It is crucial that we rehabilitate centrism. The way to do it is to see it as a metapolitical thesis. This means no longer construing it as a rival of the various political positions on offer. On this view, centrism is not the middle point between the two ideological extremes. Rather, it becomes a higher-order theory that crucially relies on the presence of the most vibrant political traditions to deliver it options. What sets it apart are its epistemological assumptions — which are the soundest among all positions — and its radical openness to siding with any of the traditions on any given issue.
That is not the dominant way of construing it, of course. The dominant way is to characterize it as an empty doctrine, shamelessly deficient in comparison to the positions that occupy the polar ends of the ideological spectrum.
In our increasingly uncompromising political environment — where intensity, not accuracy, is a sine qua non of appropriate expression — the centrist is ridiculed for being insufficiently enthusiastic for whatever social value the one doing the ridiculing is a committed believer in.
Centrists, as well as those close enough to the center to also qualify for an outpouring of scorn, are often regarded as squishy moderates whose singular conviction is in the fundamental rightness of a life unburdened by any conviction at all. They are directionless, perpetually vacillating between one position and another, devoted to no particular cause, citizens of no particular realm, rudderless drifters fatefully caught up in the roaring waters of right and wrong.
On one interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelation, even Christ himself gets in on the fun of condemning the centrist ethos, signaling out “lukewarm” believers for special judgment. Can you name someone thought to be more of a square than New York Times columnist and centrist par excellence David Brooks?
While some centrists deserve this reproach, let’s see if we can find an alternative conception of the centrist. Is there an alt-center?
The Rise of Alternatives
It’s a curious thing, this new obsession of ours with alternative ideologies. Of course, we don’t often think of them as “alternative ideologies,” which is why when the designator is shortened to “alt”—as in “alt-right” or “alt-left”—it tends to obscure the term’s reliance on a reference frame. Saying “alt,” as opposed to “alternative,” makes us forget that the concept requires a standard in order for it to make any sense at all.
In the same way, for something to be meaningfully characterized as “alternative” there must be something it is being seen as an alternative to. When surveying popular usage, it may not seem as though the word has to function this way — we can say, for example, that 90s kids grew up on “alternative” without specifying what the musical genre was an artistic reaction to — but that is only a linguistic quirk. With each usage of “alt” or “alternative” there is an embedded reference to the existence of some metric or standard that grounds the relation.
Since “alt,” as a political term, has caught fire in the past couple of years , it’s worth looking into how the predicate is supposed to function in the case of “alt-right” and “alt-left.”
“Alt-right” is the far more common term, thanks to its popularity as a descriptor for a segment of Donald Trump’s base who hold beliefs, exhibit attitudes, and favor political strategies informed by white nationalism. Though the term predates him, Richard Spencer was an early popularizer of “alt-right”, which establishes that the label was not originally a pejorative, chosen by opponents, but rather a self-designation. It’s not hard to see why: “alt-right” possesses far greater marketability than “white supremacy” or “neo-Naziism.” It has more evangelistic reach.
“Alt-left,” by contrast, has largely been rejected by journalists as a legitimate or useful designator for any segment of the left-wing. Unlike “alt-right,” carried forward as it was by the group’s need for ideological rebranding, “alt-left” was only ever used by the left’s opponents.
In the days following Trump’s election, Sean Hannity seized on it as a way of capturing what he took to be extremism on the left. Most famously, President Trump used it in one of his post-Charlottesville pressers as a way of elaborating on his much-derided condemnation of violence on “both sides” in an earlier appearance. Used this way, the term has a tu quoque function: it’s a way of saying “you also are extreme.”
So the term “alt-right” has been self-consciously adopted by adherents, and correspondingly used by journalists, whereas no leftist has embraced the “alt-left” label. But what are these positions supposed to be alternatives to?
Here we get an interesting result. The standard interpretation is to see the second subject in the two-place predication as “the mainstream,” as in “Steve Bannon’s beliefs, attitudes, and strategies are an alternative to the mainstream beliefs, attitudes, and strategies found on the right.”
