Moderation as ideology and “the middle” as fiction.
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.
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.
“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.