I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are used to a certain kind of cynical rhetoric from reactionaries. And we typically associate the reactionary mind with the right-wing, specifically those who identify as far right, such as militias, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. Or else right-libertarians who pretend to exist outside of or above the mainstream political spectrum. As such, there are authoritarian libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Peter Thiel who claim to be ‘liberals’ while decrying democracy as mobocracy, claiming that they must use authoritarianism to protect against authoritarianism. This is the self-appointed ruling elite, the self-perceived enlightened aristocracy, our aspiring paternalistic overlords.
Yet this reactionary phenomenon is not limited to those ascribing to obviously dogmatic ideologies, as some of them would assert to have no ideology at all or at least never to admit to it, never describe themselves by a particular ideological label. Instead, they might call themselves ‘centrists’ in assuming and proclaiming their views as the defining ‘center’ of society, of politics, and of opinion — that is to say, they see the world, and maybe reality itself, as revolving around themselves and their interests, values, and agendas; one could more simply describe this as narcissism, probably often malignant narcissism. They own and work in, control and influence the forums of public debate, political rhetoric, and media narrative. Many of them are the professional politicians, media stars, public intellectuals, thought leaders, social influencers, and gatekeepers of the so-called ‘mainstream’.
Most importantly, they are of the ‘respectable’ class and the last defense of ‘respectability’ politics, the presumed lesser evil that will hold the line against authoritarians and reactionaries, ideologues and extremists seeking power at all costs. It turns out that supposed moderate centrists pushing fear of division and extremism are themselves among the most divisive extremists. The center cannot hold because self-identified moderates and centrists don’t want to hold to democracy and public opinion, much less public mandates and consent of the governed. That is because, self-identity aside, they aren’t actually moderate or centrist. Going by public polling, from PRRI to Fox News, the ruling elite (primarily neocons and neoliberals) who create a false narrative of a moderate centrism are often closer to the far right than they’d like to admit. But as some other data shows, in certain ways, they can be even more anti-democratic than right-wing extremists.
This confirms a point that recently came up with the MAGA riots when some of the media elite finally took notice that the rioters were largely middle class professionals: business owners, real estate agents, etc; even police officers and military officers or veterans. These are among the respectable as separate from those Hillary Clinton maligned as the “basket of deplorables.” Yet these people were spouting QAnon conspiracy theories, joining in with militant groups, attacking the Capitol police, threatening the lives of democratically-elected leaders, and fantasizing about the overthrow of the government. They don’t fit the stereotype of ‘white trash’, gun-toting rednecks and cousin-marrying hillbillies, in that the main demographic of Donald Trump’s voters were assumed to have been poor whites and rural whites. Yet even before the 2016 election, all of the data showed the largest segment of Trump supporters was middle class. Sure, they were largely lower middle class, but nonetheless above average in education and income, many of them urbanites and with the strongest support in suburbia, not dying communities in rural America.
This shouldn’t surprise us, but the corporate media and political elites refused to acknowledge this for the longest time. This middle class, according to the ‘mainstream’ narrative, is supposed to be the middle of society — the great moderating force, what is considered the central pillar of a healthy and stable social order, in a social Darwinian economy where wealth and socioeconomic class is taken as a sign of moral character and social worth. Yet, when we look back at history, the middle class could be found behind many examples of authoritarian demagoguery and seizures of power, from the Klan to the Nazis. The same pattern continues to be seen around the world, not only in the industrialized West. “Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center,” writes David Adler. “From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth” (Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists).
Here is some advice. When you hear increasing numbers in the comortable classes defend a corrupt and failed political system, an undemocratic and oppressive status quo by declaring themselves ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’ or, worse, non-ideological, run for the hills. We know where that leads and how it too often ends. Or rather, we know the beginning point from which it rarely departs. Such people aren’t in the center of anything other than maybe the center of the cyclone or the center of madness. According to the fish hook theory of politics, there are those defending egalitarianism and then there is everyone else, with the far right bending back toward the reactionary faux-center. There is no way to be moderate on egalitarianism and freedom, justice and fairness — no way to be neutral on a moving train. One is either for democratic self-governance and the will of the people or against it. There is no third option.
