Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
W. B. Yeats
Centrism. It’s a decidedly wimpy and unexciting word and it often inspires derision as a kind of pallid purgatory for those afraid to take bold action or propound creative political ideas. Worse, it is less a coherent philosophy than a potpourri of concerns, complaints, and anxieties about other philosophies. The center is where those who can’t quite commit to something better land. And the centrist is that staid friend who orders vanilla pudding for fear that anything unique might offend his delicate palette.
These common complaints might contain more than a kernel of truth, but centrism doesn’t need to be dull or incoherent. Understood properly, centrism is a consistent philosophical system that attempts to guide political and cultural systems through change without paroxysms of revolution and violence. The centrist, in this sense, believes that political and cultural progress is best achieved by caution, temperance, and compromise, not extremism, radicalism, or violence.
Like the conservative, the centrist begins with a pessimistic observation about human nature: It is flawed (or, in religious terms, it is sinful). Humans are not infinitely flexible or perfectible. They cannot use reason to transcend fully their basic impulses and prejudices. Our best understanding of human nature today comes from the evolutionary sciences, which strongly suggest that humans are “designed” to navigate a small-scale society; and that they are limited, parochial, biased, prone to violence, status competition, and nearly inescapable tribalism. Even if early evolutionary psychology overemphasized the extent to which there was a “mismatch” between “stone age brains” and modern post-industrial society, it is certainly true that modern Western social structures challenge human nature in ways that smaller societies do not.
Because humans are prone to favoring kin and tribe over other people, a complicated, law-based social order is difficult to achieve. Indeed, many groups of people have not transcended a nepotistic social structure based on tribal affinities and the whims of those who wield power. Therefore, the achievements of Western Civilization–free markets, equal treatment under the law, admiration for open inquiry–should inspire awe and reverence. A progressive looks at modern Western Society and sees a list of ills and misfortunes; a centrist looks and is relieved that the list is so short. Furthermore, the centrist weighs the ills against the remarkable accomplishments. The mightiest and wealthiest kings of earlier epochs would have blushed at the luxuries we take for granted. Even the humble treat of buying an arugula salad at a grocery store for a few dollars is something that would have astonished and delighted our ancestors.
The centrist, like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order. Abstract theories about human altruism and blissfulness are appealing, but they haven’t been tested by the pitiless realities of the world. When inspiring theories that misunderstand or misrepresent human nature have been tried, the results have been invariably tragic. The centrist, however, is equally skeptical of radical libertarian ideas on the Right. The modern welfare state, whatever its flaws, has done a pretty good job of holding together a broad and largely urbanized society in which private charity cannot solve the worst problems of poverty. Many libertarian theorists (although not all, of course) appear as wrong about human nature as socialists or other utopians. Not all humans can thrive in a modern information-based economy. Education is obviously a great social good, but it cannot turn a person with an 85 IQ into an engineer. Creating better incentives will not create a society of Einsteins.
Furthermore, markets, although brilliant wealth generators, are often corrosive to social values. This, among other reasons, is why political and cultural leaders have always established rules to guide markets, and have often tried to remove certain commodities from the market system altogether. In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed. The centrist does not need to take a firm stand here; rather he or she should carefully examine the available and future evidence about the effects of legalization. The more important point is that market libertarianism is a radical political philosophy and therefore should be greeted with skepticism.
So far, so conservative. This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.
The great conservatives of the past–Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Klemens von Metternich, John Calhoun, T.S. Eliot, et cetera–often evinced a peculiarly fervid attachment to the current social order, perhaps best summarized by Bierce’s quip that a conservative is one “enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal who wishes to replace them with others.” Of course, this is a simplification, and most conservatives have realized that slow change is necessary to preserve social order. Nevertheless, it is a fair simplification, and it is not intellectually dishonest to imagine conservatives on the stasis side of a change continuum with progressives on the other (radical change).
