Features, Politics

Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto

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.

Bo Winegard
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Bo Winegard

Bo Winegard is an essayist and a graduate student at Florida State University.
Bo Winegard
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85 Comments

  1. LukeReeshus says

    Well shoot, I guess I’m a centrist. Because this piece perfectly captures my political attitudes.

    There is one “problem” with centrism though, in pragmatic terms—it’s tough to get excited about it. The author set out to prove that “centrism doesn’t need to be dull or incoherent,” and he succeeded splendidly in regards to the second adjective. Not so much the first though, aside from mentioning the joys of contemplating ideas and celebrating civilization (whatever that means).

    Don’t get me wrong. I, personally, like contemplating ideas. I like the feeling of other people’s thoughts firing my neurons. Here’s the problem though: most people don’t. Most people, including most intelligent people, react to alien ideas the way their white blood cells react to pathogens. Especially if those ideas transgress some sacred value in their mind. So if being a centrist requires—not just encourages, but requires—a propensity for contemplation, that precludes most people from being centrists. Indeed, judging by our political discourse, most people are not centrists. Centrists, in fact, constitute a small minority. (That is, so long as we are sampling the politically engaged. The politically apathetic are often mistakenly described as centrists.)

    What to do about this? How to push against the psychology of sacredness and taboo, which moralizes everything it touches? Because right now, that psychology is running rampant, and is only ramping up. And it’s easy to see why—it’s thrilling. Centrism is not though, and never can be, by definition.

    So what to do? I have no idea. I would gladly read another essay by Mr. Winegard in answer though.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Thanks for your kind words. Your question is precisely one I have been trying to answer in my own head for a long time now. I would write a piece, but I don’t have a coherent answer yet!

      • I think the answer is to simplify our beliefs. Eg like this: Multiculturalism is a dogma, Identity politics lead to a vicious cycle, Patriotism is not your enemy

        Now you may think this goes towards an unacademic and Animal-Farm-like “Four legs good, two legs bad!”-chant and indeed, it does. But if we want our ideas to be spread, this is the way to go. Humor also wouldn’t hurt.

      • I don’t find centrism to be akin to “sitting on the fence” so don’t find it unexciting. I find it exhilarating.

    • Hi LukeReeshus,

      LR> How to push against the psychology of sacredness and taboo, which moralizes everything it touches?

      You can’t and you don’t want to, IMO. You have to replace it with a new founding myth or set of myths. And by myth I don’t mean falsehood, but rather a foundational belief. The references to religion in the article hint at this: things not strictly factual, but essentially true regardless of the facts within the faith. The belief in these myths allows us to build social structures on top of them. The problem is when dogma demands details that cannot be supported by simple observation, the myth erodes. Human life could survive if we followed whatever cockamamie construction that came before us as long as we’re not put in competition with that which beat it.

      What’s the new myth? The right to life. Liberty. Justice before a just law and a just judiciary. That’s my myth, or set, but you see they’re a few hundred years old (thus the citations, for better or worse). They stand in conflict with others held by someone, perhaps, who wants to set up an all you can eat bar supplied by his (and you know this would be a *his*, lol, let the PC crucifixion begin!) slain enemies. But that could work, and might have for who knows how many millennia? Cf Ozymandias. Tamerlane. Caesar. Cuba is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there because my myths are heresy there. Those pyramids, whether in Mexico or Egypt, are pretty impressive even today. Different myths kept for a lotta years. Anyway, the “problem” and with all heartfelt respect to Mr Winegard and his excellent analysis, the reason “centrist” sounds like weaksauce pablum is because it’s uncritically applied to people like John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Lindsay Graham, Chuck Schumer, etc., etc. which is more a who’s who list of political opportunism and calculation rather than an ideology that is rooted in new founding myths. Well, I guess they do have a bunch of people they want to bomb in common. Mr Winegard’s thoughts deserve a better word. Let us coin a word worthy of Mr Winegard’s contribution. Classical liberal is a good place to start. Humanist libertarian? Good neighbor? Oh, I have it! Winegardist! Beats Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky. This from a Reedie who sang “Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Reed’s the team that’s really hotsky” before Rugby games, LOL!

      With very best regards,

      Bill the classical liberal and Winegardist

      • My husband calls himself a Hobbesian libertarian philosophically and an evolutionary republican in terms of preferred political structure. Please note the small letters. I’m a bit Whiggish for his taste, but I used to be an anarchocapitalist, and before that a leftish liberal, raised folk socialist, whereas he hasn’t changed his fundamental position in 50 years. Classical liberal does include us both. And Winegard makes such good points that at least Winegardian centrism should enter the vocabulary.

    • I dare say we are looking to the days where “everybody enjoys a good hanging”. This thrill that the msm gladly gobbles up and proudly puts on display, that the seven deadly sins…are a good thing (where’s the smiley face emoji when I need one?). I may be somewhat the optimist when I say that I think their days are numbered.

    • Biran says

      I think it can also help to emphasize maturity and common sense as most people past a certain age still value these things and see them as central to their sense of self (though this might be diminishing at least a little, unfortunately), and these things tend to lead to centrism.

    • drorharari says

      LR>> So if being a centrist requires—not just encourages, but requires—a propensity for contemplation, that precludes most people from being centrists. Indeed, judging by our political discourse, most people are not centrists.

      Most people, left, right or center, are not actively participating in the political discourse. Those that do are the vast minority. It stands therefore that what you hear in mainstream media, in academy or even around the cooler is not necessarily a measure of where most people are. In fact, having the centrist view celebrated and promoted by measured balancing act exposing the failings on the left and the right would increase the likelihood that more people would “embody a centrist” even without philosophizing about it.

    • LukeReeshus, tbh I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m endlessly thrilled with reasonable solutions; politics is not an area for fleeting emotions.