But what is “mainstream” is always subject to the shifting winds of popular opinion; it is never fixed or stable. In fact, there was a time, from the election’s immediate aftermath to Trump’s inaugural, during which the constellation of views associated with the alt-right could plausibly be seen as the new mainstream.
Yet if the term “alt-right” is supposed to pick out an alternative to the mainstream, and if the new mainstream is Bannonism/Trumpism, wouldn’t that require we begin using “alt-right” to describe the displaced political philosophy of social and fiscal conservatism associated with the pre-MAGA era, before the wave of Trumpian populism washed everything else away? This, in a roundabout way, is what the “Has Trump taken over the Republican Party?” discussions are all about.
The Mainstream is a Complicated Standard
The above shows the explanatory fitness, but also the deficiencies, of seeing “the mainstream” as the grounding standard. No matter how favorable the ratio of alt-right advisors to “establishment” advisors within the West Wing happens to be, no matter how many white nationalist prerogatives are pursued politically, no matter how many more pageviews Breitbart racks up over every conservative rival, there is a sense in which “the alternative right” could never shift in meaning to refer to standard conservatism, and an equally strong sense that what we now call the “alt-right” could never be meaningfully identified with the right-wing establishment.
But there is a way to save “the mainstream” as our standard, and that is by conceptually expanding it so that it doesn’t just mean that which is most influential, or most powerful, or most popular within a given category, but as a designation that has a built-in respectability limit that any view that falls outside it, any view with a sufficiently outsider feel to it, cannot quality for inclusion.
This makes sense. I don’t care if the whole world transforms into Universe People overnight, we would not be justified in calling that religion a “mainstream” one.
By this logic, the alt-right could never become mainstream in the way we’re using the word. Of course, this is not to deny that some alt-right ideas can, and already have, become mainstream. The point, rather, is that whatever its current popularity or influence, alt-right-ism would permanently remain an alternative position on the right and could never amount to its standard or main orientation.
Yet what’s strange about “alt-left” is that what is being called “alternative” is really just the genuine article.
Here’s how James Wolcott, in a Vanity Fair article from earlier this year, characterized the “alt-left”:
Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the “alt-right” and an alt-left. They’re not kissin’ cousins, but they caterwaul some of the same tunes in different keys.
Set aside Wolcott’s indefensible “disgust with identity politics” bit, since that description is manifestly inapplicable to any segment on the left, and what we’re left with is Wolcott basically identifying the alt-left with young socialists.
Here’s why that doesn’t fly: for those of us steeped in political theory, socialism is a purer leftism than the position the latter contemptuously refer to as “neoliberalism,” i.e. the standard fare American liberalism of the last Democratic frontrunner and the last Democratic president.
When the standard is the mainstream, both alts are adequately named, since neither white nationalism nor socialism can lay legitimate claim to being entrenched in power. Thus, the group called “alt-right” really is the alt-right, and the group called “alt-left” really is the alt-left.
Yet when we change the standard to something more substantive, such as what it essentially, or genuinely, means to be right- or left-wing, then the alt-right remains adequately named, but the alt-left does not.
The reason for this asymmetry is because, on the one hand, despite concentrated attempts by a fanatical few, it is impossible to seriously identify white nationalism with what it means to be right-wing, yet it is not only possible, but intellectually appropriate, to identify the left-wing with socialism.
Why is liberalism the alternative rather than the essence of what it means to be left-wing? Because despite its blinding political success, liberalism, modified as it is by certain historical constraints arising out of centuries of American political philosophy, has represented a diluted version of the revolutionary egalitarianism at the heart of what it means to be left-wing.
We can, however, say that both groups are united in this one way: both groups place the “centrist” label on those who are nominally in their political corner but are actually less committed or less ideologically rigid. The left calls liberals “centrists” or even “conservatives”; the right routinely calls out Republicans for being “centrists” or “liberals.” Centrism carries a negative connotation in these instances since it involves “compromising” or — get ready to be disgusted — agreeing with the other side on a particular issue or other.
