reason to move to the center is to achieve something in common with people who have different beliefs.

Sometimes, the possibility of compromise is straightforward. If the right wants low taxes and the left wants high taxes, there’s obvious middle ground — a middle amount of taxes. But not every political question can exist on a spectrum, like taxes or speed limits. On a wide range of issues, there is no ideologically satisfying middle ground.

For example, if the right believes that health insurance is primarily a private decision about how to plan for and finance health care expenses, and the left believes that every person should have access to high quality health care provided by someone else, there isn’t going to be any compromise that is ideologically satisfying. If health care is a right, then how is it possible that someone could lose that right by failing to purchase insurance? If health insurance is a financial product based on risk-pooling, why should it be contorted into something that pays for pre-existing conditions which have no risk component? A centrist with regard to health care cannot easily answer these questions.**

Instead of an ideologically satisfying center, we need a politically accommodating center, whose denizens understand that no one has a right to get everything they want. This understanding is in short supply. And these days, no one is more lacking in the will to co-exist ideologically, or is more abundant in the desire to dominate, than the social left.

Centrism doesn’t require that left and right appreciate their opponents’ ideas, but it does require that left and right acknowledge the other side’s right to participate. Unfortunately, the left’s social ideas not only don’t permit compromise, they positively reject it. From campus mobs that disrupt or assault unwelcome guests to economic boycotts of other American states that fail to placate Progressive morality, the left loudly insists that it will not tolerate dissent. Departure from the orthodoxy is always dire: if you disagree with the left’s proclamations about climate change, you’re a climate denier; if it’s guns, you have blood on your hands, if abortion, you’re a patriarchy-upholding controller of women’s bodies; free speech is violence; ‘objectivity’ is white supremacy. The moral lines are drawn so sharply that meeting in the middle looks like collaboration.

The left’s policies are so unilateralist that they’ve even embraced procedural legal doctrines that facilitate government without representation or separation of powers — and thereby avoid having to collaborate. When this Supreme Court eventually reverses the Chevron doctrine, a judicial rule of statutory interpretation that requires judges to defer to the legal understanding of federal employees, it will be the social left that cries the loudest. They had relied on Chevron’s regime of administrative deference to make changes to the law via administrative fiat, which is superior to old-fashioned legislation because administrative rulemaking doesn’t require the type of ideological consensus among elected representative that is necessary for real laws. The left’s commitment to rule by administrative, rather than democratic, principles is the clearest sign that they are no longer interested in living with the right.

Repudiation of compromise also manifests itself in a sense that the left owns the government. Rather than explaining political losses as evidence that they have been insufficiently persuasive, the left typically sees the loss of power as an emergency justifying extraordinary measures: impeachment, packing the Supreme Court, constitutional amendments establishing proportional representation in the Senate, plans to add new states and extend the franchise to felons, non-citizens, and minors. These policies share a common presumption that power inherently belongs to the left; that the left cannot legitimately lose its divine right to dictate to the remainder of the political community.

Ultimately, centrist politics will never revive until we reject the maximalist politics that refuses to acknowledge the rights of others to direct their own lives. There can be no meeting in the middle when one half of the country is engaged in a moral crusade against the other half. And the best way to end the culture war is to accept that this country can thrive while maintaining a variety of cultural expression. To the extent elite-left chauvinism is driving both the contempt for popular opinion and the politics of domination, the problem is compounded. The center cannot be reached through cultural imperialism.

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* One could argue that the existence of ghosts poses a political problem even in the temporal world: given the political and social dominance of the white cis-heteropatriarchy, and an oppressive system which produces a disproportionate amount of “unfinished business” among minority communities, one might postulate a correspondingly inequitable haunting distribution, producing a ghostly burden that further reifies systems of white oppression. See DuBois, The Ghosts of Black Folk (1904); cf. Coates, My Ghost Was Black (2016).

** But to give an impression of satisfying ideological unity, an intellectual justification can be very useful. This is because it takes a generous allotment of what Thomas Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity” — the special skill of intellectuals — to make anyone feel good about the apparent reconciliation of irreconcilable ideas. So much so that it is easy to assume that anything with a sophisticated intellectual defense is a centrist ideas simply because we have become accustomed to seeing centrist ideas presented with accompanying intellectual justifications, while more ideologically pure ideas can be accepted or rejected on their premises alone and do not require such explanations.