      I think you’re right though that most people are not… I can’t wrap my head around this, you really have to either lack maturity or self-awareness to try and condition fundaments of mass societies upon your own petty feelings.

      Perhaps extremism and identity politics are so popular these days cause the Western world has forgotten how terror tastes, or what really matters. It needs a war to wake up, a war we can’t afford. At least that’s what it looks like to me; I’m Polish, we’ve had Nazis here, we’ve had communists, “exciting” ideologies make my blood freeze in my veins. The fact that people don’t see them for what they are is even scarier.

      Thank you for this article, Bo Winegard. Sums it up almost perfectly for me, too.

  2. LukeReeshus says

    What’s the new myth? The right to life. Liberty. Justice before a just law and a just judiciary. That’s my myth, or set, but you see they’re a few hundred years old (thus the citations, for better or worse). They stand in conflict with others held by someone, perhaps, who wants to set up an all you can eat bar supplied by his slain enemies.

    Yes, those are my “myths” too. My “religion” was “founded” sometime in 17th century England, by Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes and Isaac Newton (and others—hence why founded is in quotes).

    I thought about making the point that Winegard’s centrism sounds very much like a reformulation of classical liberalism—really, nigh indistinguishable from it. But here’s the thing: if we call it classical liberalism, we still have the same problem. Why? Because liberalism is, to my mind, the most radical political philosophy ever devised. Because it is the only one in history which places the individual before the group / the tribe / the city-state / the sect / the party—that is, before the collective. For this reason, I think, most people—including most people living in liberal societies, taking their freedoms for granted—find it psychologically unsatisfying. Hell, even I do sometimes. (I enlisted in the U.S. Navy for a single term, and never considered re-enlisting. Not my type of organization. Still, as much as I chafed at its authoritarianism, and as glad as I am to no longer be in it, a part of me still misses the unity of purpose which its authoritarianism forged. Being in the same boat with others—literally—is in many ways better than swimming by yourself, even if boat-life generally sucks.)

    And for another reason: liberalism is a very present-focused ideology. Its aim—really, its only aim—is to get people to live peaceably together in the here and now. It doesn’t, in and of itself, care about the past, and it doesn’t have a grand vision for the future. In other words, it lacks historicism—that essential element in every totalitarian ideology ever devised, from monotheism to communism. It is thus always vulnerable to ideologies that revel in the past or the future, that are reactionary or revolutionary.

    Now, why certain people need to see their life as part of some grand story or plan, and aren’t content to just live it, I will never understand. I think it has something to do with them recoiling from their own mortality. I’m not going to tackle that topic though, because I’m just some commenter on the internet.

    Cheers!

    • Well, yes! Exactly! It’s interesting how we vest words with meaning; maybe we can make the meaning change. I mustn’t really say I’m libertarian (though it’s pretty accurate) because some people would think that it’s OK expect that everyone must simply ignore all social norms that don’t *materially* affect them. Liberal, tainted. Progressive, tainted. Conservative, tainted. Classical is tainted for goodness sake. Libertarian tainted, too.

      No, I care what people believe, and as long as the believing doesn’t unduly mess with me, OK. The operative word is unduly.

      My religious conversion so to speak, came when I understood why it was a very fine thing to have Utah a special place where Mormons could craft a life for their sundry (and I mean sundry) communities. I was cranked to have to buy a membership in a “club” to have a glass of wine at dinner in a SLC restaurant. But the more I got to know the people all over the state, the *relentless* kindness I was shown, the force of will expressed in creating a whole city and society in a desert next to a eww you’re all oily salt lake only slightly less not pleasant as the dead sea, well… Listening to the choir practice while the (I can’t tell how old people are any more) late high-schoolish early collegish though they may be 40 crew of the starship Enterprise milled about socializing and patiently answering my question about when things were built and what kind of flower is that (they have nice gardens in SLC), I resolved myself if these people who believe what they believe can treat me kindly in spite of my obvious heresy, well, may their God bless them. They are my people in freedom. There is a shared myth, and as an atheist, a devout believer in religious freedom and in myths generally (Joseph Campbell my priest of sorts, but here I may blaspheme). And, Moab lives there more easily than many of their more conservative hamlets would live in say, Massachusetts or coastal California or abutting “liberal” Decatur, GA.

      I know I have babbled but it is to say AMEN!

      LR> Because liberalism is, to my mind, the most radical political philosophy ever devised.

      Exactly.

      But the myth never took hold. At least broadly. Why?

      Freedom is hard.

      Final point, and just so you know, I have roots with the USN and it’s an institution I *adore* but want to reform. (Letter… of… Marque… in the Constitution!) And thank you for serving and keeping, I might say proper, but that’s not quite right, an enlightened perspective. The military is essentially a socialist (small s) sub-society embedded in the larger whatever it is these days enterprise. Kinda like the world’s largest family. We’ve lost the public institutions that fostered the good sense of camaraderie and shared sense of purpose which exist in the uniformed services. So many issues people can’t understand.

      Can we love liberty without being ideologues? Man, that’s a tough space. My experience at the person to person would say it’s obviously yes. The problem is, and I’m going off the sexist rails here, but the sum IQ of a collection males in a room can never be larger than the single largest IQ tested in isolation. I know some smart guys, but if you get six guys in a room with a keg, or any amount of Tequila, well, a Cocker Spaniel can be elected great exalted pigeon of the oleo bucket. If the room is the city, state, country, well, that could be a problem, LOL.

      May fortune smile upon you, may Athena place the aegis upon you shoulders, and don’t give up the fight for a fundamental freedom for all people.

      With happy regards,

      Bill

      PS fun folks: Anders Chydenius the Swedish Adam Smith (all people measured with the same scales) and Francis Hutcheson. Labor Day Weekend reading.

  3. Brilliant article. The best and most comprehensive one on this topic that I have read.

  4. DiscoveredJoys says

    The author was doing so well… but in one paragraph we have:

    “It is becoming more and more difficult to discuss political opinions openly without being slandered as a racist or a sexist.”

