April 12, 2017


Centrists in the public eye promote the idea that they have the brains and the temperament to lead us through the fog of our own impulsivity, partisanship and ignorance of the ways of the world. It is worthwhile to look at what they say and what they believe. Though it often looks like they don’t actually believe very much, they have a harmful effect on the health of the polity. Following is a look at what some self-proclaimed centrists have to say, and what it means for us.

In 2015, Clive Crooks wrote a column for Bloomberg titledWhy I Am A Centrist.” (link) He wrote that although centrism offers “little to engage with,” “a willingness to examine trade-offs is an aspect of the centrist temperament that is indispensible in any intelligent discussion of public policy.”

Crooks suggests that an awareness of trade-offs is something can only arise, like a rare orchid, from temperament, and, indispensably, only from centrists. Like other centrists, Crooks completely discredits everyone else’s intellectual capability. People all over the political map, are capable of recognizing trade-offs, and of compromises, too. Those of a more engaged temperament may not be as indispensible as Crooks, but they are motivated to make real trade-offs, to accomplish things they care about. It is the committed and engaged who listen to new voices, synthesize new ideas, and explore new possibilities. It is through creativity and compromise, among the committed and the inspired, that the indispensible work of creating accountable political institutions is done.

Centrists are usually skittish about admitting whether centrism is a doctrine (failed or otherwise), or has a program. (Though David Brooks, in an impulsive moment of immoderation, did call for a Centrist World Order.) (reference). Of course there is a centrist program. It is closely aligned with conservative economic doctrine.

The reality is that their agendas are often indistinguishable- they walk and talk like all right-wing “fiscal conservatives,” once you separate out the socially regressive parts.

Crooks is disappointed that people conflate Laissez-faire economics, fiscal conservatism, “austerity,” free market doctrine, small-government politics, regulatory reduction, and other conservative doxa with such pillars of centrism as trade liberalization and opposition to higher minimum wages. Centrists and conservatives alike conflate them together by preaching them and practicing them together. They are not ideologically distinct; they are all part of one program. This is the essence of conflation.

Centrists might like to sift out socially regressive intentions, but liberals do not erroneously conflate them- it is conservative ideologues and their fellow-traveling centrists who pack them together, as they ride around in private jets with one another, into a regressive ideological program that relentlessly advances money and power.

They all share the article of faith that the largely unencumbered operations of the free-market will, on balance and over time, infallibly produce the highest and best good for everyone. Smith’s Invisible Hand will resolve the contradictions that arise when the power of the sovereign State, the institutions that defend common goods like human rights, public health, and the environment, and global institutions like the EU, Eurozone, World Bank and IMF are increasingly recruited to and subservient to private profit.

Some aspiring centrists are a little closer to the edge of the herd. Charles Wheelan has developed the Centrist Pledge. He would like to be the stern, moralizing judge who holds all wavering, fickle and irresponsible politicians who want to carry the credential of centrism to swear to their patriotism, and pledge their faith in the righteous and immutable principles upon which the greatest nation the earth has ever known are founded.

This version of centrism is a nationalistic, patriotic exceptionalism, based on a mythical national origin-story. It is two sprightly steps away from racialism and jingoism. Peddling himself as a centrist is an advertisement of his own relevance and pedigree: faithful patriotism and devotion to those righteous, immutable founding principles. Essentially, he would like to co-opt centrism, and bully politicians to swear they are something they might not be: Exceptionalist nationalists.

Tradition should be no basis for defining any sort of centrism. Traditions and rituals build community and confer and stability and continuity. In some contexts, they are conservative, and sometimes conservation is a good thing. Cultural and environmental stewards know. Invoking tradition in a political context is usually reactionary. Reactionaries are not moderate, neutral, pragmatic, or necessarily conservative. The traditionalist rejection of change is coupled with a desire to keep things as they were in some imagined, prior state- one that is less confusing, less vexing, and has fewer people in it- a state that was once more pure and uncomplicated.

Some websites purporting to be centrist dispense parroted content that is indistinguishable from destructive crap from the alt-right: nationalist, nativist, exceptionalist, discriminatory, violent, racist, supremacist. They promulgate the same disturbing, wild-eyed confabulations about the shenanigans of the liberals and democrats: Benghazi, emails, murder conspiracies, the whole shebang. Their ridiculous claims to centrism are cynical cover for incendiary right-wing radicalism.

The stock-in-trade of some more coherent centrists is anything but moderate: a mocking disregard, always for the nincompoop liberals, and the inept, corrupt Democratic Party. In fairness, some sites, like the entertaining The Moderate Voice, edited by Rick Bayan, are actually critical of the right too.

But most claims to be voices of moderation are false. There are few efforts to articulate and moderate among a variety of opinions. Centrists don’t do that; they promote centrism, and themselves. Mostly, they project mocking disdain for others.

In his 2015 article, Crooks describes a newfound openness among his ilk that there could be a role for such things as public debt, stimulus spending and capital controls. He says this a radical departure for US centrists, and unlikely to go far.