* * *
“When we say ‘moderate,’ what we really mean is ‘what corporations want.’”David Broockman
“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”Jim Hightower
The rise of the anti-democratic ‘centrists’
by Phil Ebersole
If you call yourself a centrist, you mean that you’re reasonably satisfied with the status quo.
And the status quo is a government in which, according to the Princeton Study, legislators respond to the wishes of the economic elite and organized interest groups, but not at all to public opinion.
It is not surprising that so many self-described centrists feel threatened by the rise of populism and want to create gatekeepers to keep the voting public from getting out of hand.
Epilogue: In defense of disruptive democracy—A critique of anti-populism
by Robert Howse
“Populism” is usually and pejoratively defined by the anti-populist elites to imply nativism, anti-liberalism, and anti-pluralism. This has little to do with many of today’s powerful critiques of and challenges to elite liberal democratic politics. Defenders of elite or “centrist” liberal democratic politics present a false choice between restoration or renewal of elite politics and a populist slide into authoritarianism and xenophobia. There is an important agenda of democratic reform disrupting elite liberal democratic politics, and anti-populism is not an authentic response to it. Radical democrats and democratic reformers, such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are not apostles of mob rule, contrary to the frequent caricature proposed by centrist liberal democrats in their “anti-populist” pose. They see an appropriate role for institutions such as independent courts as well as for experts in a stronger democracy.
On campus censorship: it looks like we’ve been deceived
by Aleph Skoteinos
While we’re still here, I’ve also discovered some research conducted by a political scientist named Justin Murphy, specifically an article titled “Who Is Afraid of Free Speech in the United States?”, and it turns out that the far-left are nowhere near as averse to freedom of speech as you would be lead to believe nowadays. His research showed that “extreme liberals” (possibly referring to hard-leftists given America’s bastardized political lexicon) are actually the most supportive of freedom of speech within the broad political spectrum, and that the centre-left (or slightly left) and the far-right, not the far-left, are the groups most opposed to freedom of speech. In a way this finding kind of dovetails with a recent New York Times article which showed that centrists, rather than extremists, are statistically the least supportive towards democracy (which is ironic considering the New York Times is one of the archetypal liberal centrist outlets).
No one’s less moderate than moderates
by Ezra Klein
“When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want,” Broockman says. “Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”
That’s the problem with using a term that doesn’t describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. “Moderate” is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it’s become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It’s time to get rid of it.
“Centrism” is an ideology, too
by Bill Knight
Writing about Schultz, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, “Despite his demonstrable policy ignorance, his delusions follow conventional centrist doctrine … furiously opposed to any proposal that would ease the lives of ordinary Americans. The most disruptive, dangerous extremists are on the Right. But there’s another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have also done a great deal of harm: fanatical centrists. The hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s Left and Right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.” […]
Locally, centrism may be found in hesitating to become a “sanctuary city,” a municipality where local resources aren’t spent to enforce controversial federal immigration laws. Statewide, centrism seeks to avoid “rocking the boat” over redistricting by the political party in control to favor that party or discourage opposition.
Nationally, centrists on domestic issues put their faith in the “free market,” Federal Reserve or corporations to stabilize an economy instead of recognizing economic classes and people’s needs. Internationally, centrists see other nations supporting terrorism or destabilizing regions; views U.S. military or diplomatic interference as justified; considers interventions in Iraq, Yemen, Venezuela and dozens of other countries as in the national interest; and labels some foreign leaders as allies or tyrants (or both, at different times), depending on their usefulness to multinationals’ financial interests.
Centrists may blast Russian oligarchs or Canadian health-care providers, but they’re reluctant to address the U.S. elite or to criticize the commercial approach to treating and healing Americans.