    Followed in the next paragraph by:

    “It does not seem unreasonable, and in fact, it is probably necessary, to regulate the bounds of acceptable political dialogue. ”

    Acceptable Speech is not Free Speech. Limiting peoples actions by law is debated, routine and necessary. Limiting peoples speech is an incitement to pick sides.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Yeah I struggled on that. I don’t think we should ever legally limit sleep. But socially? Like, if I said to a man in public, “you are fat, ugly, and balding,” would you not think me rude? You wouldn’t praise my free exercise of speech, right? That’s what I was getting at. But difficult problem for sure, and perhaps I am wrong about this.

      • Ken Smithmier says

        Yes, I would definitely consider you rude. However, the right response is for me to avoid your company, not suppress your right to be offensive.

          • Jordan says

            “Yes, I would definitely consider you rude. However, the right response is for me to avoid your company, not suppress your right to be offensive.”

            “I agree with that”

            This is a very hollow defense of free speech. If someone is a total asshole in public (or a total bigot, racist, etc.), just letting them trot is being the better person. It’s being an accomplice. Telling them the’re wrong is putting your free speech to good use.

            If telling someone you are fat, ugly, and balding” is using your free speech, telling them that they are rude and being an asshole is totally legit, too. Free speech means that the state can’t put you in prison for being a jerk; it’s not the freedom of being a jerkk without being called one. Toleration, which is at the heart of the issue, is not the same as respect.

      • DiscoveredJoys says

        It seemed to me that the thrust of your argument for ‘centrism’ was disdain for extreme positions. In my view (other views are available, some self assembly required) taking offence at an extreme position or speech provides an opposition to them which polarises debate.

        Perhaps a ‘centrist’ should not attend counter rallies, or write stinging criticisms but instead step back from immediate confrontation. If no-one turned up to oppose the white supremacists (or other extreme groups, left or right) the whole affair would have been a damp squib. Speaking calmly and using reasoned arguments in day to day life in the following months and years might be far more effective. It would take more self discipline though.

        Looking on from outside the USA Trump appears to be a terrible President – do you think the heated opposition and criticism has made him more or less likely to resign?

    • Daffodil Finesmith says

      I think it’s a perfectly reasonable and centrist position to ask that political dialogue be ‘fact checked’ in much the way we demand our food be inspected by the FDA. To continue the analogy, you can eat whatever garbage you want in your own home but it’s put up for sale to the mass market it should be properly vetted first.

    • kaozj says

      Which, to be consistent, would also entail the dismantling of defamation laws

  5. The bit about rejecting a transcendent moral order seems weirdly exclusive of religious perspectives, not least because the references to human nature suggest openness to an immanent analogue. I think it can be rescued though. The conservative position (a token position, which is being invoked in order for centrism to be defined against it) is that the moral order is fundamentally hierarchical, and that this moral hierarchy maps reasonably well on to actual inequalities.Every worldview includes some sense of moral order, and moral orders can tend more to hierarchy or equality. This dimension of variation in moral orders is orthogonal to the transcendent/immanent distinction. Someone whose moral order is transcendent, but emphasises equality over hierarchy to the same extent as the author’s does, is a natural political ally of the author, even if they disagree on other points.

    • Further thought: degree of fit between moral order and social reality is another dimension of variation. One might believe in strong moral hierarchies contrary to the social order: that black transwomen are nature’s aristocracy (inchoate stirrings in this sort of direction?) , or in Islamic supremacism (an old view with alarming staying power).

    • Kelsey Tidwell says

      I agree with what you said about religion, though I mean by religion the precepts handed down by God to get to Man…not the divisive structures built by Man to get to God. For me (and billions of other people) religion is the Rule of Law. It is alive and breathing if you strip away the before-mentioned modifications of Man. Not some stodgy, debunked wedding gift Aunt Mildred gave you which is suitable only for pointing out how truly attractive your newer objects of affection appear.

      Religion is very relevant to today’s world, no matter who you are. Matthew 22:37-40 is a great example of the Rule of Law. Very simple, very doable, and a philosophy of care and concern for all, not the extreme self-aggrandizing fanaticism as some people would like to paint it.

  6. Corrie Mooney says

    Great article. It leaves lots of room for different ideas (not just classic liberalism), yet keeps things grounded in pragmatism. Good comment by LukeReeshus too. I think it also leads to necessary conversations on epistemology: relativism and absolutism. And further discussions on the current state of the rule of law.

  7. 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.

    This raises the question of which ‘centre’ centrism is based on – the centre of the sates in which prostitution, for instance, is illegal or the centre where it is not?

    Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it isn’t, but it is; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself. Elsewhere in Europe there are countries where selling sex is legal but purchasing sex is not. In much of the rest of the world it is illegal for a woman to show her hair in public.

    What you call centerism is just your own societies status quo. Defending the status quo is fine if you live in a liberal society but not when you live elsewhere. Why not just defend liberalism and call it liberalism?

    • Bugger. Should say:

      Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it is, but it isn’t; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself.

  8. Best article I’ve read in a while. Can’t help but laugh at the pedants in the comments. Don’t get lost in the weeds people! Haha.

  9. Raleigh Swan says

    Excellent article, Bo! I myself find most of the centrist presuppositions/tendencies to be axiomatic. However, not all will and this adds importance to your content. Another significant thing I think you accomplished is coherently forming a structure of perception without getting bogged down in the terminology or caveats many opinion pieces today do.
    I will certainly pay attention to you from now on. Well done!

  10. a lovely piece that captures eloquently the essence of what us ‘centrists’ feel. To go some way to answering the question of how we fire up the rest (most) of society about the unsexy position of Centrism is to get a lot lot better at memes. Especially across MSM and social media

  11. daveatnerdfevercom says

    Wow. Just wow. I’ve been daydreaming about a “Moderate Party”. I think you just wrote the manifesto for it.

