Our very language seems to recommend political moderation—to be in the center, away from the fringes, sounds appealing. No one likes to be called an extremist, after all, especially these last few decades, when all of us had supposedly left ideology behind. When our political life takes a turn toward the ugly, we ask if the center can hold. Perhaps we admire those few eccentrics who can live on the edge, or appreciate the radicals who utter prophetic words that prick our consciences—but deep down, we know it’s the solid, sensible types untroubled by utopian dreams or a hunger for change that we really depend on.
Lately such instincts have reasserted themselves with added force: Trump, Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon, and Le Pen, have been all deemed not just wrong but not moderate and too far from the center by mainstream pundits and elites. (This, despite the vast differences between them.) In an age of “populism” and anger, we need a vital center once again. Damon Linker recently pondered if centrist Democrats really had a message, a compelling vision. The assumption is that such a thing was both possible and desirable. Ross Douthat recently went “in search of the American center,” wearily pointing out the disconnect between our political elites and what most citizens seem to believe and want. For him, we need statesmen who can “reconcile the wisdom in the elite view (of which there is some, here and there) with the wisdom of the wider public.” And a quest for the moderate voter, for reclaiming the political center, has been the dominant strategy of both Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and congressional candidates like Jon Ossoff in Georgia—and the wisdom of such centrism continues to be at the heart of debates over the Democratic Party’s future.
I have my doubts about this centrism and the instincts that give rise to it.
There’s no reason why the “moderate” solution to any policy problem is the right one: half-measures can make a situation worse, not better, and splitting the difference can result in getting the worst of both worlds. This approach seems to presume that “both sides” of any debate have an equal claim to the truth—but why? Tacking toward the center could mean moving further away from what will work, from what is right, rather than toward some golden mean. It posits, rather than proves, that there are two responsible political parties in the United States, that “conservative” and “liberal” answers to policy questions are equally plausible, that we should treat the same that which actually is quite different. To take one example, what good would a “moderate” or “centrist” position on climate change be? Isn’t it entirely possible that such policies would merely hamper the economy while not actually doing enough to combat environmental catastrophe?