Again, being middle-of-the-road doesn’t mean civility or bipartisanship as much as protecting the way things are, claiming that “the system works” or seeing foreign affairs exclusively through red-white-and-blue glasses.
(For its part, the mainstream press so easily falls into the centrist line that they uncritically repeat government propaganda, almost like state-run media.)
One Big Thing the Dems Get Wrong About Warren
by John F. Harris
The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.
As Bill Clinton began his second term, before the eruption of the sex scandal, he spoke frequently of his desire to be a national unifier, and, quoting Scripture, a “repairer of the breach.”
One skeptic was the great 20th century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who knew and liked Clinton, but was deeply wary of middle-of-the-road politics. “Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”
In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”
How ‘Centrist Bias’ Hurts Sanders and Warren
by David Leonhardt [with slight corrections added]
Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left [center right] and one on the right [far right] [with no main party representing the American majority on the left]. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.
In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake [that conveniently and consistently operates as the propaganda mode of the news]: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies [in holding to the ‘center’ of the political right of the transpartisan ruling elite]. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.
But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.
This seemingly radical possibility turns out to be quite common, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — author of the classic book, “The Vital Center,” no less — pointed out. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored [except that Reagan’s corporatism was simply an extension, if more extreme, of the prior corporatism in both parties; more of the same but worse]. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”
Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls? […]
Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it. It helps explain why the 2016 presidential debates focused more on the budget deficit, a topic of centrist zealotry, than climate change, almost certainly a bigger threat. (Well-funded deficit advocacy plays a role too.) Centrist bias also helps explain the credulousness of early coverage during the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Both Democrats and Republicans, after all, largely supported each war.
The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be.
People worry that ‘moderate’ Democrats like Joe Biden are the same as Republicans. Our study suggests they may be right
by Kevin Singer and Alyssa Rockenbach
Strikingly, in almost every case, the responses of moderate men are very similar to conservative men and women. Their level of agreement with the statements above is as much as 14 percent lower than moderate women, who are more likely than men to lean Democratic, or liberal men and women.
This IDEALS finding is on par with a recent Gallup study encompassing over 29,000 interviews with American adults, which revealed that moderates and conservatives remain closely aligned in their ideological preferences.
This raises important questions heading into the election: Is a moderate male candidate a bait-and-switch for Democratic voters? Are they actually casting their votes for a conservative?×
That moderate men most resemble Republicans has been confirmed, of all places, on dating apps. Brittany Wong of HuffPost writes, “It’s almost become a coastal cliche at this point: If someone lists their political views as ‘moderate’ on a dating app, the thinking goes, go ahead and assume the person is a conservative.” One interviewee noted, “It’s just in my experience, even ‘moderate’ guys tend to have extremely different views on topics that matter to me, like gun control, women’s reproductive rights and immigration.” Sometimes, moderate men who appear to bend liberal turn out to be “faux woke,” according to one interviewee who was initially attracted to someone whose profile featured photos at a women’s march. Eventually “he slowly started to drop his facade,” revealing behaviors inconsistent with his professed political beliefs.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has grown increasingly frustrated with moderate Democrats during her tenure, saying at a recent event, “The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or a center-conservative party.” Her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, recently deleted a tweet comparing two moderate Democrat coalitions — consisting mostly of men — to Southern Democrats who favored segregation and opposed civil rights. During this election cycle, a recurring criticism of Vice President Biden has been his record on school desegregation.
Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists
By Davd Adler
The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.
These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.
On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.
Is it true?
Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism. […]
What Does It Mean?
Across Europe and North America, support for democracy is in decline. To explain this trend, conventional wisdom points to the political extremes. Both the far left and the far right are, according to this view, willing to ride roughshod over democratic institutions to achieve radical change. Moderates, by contrast, are assumed to defend liberal democracy, its principles and institutions.
The numbers indicate that this isn’t the case. As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism — least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.
Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center: From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth. Could the same thing happen in mature democracies like Britain, France and the United States?