    I’m becoming a Patron of Quillette. Because they published this.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Sweet! I hope you do. It is a great website. I love it.

    • Michiel says

      Good! I became a patreon too, I find almost all of the content here well reasoned, satisfying and interesting. I think this site’s “voice” is important in the current political/social climate. I certainly count myself as a centrist/classical liberal as well (although with a bit more of an anti-religion stance than what’s described in the article).

  12. I think of the centrist as an unbiased arbiter between two adverse parties. Arbiters aren’t supposed to be emotional or activist, they are supposed to be listeners, ponderers, problem solvers, peacemakers. The author makes a good case for centrism, but does the case against it have to come from the right and left, or just any partisan? I am a true centrist and independent. I have no party affiliation, vote for Ds and Rs and others, and bounce all over on measures and initiatives and policy. Key problems with that way are political isolation and ineffectiveness. The US is bridled by a high stakes two party system wherein conformity and obedience are demanded. There are many people who participate in parties for the direct social benefits… and not because they are fully behind a platform. So partisanship can be about more than ideas, and centrists might be people who are less concerned with political belonging.

  13. Keith Ammann says

    The author mischaracterizes progressivism. It’s not looking to burn down the library or anything in it. It wants to build a library that’s capable of accommodating new books. If the old library can be repaired and expanded, great. If not, demolishing and rebuilding it is simply common sense.

    Also, the author condemns the left’s “radical moralization of policy preferences.” I would point out that many of these “preferences” are actively undermining the 20th-century international human rights consensus. Given the atrocities that led to the establishment of this consensus (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”), how can we consider attacks on this consensus to be anything BUT a moral issue, perhaps the most important one of our era? Should we excuse policies that overtly and aggressively assault people’s rights and dignity, that dismiss equal justice, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and economic security and opportunity, as mere differences of opinion about which people can disagree and still get along? If “Philando is a human being, as deserving of life as I am” is a radical moral position, then I have no use for any centrism that shies away from it.

    • Maybe his characterization of progressivism is only trying to show the spectrum of the polarities, and it makes some sense to use the progressive label to symbolize the farther left mindsets, as opposed to a moderate Democrat for example. The level of fury in progressive politics might depend on any additional ideologies that progressivism might be joined with. For example, Bernie Sanders had taken the progressive platform in a direction that involved a more socialist revolutionary rhetoric, and maybe that is where Winegard’s library metaphor comes from. In contrast, Hillary Clinton expressed that Washington does not do comprehensive, sweeping changes well, and that she would continue building on the progress Barack Obama had made, step by step. In that sense, she was more centrist than Sanders, while both touted progressive ideals.

      I agree it’s important to have some moral backbone as far as human rights are concerned. When basic decency toward our neighbors is considered “left-wing”, then I balk at the idea that I am ultra left-wing simply because I try my best not to be too afraid to love my neighbor. The game of politics often tempts a centrist towards one polarity or the other, and sometimes we make reactionary mistakes. However, when I see that the ACLU has argued in various cases that hate speech is free speech, and I am reminded by historians that Berkeley is the birthplace of the free-speech movement, I might get the sense that I am feeling my way out of a dark room back towards the light of centrism. If the ACLU can both condemn a white nationalist’s message while concurrently defending their right to speak it, then I suppose I can as well. I love those freedoms in this nation, and sometimes I am the one that must endure. I allow myself to be pulled to the center in the name of Harmony, and I don’t see it as being lukewarm or indecisive, but rather as some sort of narrow path where maybe, if we’re lucky, a true brand of peace can be found, and one that is appealing and can propagate throughout society, and we can endure the fringe groups with grace and dignity, and jail them when they are violent. Sometimes it annoys people who were spoiling for a fight. Now I am 35 years old and sometimes I have to continually seek that access point in my heart and mind where as a youth I could endure with grace and dignity in the face of another’s hopeless intransigence.

    • Bo Winegard says

      I think you might be right about progressivism. I might have been a bit unfair to it. I am friendly with many progressives, and they have ideas worth taking seriously.

  14. stephencataldo says

    At least at the start with broad strokes, I feel very comfortable calling myself a centrist by that definition: not a Republican, not a utopian calling on us to trust our neighbors unaware of human instincts or game theory.

    Here however is the bs that gets moderates correctly mocked:

    “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.”

    If you want to represent moderates, if you want moderation to rebuild the center of American politics, then when people fly swastikas you need to be there. You need a plan, you need to do organizing. When you say “no sympathy,” that is the same as the centrists who had no sympathy for the original Nazis, closing the shutters on their windows and leaving it to someone else to do the work.

    Moderation doesn’t need the defense given here. I think most people — certainly most of the left out to the Sanders or Chomsky edge — have an idea of human nature, have an idea of the value of the democratic movements that came mostly out of part of Europe (though I would rather be more specific.) Moderation needs to have politically crushed the Birthers and now the Alt-Right, ok, choose the methods, but you have to do the work to get to the end result.

    The broad strokes ring true: No wild Communist revolutions. Instead, breaking up monopolies, national healthcare, making sure that everyone has job opportunities with dignity, and you’re going to come up with a real plan for getting the Nazis to be again unacceptable, rather than complain about the people trying something, right? The problem with moderation in America is not that it lacks respect from left or right — it’s not a philosophical problem — but that it is too apathetic and doesn’t do the organizing work. You can see something similar on the left: you talk about Antifa, which is a microscopic organization that liberals all the way out to Chomsky (well past Sanders) think is counter-productive. They organize.

    The extremes are out-organizing the middle. To me the middle is single-payer health care; to you it might be something else. But screw the philosophy, almost everyone wants to be a moderate, almost no one wants to work. But 10,000 moderates on the street next time the Nazis have a rally, instead of having only thousands of liberals and dozens or a 100 or so Antifa show up.