The Joy of Centrism
It’s understandable why the more “committed” types would find centrists frustrating. The alt-right, and the genuine left, are willing to do and say things establishment types — be they globalists, neoliberals, militarists, etc. — are not. Being one of them is exhilarating; there is deep fulfillment in being part of a movement that is changing the world. The joy and the fury. The thrill of recovering a people’s greatness (translation: advancing racial interests) through a studied desecration of PC norms and a collective rebuke of social progressivism (alt-right); the thrill of seeking the overthrow of a socio-politico-economic complex seen as responsible for limitless exploitation and inegalitarianism (genuine left). In both cases, there is a system, oppressive and cruel, that must be defeated if the people are to triumph or to recover something that is lost.
But there is a joy to centrism, a joy not easy to detect, or even admire, at first glance.
When we first launched Arc Digital — the publication for which I serve as editor-in-chief — we did so with this quote from the philosopher Thomas Nagel:
The fundamental idea behind both the validity and the limits of objectivity is that we are small creatures in a big world of which we have only a very partial understanding, and that how things seem to us depends both on the world and on our constitution.
Objectivity is therefore crucial, since achieving a right view of the world depends on it, yet fraught with difficulties, since we are impacted by serious epistemic limitations.
One way to honor this insight is to be radically open to the political assertions of intellectually durable ideologies, even while being less open to their particular political values.
Consider libertarianism and socialism. I’m simplifying things, but take libertarianism’s chief political value to be freedom and take socialism’s chief political value to be equality. Now consider a centrist who, like most libertarians and socialists, values both (it’s not important to specify which is valued more).
The smartest libertarian thinking is going to produce intelligent internal as well as external analysis. There will be intra-movement debate worth paying attention to, as well as trenchant criticism of the proposals made by rival ideologies. This, for the kind of centrist I’m characterizing, will be unmissable analysis. Same goes for the work done by socialist thinkers. The centrist will be open to a variety of proposals, from a variety of sources, based on which proposal seems best.
Here’s an early objection: What accounts for the differences among the libertarian and socialist proposals is a difference at the value level. It’s precisely because libertarians prioritize freedom above all that they form the beliefs and make the proposals that they do; it’s precisely because socialists prioritize equality above all that they form the beliefs and make the proposals that they do. Wouldn’t a centrist simply accept the proposal of the side whose chief value he or she finds more politically important?
This objection helpfully brings out the importance of political values, but goes awry by misunderstanding how disparate political values function within political deliberation.
Here’s what I mean: While it’s true that political values cannot and should not be conflated — for example, freedom is not the same thing as equality — they are more generalizable than may at first let on.
At a very general level, both libertarians and socialists desire the well-being of the people. I realize it is increasingly unfashionable to extend this basic principle of charity when interpreting the beliefs and actions of those from rival factions, but let’s assume all or at least most of the citizens of a state want what is good for themselves, their countrymen, and their state.
For the moment, assume I rate freedom slightly higher than equality on my hierarchy of political values. It could easily be the case that I end up favoring the socialist proposal over the libertarian one on a given topic. How can this be? The fact that the socialist proposal is, at bottom, committed to improving the well-being of the people means there is a fundamental measure of overlap between its framework and my own, even if there is less solidarity at the margins.
I am not inclined to support a single-payer healthcare system. But if, after a long review of the best arguments produced by each group, I come to see it as the best proposal, it wouldn’t necessarily be because I have adopted the socialist values undergirding *their* decision for proposing it, but perhaps because I have come to see it as the best way to achieve the well-being of the people. In other words, I wouldn’t necessarily adopt that view because I am now a socialist, but because I think the socialist argument has won this debate.