The centrist, not surprisingly, wishes to remain in the center of this continuum, encouraging change when prudent, but discouraging abrupt or radical upheavals. The centrist believes, much more than the conservative, in social progress, and believes that humans have made remarkable economic and moral advances in the past 500 years. The conservative is correct that the past is full of wisdom for the future; but the progressive is correct that the past is also full of errors, dogmas, and barbarism. Perhaps one could put it this way: The past is like an old, unused, and rotting library; the books are full of wisdom, but the building is ruined by insects and decay. The conservative wants to keep the library; the centrist wants to keep the books; and the progressive wants to burn the whole thing down and start over.
The great conservatives of the past also believed in a transcendent moral order, a divinely sanctioned social structure whose ultimate correctness was determined by God. Modern conservatives are, on whole, probably less certain of a transcendent moral order, but most would still endorse some version of a divinely guided or inspired social world. The centrist rejects this as fanciful. The social world is not tied together by transcendent values, but by secular laws. The appropriate guide for social policy is science, not religious dogma. However, the centrist does not reject the value of religion. It is quite possible that religious belief can bind individuals together, can provide purpose and meaning, and can guide and discipline prejudices and propensities in salubrious ways. The ultimate value of religion in society is an open empirical question, and the centrist sees no reason to adjudicate in advance of the evidence. And, at any rate, even if researchers become certain that religion, because it is ultimately untrue and encourages irrational parochialism, is destructive of modern social values, it will be exceedingly difficult to eliminate. Thunderous denunciations of religion are probably as dangerous as unthinking and zealous belief.
Centrism, then, is defined by a number of assumptions and tendencies; it is not defined by policy dogmas. Below is an undoubtedly incomplete but useful list of these assumptions and attitudes:
(1): Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions. Innovative ideas and political proposals shouldn’t be discouraged, but those that require radical changes to the current status quo should be moderated to appeal to a broad constituency. Extreme proposals are often wrong, but even when they are correct, they require careful consideration and slow implementation. Violent action is almost always wrong and counterproductive, as is curbing basic freedoms that allow liberal societies to flourish.
(2): Mistrust of grand political theories or systems. Societies and polities are incredibly complicated and our understanding of the way social systems and human nature interact is excruciatingly limited. Grand theories are almost always incorrect, and they encourage dogmatism and extremism. Utopianism is perhaps the most dangerous and seductive kind of grand theory. Ideas that require significant harm today to bring about a better tomorrow are particularly pernicious. Uncertainty about the future requires humility and a commitment to order and well-being in the here and now.
(3): Skepticism about the goodness of human nature. Although our understanding of human nature is limited, the best evidence, scientific and historical, suggests that humans are often parochial, tribal, and prone to violence. This does not mean that humans are unremittingly “sinful” or wicked. They are not. At times, they are peaceful and cooperative. But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule. Political and cultural systems must deal with humans as they exist and to understand their basic propensities. Excessive optimism about human nature has often led to tragedy. And the current political system, whatever its failures, is often wise because it has been conditioned by years of slow experimentation with real humans. A decent society in the world is worth 1,000 utopias in the head.
(4): Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions. Good governance and social harmony require at least an implicit consensus among the governed. Policy proposals that veer from this consensus, even if ultimately correct, threaten to alienate people and foment discontent. It is therefore crucially important to win a battle of ideas before implementing a policy that significantly changes the current status quo. This is best done by appealing to common values and bipartisanship.
(5): Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth. Because societies are exquisitely complicated, the best social policies are arrived at through slow and careful experimentation, not dogma. Although science cannot solve all social problems, it is the best instrument we have for measuring the success or failure of particular policies. It is important, therefore, to protect vigilantly free speech and free inquiry so that the best ideas are rigorously debated in the public forum. Political ideologies tend to blind people to the best policies. One should not seek a “conservative” answer to poverty or a “liberal” answer to immigration. One should seek the best answer. It is highly unlikely that any political party has a monopoly on truth.
(6): A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics. Nation states, although not without flaws, are one of the few social vehicles capable of forging broad identities not based on parochial tribal markers such as race or religion. They allow individuals to share in a large collective group enterprise that is admirably committed to a creed rather than ancestry. Although patriotism can be dangerous, it can also be salubrious. Identity politics tend to divide people and create bitter factions that compete for their perceived interests. Because humans are naturally tribal, this factionalism is easy to create and dangerous for a broader cooperative union among dissimilar peoples.