  15. Fellow Winegardist says

    Gorgeous article. Love that you managed to reflected some various implications of evolutionary biology, flaws and limits of human nature, enlightenment and progress toward more a more humane world into a political perspective.

    BO> thanks for the new name- much more exciting than “centrist” and “moderate” (snore).

    – Lizzie, AKA fellow Winegardist

    • Bo Winegard says

      Ha! Thank you for the kind words. But I would feel bad using “Winegardist” for this, since people such as Harris, Pinker, Dawkins, Fukuyama and many others have been espousing very similar ideas! But I am still flattered, and I really appreciate the compliments.

  16. Matty Black says

    Great article, may we lead more people to the middle ground in today’s fractured political environment.

  17. I said most of what I wanted to say in my response to Keith Ammann.

    Dear Mr. Winegard, that article is very well written and very thought provoking. I’m sure that I’ll retrun to it again soon. I knew that centrism was not popular in today’s political climate, but hearing others say it makes me feel somehow a little less alone.

    I do think there is something to be said about how people are often not centrist because it is boring. It’s also more work. It’s more mental and emotional labor. The nature of centrism, if I can assume based on my own experiences, is to get beyond the superficial parroting of political talking points, and to actually drum up a pill palatable enough for all sides to swallow.

    The Bible says that “money is the root of all evil,” but with all the voting based on who is more exciting, I am giving serious thought to Soren Kierkegaard when he says that “Boredom is the root of all evil.” That’s something to contemplate anyway, even if evil may have many roots, and money and boredom are not in all ways evil.

    Thanks again.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Thank you! And I love the Kierkegaard quote. Always thought he was spot on

    • Kelsey Tidwell says

      “Money and boredom are not in all ways evil.”

      You are absolutely correct! That’s exactly why the Bible says that the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Many people are able to live their entire lives without being led around by the nose by their lack of contentment. Others…well, that’s their god. Who says religion is dead? 🙂

  18. Nils Blondon says

    Fantastic article. I really found your library analogy apt and useful.

    The virtues of centrism (moderation) have been a constant throughout history. Buddhists have propounded the necessity of the “middle way” for thousands of years. It’s an idea manifest in the thoughts and writings of nearly all the great classical philosophers, and it’s beginning to gain currency again as a result of the growing threat posed by the radical fringes of both the left and right of the political spectrum.

    Thanks for putting this piece together. It was the perfect articulation of what I’ve been trying to align myself with for the past several years.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Thank you for the kind words about the article. I really appreciate them. I am glad that you found it enjoyable and useful!

  19. 1. “Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions” – check

    2. “Mistrust of grand political theories or systems” – check

    3. “Skepticism about the goodness of human nature” – check

    4. “Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions” – check, BUT this can be carried too far. Even at the risk of polarization, compromise sometimes has to be stubbornly resisted when evil forces seek to take over.

    5. “Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth” – check, BUT what is regarded as science, evidence and truth – that is very shaky.

    6. “A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics” – Half right. Distrust of identity politics – check. BUT the world can no longer afford patriotism. We’re in much too great a crisis for that.

    7. “A steadfast dedication to the rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles” – Fidelity to constitutional principles (at least in the USA) – check. BUT it is impossible to have a steadfast dedication to the rule of law when it is unfairly administered. If the authorities wrote the laws fairly, and impartially administered and applied them, then one would certainly have every reason to be dedicated to the rule of law. But the way the world stands today, it is unwise to be dedicated to the misrule of law.

    I think my qualifications demonstrate the need for a transcendent moral law. I don’t think humanity can survive without it. I’m not talking about creeds, but I am talking about such things as the Sermon on the Mount. Evil must be resisted, but in a very committed, non-violent way, collectively and individually.

  20. John V says

    I once heard a progressive refer to the political centre as the “radical centre”

    To him it was akin to bureaucratic red tape where no true social/economic initiative could take form in its most unadulterated state. He saw compromise as a path to destruction which lead to a bottleneck of diluted policy even stagnation

    I think this is the dilemma we face, is that no one side of the political divide has all the solutions to mankind’s problems and though the moderates have come to realise this they are thus forced into the approximate centre by default. Freedoms and controls are great thing once they’ve been calibrated for but left unchecked you risk disorder and chaos.

    If you look at all the functioning societies around the world their governments may lean left or right to varying degrees but they mainly orient themselves towards the centre or from out of it.
    The question becomes will they be able to retain stability or will they be hollowed out from the extreme forces in our current political climate?

  21. Fantastic! Loved it. I am only 32 but read Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate at 26 and stopped identifying with the Left. Conservatives need to acknowledge their Status Quo Bias, expand their Circle of Empathy and develop a love for Reform. Them children on the Left so animated by misplaced moral energy, they need a patient voice like yours and some profound house cleaning.

  22. Noah Carl says

    Excellent essay, but you have essentially described (secular) conservatism.

  23. Pingback: A Manifesto of Meaninglessness | Marmalade

  24. M Lukas says

    There is a long, liberal history of using “Civilization” and “rule of law” as bludgeons against those seeking social justice from materially entrenched power. This is the rhetoric of a white upper-class and intelligentsia that dismisses class divisions and asymmetries of power that define the “true”in order to rationalize their own dominance. Fetishizing a sort of better-knowing centrism, “civilization,” “and rule of law” led to the compromises that perpetuated slavery in the South, chastising abolitionists for not awaiting the providential epiphany that the good will win out, because it always has seemed to work that way for them personally.

  25. Patrick says

    Quite similar to what David Brooks writes fairly regularly.

