The Corner

Politics & Policy

Centrism Isn’t Always the Answer

A tourist gazes up towards the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2010. (Kevin Lamarque /Reuters)

Analysts of today’s politics, American and European, often describe it with the word “extreme.” The problem they diagnose is that the Right and Left, which in former years existed near the Center, have recently moved farther and farther apart, such that half of the populace is in a constant state of alienation. As cure they prescribe moderation: Everyone just needs to back off his fanatical positions and return to normality.

At present, however, there is little consensus. A large swathe of U.S. voters believes that President Trump is running an anti-American dictatorship, another large swathe of U.S. voters believes that Elizabeth Warren is going to turn America into a politically correct socialist commune, and smaller contingents are repulsed by both factions. Separation of powers, freedom of speech, judicial review, birthright citizenship, the Electoral College — all is up for debate, and such destabilization understandably produces a feeling that middle-of-the-road liberalism (in the philosophical sense) is the way to go.

Alas there are issues on which centrism is impossible and pretense thereto is inane. The pro-life position, for instance, is by its nature absolute, and it aims for the goal of the cessation of all abortion. That goal can be approached by incremental victories, but it remains the same. The pro-choice position has changed recently from “safe, legal, and rare” to “on demand and without apology.” Compromise on this issue is possible; as I said, pro-lifers would be more than happy to accept an anti-abortion law with significant exceptions, since it is a marked improvement over the present situation.

But that is not a stable compromise, for each side wants to topple it at the first opportunity. Ultimately the issue makes more sense at the poles: If you think abortion ends human life, you want to stop it, and if you don’t, you want to liberalize it. The centrist position, in addition to being unstable, is also irrational. When people say that the country has become polarized about abortion, what they should say is that the country has begun to take its beliefs about abortion more seriously, following them to their logical consequences.

Moderates can actually be the most unstable part of the electorate. Solid right- and left-wingers have (most of the time) a consistent and coherent political philosophy and program to which they can be counted on to adhere. Moderates frequently appear to be playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. “Well, we’ve tried that for a while, so let’s have some of this!” Why? Out of boredom? Surely one would want to change one’s mind about a political outlook only if it were shown to be a consistent failure.

Some people have a positive set of beliefs at the center. “Radical centrism,” they call it. But moderates tend to be negatively in the center: They don’t want too much of any side of the aisle, so they prefer to try conservative ideas sometimes and liberal ideas other times. It is correct to think, for example, that lowering taxes is appropriate in certain situations and raising taxes in others, but the variable moderates often shirk substantive analysis and instead merely vote against whatever policy is prevailing. That is why a succession of presidents from one party is quite rare.

The term “moderate” is itself rather misleading, for it implies that people in the center have the virtues of temperance and levelheadedness while everyone out of the center is crazy. It is however quite possible to be calmly and rationally at a political extreme when a particular issue requires it. Compromise is desirable wherever it is possible, but on uncompromisable questions one side simply must defeat the other. Politicians and voters should ask themselves not whether a position is centrist but whether it is correct. Then, confident in their stance, they should pursue it with moderation.

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