(7): A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles. The rule of law is one of the greatest and most fragile accomplishments of Western Civilization. It creates a sense of fairness and protects citizens from the whims of their leaders. It should be lauded and guarded against possible corrosion. And although highly educated men and women might not need base appeals to authority (“Madison wrote X, Y, and Z”), society is not comprised of only highly educated men and women. The prejudices of the people require attention and cannot be disregarded. Having a written document (or legacy of laws and principles that are venerated) that inspires reverence helps insure the preservation of the rule of law.
Centrism and the Modern Movement
For the centrist, one of the more disturbing trends of the past 15 years is the radical moralization of policy preferences. It is becoming more and more difficult to discuss political opinions openly without being slandered as a racist or a sexist. This is abhorrent to a centrist because it circumscribes acceptable discourse so sharply that the public loses the chance to debate all angles of important social policies. Take immigration as one example. It is an exceedingly complicated issue and any comprehensive immigration policy will include painful tradeoffs. If the rate of legal immigration is restricted, then many ambitious and morally upstanding people will be denied a chance to join thriving societies to fulfill their potentials. On the other hand, if the rate of legal immigration is dramatically expanded, then it will cause continued social and cultural disruption, resentment, and quite possibly lower wages.
There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them. This is a pattern that is repeated for many policy debates: affirmative action, free speech, policing, criminal justice reform, pay gaps, and on and on. Imputing nefarious motives to people voicing well-intentioned concerns or preferences is an act of extremism because it causes hostility and polarization. Those who are denigrated as knuckle-scraping bigots understandably become bitter and quite possibly more extreme. And as moral accusations fray trust and goodwill, the center falls apart.
It does not seem unreasonable, and in fact, it is probably necessary, to regulate the bounds of acceptable political dialogue. This does not mean that society should use the law to do so. It means that societies can sacralize certain ideas, stigmatizing those who publicly renounce or contradict them. So, for example, in the United States, the notion that all people are equal under the law and should be treated as individuals is a sacred value. Those who voice opposition to this sacred value should not be arrested, of course, but it does seem reasonable to stigmatize them. However, it is crucial to guard against a kind of taboo creep in which ideas that are perfectly compatible with the ideals of a cosmopolitan society are stigmatized and those who voice them are publicly shamed and morally brutalized.
Centrism accepts that humans are flawed: tribal, aggressive, hungry for status, and often prejudiced. But it also accepts that they can be prosocial, tolerant, and peaceful. It is useful to be skeptical of human nature in the broad sense, but to be charitable to individuals, especially in the domain of public discourse. This charity encourages free and pleasant public debate and discourse; and, all things equal, free debate leads to the best solutions to complicated social problems.
The recent events in Charlottesville and Donald Trump’s reaction to them have made civil public debate even more difficult, especially about morally sensitive issues. And it has caused some respectable Leftists to praise the extreme tactics of Antifa and other radical Leftist groups. Of course, White Nationalism should be denounced, and the centrist has no sympathy for crowds shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” But it is crucial to remain committed to the rule of law and to protect free speech. The ugliness and extremism on display in Virginia should not provoke blind praise for equally extreme movements on the Left. Just because Antifa claims to loathe Nazis, it doesn’t make them ipso facto noble. They are not, as some have suggested, the moral equivalent to soldiers storming Normandy to fight Nazis. And, in fact, many of their actions are repellent and deserve to be condemned.
Centrism, properly understood, is not wimpy or unexciting. In fact, the vigorous debate that it encourages should be exhilarating. If its insistence on humility is something of a downer, its enthusiasm for and willingness to contemplate ideas from all sides is recompense. Civilization is a brilliant achievement, and the centrist wishes to celebrate it. But such a celebration doesn’t require ignoring its flaws or discouraging innovations. Moral progress is undeniable, and future citizens will almost certainly find us as flawed as we find our ancestors. That thought should chasten us and cause us to be as tolerant of the failings of our fellow citizens as we wish our descendants to be of us. Perhaps this is what centrism really is: a tolerant smile at the recognition that we are human, all too human.