  26. Jesse M. says

    While I agree with all the general principles you mention, I don’t really see why they should uniquely point to “centrism” in the usual sense–why can’t someone who agrees with these principles prefer Scandinavian-style social democracy, for example? It doesn’t require any utopianism about human nature, it’s something that’s already been done rather than a purely hypothetical system, and there’s plenty of reason to think it provides better quality of life for most people–see for example the graphs towards the bottom of Tony Judt’s article at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/04/29/ill-fares-the-land/

    • Bo Winegard says

      That’s a great point, and I don’t think I disagree. Centrism, as I see it, is more of an attitude than a commitment to policy dogmas.

  27. José Antonio Vergara says

    Thank you very much for this thought-provoking piece. It seems to me that some of the main ideas presented here can reclaim some proximity to those principles defended by Sir Karl Popper. Thinking about the actual political field, are there parties or leaders belonging to the Centrist political philosophy as conceived by the author? (I’m writing from Chile, South America, by the way)

  28. Michael says

    “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.”

    This quote makes it quite obvious where your ‘centrism’ comes from.

  29. If centrists are aware of anything it should be the fallacy of moderation. The middleway is always a relative path; in Zimbabwe the rule of law and accountable government are radical propositions. Compromising on an unpopular but truthful policy will cause harm.

    The lack of a script, of easy answers, a narrative make centrism and Liberalism non-starters as stand-alone philosophies. Progressivism is winning the day because it does. Take, for instance the question of why meritocracy hasn’t produced a society where races and genders are proportionally represented at each level. While the centrist is fumbling through reams of statistical data and scientific studies the prog has already crafted a story and set out a plan:

    Meritocracy is a myth that disguises the prejudice inherent in a society built for white men on
    everyone else’s backs. We should remake society so that it benefits all of us and that means
    “positive” discrimination.

    Even when he can get his argument out with numerous citations in a reasonable tone he will, like James Damore, get pilloried everywhere but the most charitable of venues. Narratives win hearts and that’s where politics is played.

  30. The fundamental problem is that radical population replacement, especially by NAMs, was about as radical and un-centrist a position as possible. You can’t look at the numbers and not see “they are trying to replace us.” Heck, the progressives are often rather explicit about wanting to use immigrants to replace people and gain political dominance. There is zero evidence any of these groups will ever vote 50%+ for anything you’d like.

    This isn’t difficult. The kind of immigrants that will start the next google could be determined by an IQ test. We could have had every single one of them and still cut immigration 90% over the last few decades. If cutting immigration is 90% the right answer, its hard to see how the center is the right place to be.

    The moderates pursued a radical policy with multi-generational disastrous effects with few pleasant options for reversal. Not very moderate.

    Mostly it just seems like you like to play with ideas and stay hip while being within the Overton Window. However, you allowed progs to indoctrinate and import so many foot soldiers now your in danger of being unable to keep up with an ever radicalizing Overton Window.

    At least the “you will not replace us” crowd figured that out rather then engaging in wishful thinking about where this is all going.

  31. Yes this is valuable for staking out the ground more clearly. I thought that David Brooks’ “What Moderates Believe” really wanted to be a bigger manifesto and there’s more room still. I especially like this:

    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.

    Stephen Pinker helped popularize Thomas Sowell’s dichotomy of the tragic vs. utopian perspectives. Sometime after learning of that distinction I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” where he describes his own resolution of it in a Hegelian dialectic. That became his pattern for more general conflict resolution.

    I think it is worth making a distinction between milquetoast moderates who fear conflict of ideas and think the center should be safe ground, vs. radical moderates like Dr. King who “fought White America… by turning the ideas of dead white men against the oppressive practices of living white men”:

    http://ethicistforhire.blogspot.com/2015/02/martin-luther-king-jr-and-continental.html

    • Bo Winegard says

      Right. And I think the center should be a place of vibrant and vigorous debate!

  32. The term “centrism” contains enormous slippage. Here it seems primarily a response to events in Charlottesville and at one point encompasses the principle of free speech, regardless of content. Popper’s “paradox of intolerance” may be enlightening on that point.

    In general, my impression is that the author here has a general and at the same time an incomplete view of all that is at work in a political economy. And the political economy is the primary subject here because all of the demagoguery and invective and ideologically symbolic measures are inflected by it.

    One other issue here is the emptiness of the concept of a center in centrism. There can be no real center if the extremes are unknown or poorly comprehended. There would only be an artificial center. We live in a world where groups of people are attempting to capture (legally) most of the world’s wealth while at the same time leaving enough to maintain a stable productive force. To be a centrist on this topic would require knowing to what extent this process is in play and to what extent it affects the general composition of society and the general happiness of its inhabitants. Very hard to know the full picture. We have instead historical movements and political systems.

    A centrist would shun a political system like the Ottoman Empire, but also a Marxian political system like the failed soviet experiment that lasted three quarters of a century, and instead would insist that market-based system of the US and other countries with representational governments is the ideal. And within a free-market democracy like the US the center can only be defined by the most extreme economic parameters on either side: zero regulation and something akin to social Darwinism on the one side and guaranteed income, heavy business regulation, and affirmative action.

    However, and here’s the rub, the center here is only the center of a false set of parameters. The center here is merely a mediating function and in itself does not seem to contain any principle other than social stability, which is a good ideal but is also not necessarily conducive to justice, which should be the true aspiration of any government. That is of course an opinion. The ruling elite of Saudi Arabia may disagree with that opinion and assert something close to a pre-Enlightenment axiom supporting the divine right of kings.

    The notion of a political center can only mean something if the full political spectrum is known. But then to automatically move to the center as if that were axiomatic would be a blind faith move. Implied in the centrist position is the notion that the Left and the Right are both right and both wrong and only compromise will work. This policy has been the ideological foundation of the Democratic Party for some decades. Obama was if anything a centrist and a dealer of compromises. For his centrism he has been branded a rabid socialist by conservative leaders like Mitch McConnell, and others. His military restraint was branded as irresponsible weakness by hawks like McCain and Graham.
    But Obama’s centrism is only defined by how far right people like McConnell et al go.