It is crucial, for the centrist, to maintain the same fundamental values as most everyone else. If a major tradition did not actually desire the well-being of the people, then there wouldn’t be the sort of fundamental-value-overlap that is necessary for their proposals to have a basic level of attractiveness. This shared framework, together with a belief in the capacity of durable ideologies to produce intelligent proposals worth genuinely considering, grants the centrist a political protocol capable of selecting the best each tradition has to offer. This is a metapolitical thesis in that it sees great value in each of the major political traditions, and crucially uses their insights and processes to determine an answer of its own.
To borrow a term popularized by Supreme Court jurisprudence, each major tradition, to varying degrees, engages in enhanced deliberation of the topics it cares about. Conservative intellectuals are thought to be tethered to a market-based approach to healthcare, and that is true. But within this commitment to markets there is a continual refinement — produced by intramural debates as well as interaction with thinkers who do not share the conservative’s adoration for markets — of what exactly that system would look like, how it would best function, etc. The Reformicons, a kind of conservative intellectual supergroup from a few years back, advanced the discussion along these very lines.
As a result of this activity, each tradition produces commentary forged in an intellectual environment that is conducive to reasonableness. To think otherwise requires either believing that some traditions are malicious — and that their proposals are really pretexts for some nefarious ulterior motive, and that their adherents are pathologically deceitful — or that those traditions are incompetent, incapable of producing incisive analysis and worthwhile proposals.
Yet if you find yourself permanently transfixed by how utterly dumb a tradition’s best arguments seem to be, perhaps it’s your animus toward the position, rather than the position itself, that is continually getting it wrong. Or, as W. V. O. Quine put it: “Your interlocutor’s silliness is less likely than your bad interpretation.”
It might be thought I’m proposing a view of centrism that is fundamentally at odds with the value of pragmatism — as though I’m pitting pragmatic centrism against philosophical centrism. That’s not the case.
Some of the major traditions are more capable at building into their political calculus the exigencies of legislative reality. Mark Lilla and Jonathan Chait, to use just two recent examples, have been savaged by those to their left for being hopelessly out of step with the imperatives of justice. Their great sin of wanting to win elections and score legislative victories has offended the moral purity of their leftist counterparts, yet if Lilla’s and Chait’s prescriptions really do track what is politically practicable better than their critics, then that is a consideration that I, as a centrist, when evaluating all proposals, will likely want to take into account.
In other words, the centrism I’m advancing would make great use of all types of political values, including the value of being more attuned to what kinds of proposals are capable of attaining legislative success, which, arguendo, Lilla and Chait know better than, say, the Jacobin folks. Let’s say that the latter produce better insights on the nature of justice. As a centrist, I might give extra weight to the former when legislative success is the objective, and extra weight to the latter when simply interested in exploring the dictates of justice.
In a fantastic essay for Quillette, Bo Winegard suggests other tendencies and priorities centrism might be motivated by:
- Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.
- Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.
- Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.
- Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.
- Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.
- A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.
- A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.
My conception of centrism agrees with much of this — at the same time, there’s an aspect that is importantly different.
What my conception crucially relies on, and places a great deal of faith in, is in the capacity of individual ideological systems to make intellectually appreciable advancements on political topics. Conservatism, by contrast, does not believe liberalism produces analysis or proposals worth considering. Liberalism returns the favor. The centrism I’m describing sees each major tradition as engaged in the kind of intellectual activity that, if we assume honesty and intelligence rather than evil intent or incompetence, will produce at its highest levels analysis that is worth considering and possibly adopting.
So, contra Winegard’s first point — as an example of a minor point of divergence — for my kind of centrist it doesn’t matter if the position adopted is utterly radical or extreme. So long as it seems like the best position to hold or the best play to make, it doesn’t matter where it came from or how disruptive it is.
David Brooks surely captures the centrist ethos when he writes: “Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.” It would be a mistake, however, to see in centrism’s failure to identify with any one ideology a denial of the importance of ideas. The centrist is not anti-ideological but omni-ideological, not in the sense of believing everything but in the sense of being open to any of the major political traditions getting a particular view right. It is precisely because ideas are of fundamental importance that the centrist sets up a system in which he or she has access to the best ones.
May the courage to accept them also be there.