The Myth of the Political Center

A set of values always has a middle, but just how representative of a data set is that middle?

Democracy imbues morality into numbers. The idea that the majority view should carry the day anytime policy is up for debate is axiomatic to the idea that fairness lies in siding with the greatest number.

Politics therefore often favors centrism. If the citizenry as a whole is considered as one enormous data set, it is impossible for the average voter to fall outside of the majority view. Taking this view, the dissenting positions, particularly of those “extremist” outliers, represent a real deviation from the morality of majoritarianism. If centrism contains the implicit sanction of the majority, so-called extremists lack the implicit sanction of the majority and can be disavowed and dismissed.

But this view, which imputes virtue into the middle, entirely glosses over the context from which the middle is derived.

Both the mean and the median of a data set are a product of context. The extremes are an integral part of determining exactly where the middle lies, and for this reason cannot be dismissed. They may be a deviation away from a mathematical average but if the extremes are changed then so is the average: the former creates the latter. The mean and median are a creature of the whole, an effect rather than the cause.

Modern politics has an unfortunate tendency to flip cause and effect on its head. It looks to the collective whole of the polity, or the collective whole of a demographic group within the polity and uses the average representative of that group to understand the individual members. The characteristics of the average become determinative of the individual. And yet it is the makeup of the individuals within the group, taken in total, who determine the average. The parts drive the whole, not the other way around.

Practically applied to political decisions, this creates a hierarchy of ideas. Centrism gives a whole-hearted government endorsement to the views in the middle because it is assumed the majority of the populace support them. And the democratic morality of numbers states that the majority must win out.

But aside from the question of exactly how representative the mean is of the polity (more on that later), the unfortunate effect of this system is the creation of a hierarchy of ideas. While government is action-based and public policy must inevitably pursue one way of thinking over all others, such a decision is not necessarily a judgment about the validity of one group’s opinion and the invalidity of all others. It is merely a statement of what means are best appropriate to the end created by a specific set of conditions. It does nothing to say that, in another context, another course of action would be more legitimate.

But centrism, by automatically dismissing those views that lie on the extreme as less valid than those that lie in the middle, says exactly this. It is government officials determining certain views are more valid than others and deserving of consideration and advancement through public policy pursuits.

This might not be quite so egregious a sin against the inviolability of individuals if the political center was representative of the vast majority of the citizenry. If political consensus truly exists and is the product of individuals all independently coming to the same conclusion, there is little harm done.

But exactly how representative of the polity is the mathematical mean?

Consider the number of variables that go into a person’s character and interests: age, race, gender, personal background, talents, interests, the community in which they live. The list is innumerable and varies from person to person. Then consider the different factors that influence the decision-making process. Again, choices are a product of the desired end, which is itself a product of its context. One cannot expect, then, that a person who makes a particular choice for local political office would necessarily make the same choice for federal political office. The context of the roles of these elected officials greatly differs, as does the way their decisions impact the lives of citizens.

Centrism, backed as it is by a belief in advancing the views of the political middle, books no consideration for such individuation. It is relentlessly monistic in its application: it seeks and advances similarities and turns statistical deviations into actual deviations. Those whose opinions differ are treated, in effect, as a form of second-class citizen, their views less deserving of even open-minded consideration because they are not “average.”

But given the number of variables that go into making up a person, how likely is it that the “average” member of the polity, when considered in toto, is actually that average? The overwhelming number of variables and the broad spectrum which they cover would suggest the mathematically “average” citizen is not necessarily representative of that many real-world people.

If that’s the case, centrism is completely invalid as a political doctrine. Its only legitimate derivation is in the idea that the majority of the populace lie in the middle and democratic virtue ethics states the majority should rule. But in effect, centrism is more often a small number of people imputing certain views to the populace and silencing critics. It’s actually quite clever, in a devious sort of way: centrism’s detractors can easily be silenced by associating them with the “fringe” elements of society whose prevailing views threaten to pull public policy away from the harmony of the middle.


Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.