    It is hard to argue with centrism because almost no one can be elected without moving to the center of any national issue. The center has a near monopoly on political power because of its statistical pull. Pragmatically, centrism is political practice we all must live with. But at the same time, we have to ask what is any president in the center of.

    Essentially all American politics today from the viewpoint of economic justice is right wing–ranging from moderate to extreme. From the viewpoint of pre-revolutionary France we are well to the Left. But this is not pre-Revolutionary France.

    The economic question is the question of all questions. Because most ideological hostility revolves around allocation of resources–and in one way or another access to the nation’s prodigious money supply. Hostility between groups can be distilled down to economic competition.

    Centrism on this topic today in America means ensuring that economic policy does not anger approximately 95% of the population and at the same time enables 5% of the population to benefit disproportionately from the national wealth.

    Why that dyad is not actually inverted is a mystery that most people do not see as a mystery but rather see as the natural economic order. Economic and monetary policy is seen as centrist when it is in fact grossly imbalanced, giving much greater advantage to the wealthier. The more wealth you possess the greater your advantage. On a technocratic level the major culprit seems to be regulatory capture. But this term has to be applied to almost the entire political system. In a fairly populace state it might take $100M to run for senator. Just as in 2008 Obama was the main recipient of Wall Street donations, so every senator necessarily must accept the largesse of one commercial concern or other. That’s the political version of regulatory capture.

    Because at this date it is impossible to avoid the above conditions, any economic (and therefore political) center is set radically to the Right, which means that the centrist here agrees to –for example–the financial sector receiving the lion’s share of the money supply, which is then for profit doled out bit by bit to “retail” borrowers like myself at a mark up of 10,000%. Yes, ten thousand. That’s the margin between the Fed’s benchmark interest rate and the local bank’s.

    But the above situation is something you cannot explain to the average voter in a simple and convincing way. Therefore, the voter will see a deviation from this current system as a radical shift to the Left. If for example the Fed established a people’s bank (ironically, that’s what the Fed is) that put money into the hands of those who most need it first, and those who would be most likely to spend it like today (car repair, roof, clothes, new washing machine) there would be an enormous economic strengthening of the bottom economic tiers of American society. Ironically, businesses would also be quite happy with the increased consumption. The gap between the poorest and the wealthiest Americans would slowly begin to decline. However, financial services–especially banks–would see less business activity.

    So where are we now? Are we left of center or still in the center? It depends on your metric. I think this would be closer to the center than present policy. It brings about more balance in the economy and at the same time increases the happiness quotient.

    A policy like this would also reduce the level of resentment many blue collar workers (employed or unemployed) feel about being left behind and being neglected.

    Obviously a credit addict like Trump would oppose such a policy, calling it run-away socialism. The entire financial sector would in fact be up in arms–which is why this solution is something we will never see.

    Politics has been captured by the economic elite. What is defined as a center currently is really just the comfort zone for high-level capitalists to continue to amass wealth at the majority’s expense.

    We have in fact a highly anti-social political system, but it is called moderate and centrist.

    It makes no difference if you are a centrist vis-a-vis Charlottesville–by the way Trump was famously centrist on that. The real problem is that Charlottesville is symptomatic of an extremely Right-shifted political economy.

  33. Anthony Mirvish says

    In practice, centrism suffers from a tendency to split the difference between extremes (or is vulnerable to being manipulated into doing so) and does not work at all when there is a fundamental difference in principle between those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

    To consider the last great such example in our own country’s history, namely the debate over slavery that ended in the Civil War, it becomes pretty obvious that no compromise was possible. There could have been gradualist approaches to emancipation/abolition, and arguably the Missouri Compromise was one such step. The South, however, ultimately understood that even stopping the expansion of slavery meant its ultimate end. To justify the institution within our political framework, men like John Calhoun ended up rejecting, systematically the entire basis for our political system. To the extent that one concedes such men were genuinely principled and not merely defending a personal interest, the result was an impasse that could not be resolved by anything resembling a “middle ground.” Any compromise either favored abolition or favored slavery.

    The current political crisis in our country, I would submit, is between the fundamental incompatibility of the social-democratic welfare state (and thus of Progressivism as a doctrine) with out founding principles. The Progressives understood and acknowledged this back in the day as men like Woodrow Wilson made very clear. They understood that the Constitution needed to be amended because it was created with a very different political philosophy in mind. Today, far too many people on both the so-called Left and Right (including conservatives) accept a set of assumptions that in fact amount to those of the Progressive movement. That’s why conservatives are unable to actually conserve the political principles that they claim underlie the Founding. It is a blunt fact that, whatever some of their other shortcomings philosophically, the libertarians are far more aligned with our country’s founding principles than either mainstream conservatives or anyone at all on the Left. Conservatism, all too much in thrall to Edmund Burke (with whom the Founders absolutely disagreed) and Russell Kirk, tend to miss that point. Classical liberalism, the actual doctrine of the Founders, was more than just a system of political thought – something many libertarians miss. It had next to nothing in common with the “throne and altar” traditionalism of Burke, and it was a great deal more coherent and abstract (in the proper sense of the word) than Kirk’s ideas.

    To illustrate this a bit further, consider a couple of Mr. Weingard’s examples involving markets and charity.

    It is correct to note that markets require laws (of property and contract), as well as laws that prohibit market actors from damaging either the property or health of other individuals, or of everyone via things like air and water pollution. This is not a violation of any aspect of market economics. Mr. Weingard argues that while brilliant creators of wealth, markets often corrosive of social values. That is an assertion but let’s take it as true. As von Mises pointed out long ago, it is a criticism made from the European right (aristocracy) and the secular, socialist Left, both of whom value an excessively ordered society based on place more than they do a free one. What is missing in Mr. Weingard’s analysis is any consideration of the “social” values being corroded.