As much it anguishes centrists and the IMF, the ideologically contaminated machinery of the global economy hums and clatters away, with its normative levels of public debt, stimulus spending, capital controls and all – not to mention multiply parties and organized labor. For a psychotic New York moment, in 2009, even centrists were Keynesians. But no more.

The Freidmanite free-market doctrine that is the centrist cannon cannot even tolerate these things. Economies are supposed to wither if they get a speck on them, as though they have a peanut allergy. To critical observers, US centrists seem more like they are covering their ears and singing than they sound like pragmatic realists.

It is popularly received wisdom that the entirety of reasonable, practical political discourse in the US is what is called center-right. But centrists like to call the whole busy, busy world “center-left.” By positioning themselves to the right of the eurocrats, corporate neoliberals, and militaristic foreign-policy neoconservatives who are actually controlling the global machinery, centrists are just putting themselves a little bit closer to the far-right rail. The actual civilized social-democratic world out there makes American economism look hard-line. The parts of the world that have been subjected to the neocolonial impositions of austerity and military occupation find it to be pretty radically extreme.

From Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton, centrists have long claimed to be cool, detached and apolitical realists, essential to the steady navigation of turbulent political waters and the manipulation of the strategic knobs and levers of global realpolitik. But it is a capture of global governance to let of those in sworn fealty to corporatism and neoliberal hegemony have the keys to the control room.

The powerful work their will from the political right, but they also cynically exploit the “center.” Inadvertently or not, centrists serve them. When you are actually speaking for the rich and the powerful, it is easy to imagine that you have authority and power, because, well, you do. Sort of.

It is easy to think that one has the moral and intellectual authority to speak for an imaginary constituency a -silent majority- from which no sound comes. Centrists claim that they speak for (and serve) a large constituency they have invented for themselves.

In The Extreme Centre, Tariq Ali writes that “democracy has, in the west, taken the form of an extreme centre, in which centre-left and centre-right collude to preserve the status quo; a dictatorship of capital…” This was once celebrated as the Washington Consensus. It is an abhorrent abuse to claim that this radical doctrine is a consensus, as though no reasonable person could object to it. It suggests that there is a “consensus,” as long as it is only those who are not powerful and who do not benefit who do not accept it. The billions who do object are airily expelled from the competency and legitimacy to participate in a consensus, and excluded from a voice in their own affairs. This demolishes the very premises of participation and consensuality. It shows them to be things in which some centrists have no interest.

So-called moderate “centrism” disguises itself as reasoned, grounded and pragmatic. It camouflages itself as practical and principled. It pretends to a paternalistic toleration of differences and a sympathetic understanding of multiple perspectives.

 Centrists would like us to believe that they understand, accommodate and even honor positions that they identify as, well, extreme. Relative to themselves. They paint all that is thusly “extreme” as fundamentally immature and lacking in their tolerance, wisdom and superiority. Pseudo-intellectuals pretend to indulgent and paternalistic care for our well-being. They claim to patiently –indulgently- represent the interests that they frequently betray.

They smugly presume to define and validate “solid ground” by naming a sort of “middle ground” among competing claims, and calling it “common ground.” They arrogantly claim “moral ground” by defining everything else that lies around it as “extreme-“ and somehow immoral.

As pundits and operatives work their will upon us from the so-called “center,” they pretend to nonpartisan disinterest and rational neutrality. Like the blowhard punditry on the Right, they pretend to morality. It is a danger to admit into our discourse the laughable idea that something so fatuous can pass for morality.

The political operatives who have colonized the media like a cancer sell us their neutrality, wisdom and superior reason. They and the shouting, abusive cacophony of “surrogates” that they have ushered into the popular corporate media opened up a vacuum, like a black hole in the public space, into which all particles of truth inevitably fall and can never escape. Into this flooded not only the demagogue; unprincipled and grasping neoconservatives and neoliberals and fatcats and centrists have flocked to genuflect at the elevators of the Trump Tower.

When slick operators (link) who pretend to detachment claim to speak for each of us, and to simultaneously speak for everybody, our public conversation has been hijacked. We cannot speak for ourselves. Then no one can actually speak authentically for us at all. Different groups are no longer in any dialogue together. We can no longer see that our well-being, social belonging and survival are shared, or collective, or created together. We are fractured. Mutual suspicion, distrust, and the sense that we are alone against each other seep into an isolating social and political vacuum. We are a momentary distraction away from fascism.

“Centrists” like David Brooks and Clive Crooks might be horrified to imagine that they inadvertently contribute to such weakness in our society. But there is nothing inadvertent about it when crackpot dictators like Donald Trump and despotic wrecking balls like Steve Bannon begin to speak for us. The number of Americans who have finally heard their own voices and their own desires in the rageful tirades of these men is dismaying.

Crooks poses the question: “can any self-respecting political thinker any longer be a centrist?” He answers himself: “I’d say so. For me, the question is how any self-respecting political thinker can be anything else.” It is tempting to question how any centrist could be taken for a political thinker. It could be that the temperament in question is more self-aggrandizing than noble. It doesn’t inspire. To be asked to trust them is a bit much. It is more dangerous than they might imagine.



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editor @ 2:52 pm

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