    I would suggest that a hundred years ago we had vastly less regulated markets than we do today and a far tighter set of commonly held social values, without either an aristocracy or distinct and permanent social classes. The reason for that was simply that the bourgeois values are actually required for free markets to work properly and this realization was intimately connected to the classical liberalism of our political and economic systems. It was understood that reality did not provide an automatic or unearned life to anyone and that therefore no political system could do so. Many found that excessively constraining. The rebellion against those values came primarily from the socialist left, not the libertarian right. Moreover, the greatest practical enabler of that rebellion, leaving aside academic philosophy, was the regulatory welfare state, which institutionalized support for people independent of their personal behavior. The extensive system of private charities, building societies, self-help organizations and the like that existed prior to that had built-in checks and balances against abuse, not the least of which was the expectation that people were supposed to “solve” poverty through work.

    The major criticism those of us on the small government right have of the welfare state is as much moral as practical: it enables behavior that ultimately destroys the lives of individuals and the institutions of a free society. It does not work in practice because what it is attempting, to relieve people of the risks and responsibilities that are inherent in life itself is impossible. Now, one can disagree with all of this. What must be noted is that no form of centrism is possible between those of us who hold these views and those who hold different fundamental premises. We can have a civilized, evidence-based discussion of these points along the lines Mr. Weingard lays out in his argument, and we can resolve these issues peacefully, but we may have to agree to disagree and accept some level of conflict in the process.

  34. Peter Reid says

    As you grow older and possibly more mature your views on everything eventually simmer and you adopt a middle road on just about everything . This principle applies to most of us . The reason is quite simple . The ego dies off and the true self begins to emerge . Most of what has been discussed in the article and comments are illusions created by us ,politics, economics , the social order . All of these are creations of our desire rather than need . The discussion is interesting and intellectual but only exists because of a false state of humanity right now .
    We are blind to reality and further blinded by obsession with those very few individuals who promote their view via a less than perfect media .
    Most ordinary people do not have extreme views. Survival is their most prominent goal . Most poor people especially have very centrist moderate middle of the road opinions .
    Tolerance amongst the ordinary is worth investigating .

  35. Andrew says

    Centrism does not exist because there is no simple “left-right” ideological spectrum. Political views don’t fit neatly into these baskets despite so many people trying to force them.

    We should drop these stupid labels and simply describe the worldview and policies of poltical parties directly.

  36. Ross Williams says

    ” In fact, the vigorous debate that it encourages should be exhilarating. ”

    That pretty much sums it up. Centrism is for those who love a vigorous debate in which they have no stake in the outcome. Or rather, they are perfectly satisfied when there is no outcome. “It aint’ hard to get along with someone else’s troubles.” In short, who cares what centrists think? They arent going to do anything about it regardless of their conclusions.

    The reality is that democracy has been hijacked by “centrists”. It has become a space for intellectual discussion of competing ideologies instead of a way to reconcile competing interests. Which serves those in power.

  37. Emily Hammond-Crawford says

    I thoroughly agree with most of this article. However, is it not merely an artful articulation of the basic principles of conservatism? The proposition that we retain that which is good, and improve on that which isn’t working?

    The values outlined are all profoundly characteristic of principled conservatism. They’re broadly representative of the views of the average center-right voter. Perhaps the word “conservative” has been made too toxic for the cities (I can’t help but note that only 9.7% of Manhattanites bothered to vote right in 2016). I can respect some desire for distance – particularly under the current administration – but in as far as the views of the proffered “centrist” mirror the ends pursued by moderate Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, I respectfully suggest the centrist might struggle to build the coalitions for which they are hoping.

    Just note the way the author orients with respect to the existing movements in American political thought. The author’s attacks on the Right fall into one of two types: attacks on libertarianism (e.g. let’s end the welfare state), and attacks on a straw man form of conservatism (i.e. let’s preserve everything). The author’s attacks on the Left impugn almost the entire platform of the Democratic Party (wealth redistribution and/or identity politics, depending on the individual candidate). What coalitions will he be able to build, other than those with moderate Republicans?

    Perhaps, rather than consigning ourselves into impotence, it’s time for the Moriscos of Manhattan to come home – to the right. Voices like these are there, in the Republican Party, and they could use a boost. Registering as a Republican gives you a voice in the caucuses and primaries, without binding you to voting for anyone. Just a thought.

  38. Andrew Scott says

    Hi, just wanted to say thanks for this essay. While I can’t say I agree entirely It’s always great to see a fellow Nole adding to the discussion (how’s that for tribalism). Be well and thanks for advocating the middle road.Too few seem to be willing today.

    • Bo Winegard says

      Thanks! I would be seriously worried if you agreed with everything in it. I don’t think I even do!

  39. The ancient Greeks’ caution against hubris and their advocacy of “measure in all things” has long acted as my guiding principle.

    The only thing I have slight trouble with in your very thoughtful piece, is the “healthy admiration for patriotism” bit. I just don’t get. My husband tells me it’s because I’m of mixed parentage (French and British) and he’s probably right. I appreciate and am interested in linguistic and cultural differences and understand they can contribute to cohesion, but the scale of the nation is never the right one for me. I would fly the flag for the region I’ve chosen to live in (the Paris area at the moment) and my preference woud be for my nationality to be “European”. I just can’t see myself waving a tricolore or a Union Jack outside a sporting venue.

    A final thought, relating to “Mistrust of grand political theories or systems”, in which I recognise myself 100%: every single government I have been aware of in my lifetime in France or Britain has insisted on completely overhauling the education system. Obviously noone before the administration in office has ever had any sensible ideas and everything needs to be started again from scratch…

    So, set up the Bo party (c’mon, it’s a great name) in the US or come to France. At the moment, we have as close a centrist head of state with critical mass as you can get!

    • Bo Winegard says

      Yes, I like the “measure in all things” caution/ideal quite well. I would never belong to a party that would be named after me : )

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