Friday, March 23, 2018

The Centrism Fallacy

Centrism is one of those things that never quite seems to go out of vogue. One always seems to find people who will proudly declare themselves centrists, above the party politics that results in gridlock and polarization, and supporters of moderation and compromise. Not surprisingly, as the progressive movement that grew from the Sanders campaign attempts to push the Democrats (slightly) leftward while the Republican Party is fronted by a racist whose far-right sympathies are not exactly well-hidden, calls for centrism, moderation, and compromise are not hard to find.

The appeal of centrism (at least when it's not being cynically used by party insiders to beat back populist challengers) is not incomprehensible. Wanting an alternative to either of the two awful major parties we have is completely understandable, and it's certainly true that Congress has shown an inability to deal effectively with a lot of the major problems that face us. Plus, proclaiming yourself above loyalty to a specific party or ideology feels good; no one wants to be seen as just another drone mindlessly obeying orders and following the crowd.

That being said, the rationalizations that repeatedly crop up for centrism--that being 'extreme' is ipso facto bad, being moderate is rational, and compromise is how we solve the major problems we face--is both wrong and ahistorical. Worse, the people who promote it, whether sincerely or just in a transparent attempt to smear any populist movement that challenges the establishment of their favorite party, are doing harm, if anything.

It's first worth noting the irony that a lot of the same people who champion moderation engage in the standard veneration of the U.S.'s Founding Fathers, despite the fact that they made the decision to secede from English rule by war rather than tolerate what they perceived as the abuses of the king's government. Plainly enough, this wasn't a very centrist decision. It was obviously a radical solution, and while it's true that attempts were made to reconcile with the British government, the position that the colonists had the right to break away from British control and create their own government was obviously quite controversial, with an estimated 15 to 20 percent of white colonial men (as well as, understandably, many slaves) actively helping the British in their attempt to put down the rebellion. Many other colonists remained neutral, which, one supposes, is the "centrist" position in this case. So unless they're ready to denounce the radicalism of the Founding Fathers in deciding to overthrow British control (using violence, even), centrists have already begun to concede that there is nothing inherently wise or rational about moderation and compromise.

 Compromise, to be sure, would play an important role in shaping the policies of the new nation once the revolution succeeded--but in many cases, not in ways that are exactly favorably remembered. Those who paid attention in history class may recall the three-fifths compromise, which emerged at the constitutional convention and said that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for apportionment of taxes and legislative representation. This both made a mockery of Jefferson's famous statement that "all men are created equal" and gave slave states disproportionate influence in Congress and the Electoral College.

A few decades later came the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30′ (except in Missouri), but allowed it to go on unimpeded south of this line, over the objections of many northerners. At the time, Thomas Jefferson warned that the compromise was "a reprieve only, not a final sentence" and presciently noted that "a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political...will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper."
A few decades later, another major compromise was reached--the Compromise of 1850, which, among other things, admitted California as a free state but also implemented a new Fugitive Slave Act designed to make it easier for slave-owners to recover runaways. The Compromise also applied the idea of "popular sovereignty," allowing settlers in a territory to decide for themselves whether their state would permit or prohibit slavery, to Utah and New Mexico. The same principle was later disastrously applied by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which helped lead to the Civil War.

Both the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act were championed by Stephen A. Douglas, who "saw himself as the defender of the sane middle ground, where the Union might be saved from extremists." Indeed, when one considers the abolitionists on the one hand and proslavery advocates like George Fitzhugh, who argued that "the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child," it is hard to deny that Douglas occupied a relatively moderate position, neither pushing for nor against slavery but simply arguing that the (free) people in each territory should make the decision for themselves. 

In fairness, there is an argument to be made that, while repugnant on principle, some amount of compromise on the issue of slavery was ultimately for the better, as it allowed the North to industrialize and thus defeat the south when civil war finally did break out. However, slavery was ultimately abolished, as we know, through the rejection of compromise. Indeed, a compromise was put on the table that may have avoided civil war, from Senator John J. Crittenden. It would have made protected the permanent existence of slavery in the slave states and reestablished the Missouri Compromise line through constitutional amendment (the original Missouri Compromise having been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act). While president-elect Abraham Lincoln was no abolitionist, he rejected the compromise, accepting that doing so might make civil war inevitable, as it did.

While Lincoln did only occupy a moderately antislavery position at the time of the election, his uncompromising stance against its expansion helped lead to the Civil War, and of course he ultimately supported what the abolitionist radicals had wanted--a complete end to de jure slavery, by constitutional amendment. So, in the end, it was a complete rejection of compromise with proslavery forces that ended slavery, achieving a major step forward for the United States.
After the Civil War, there were some promising moves toward racial equality during Reconstruction, but, unfortunately, it was ended in 1877, as part of a compromise to win southern acceptance of the disputed election the year before. Even before the contentious election result, the Republican and ultimate victor, Rutherford B. Hayes, had indicated a willingness to back off from the Reconstruction policies of the radical wing of his party. The results of the compromise were, of course, decades of Jim Crow policies and other forms of vicious racial oppression. Once again, it seems, the 'moderate' position, and compromise, only allowed inequality and injustice to survive longer than it might have if more radical action had been taken. 

With this legacy, it's hardly a surprise that Martin Luther King would later admit "that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." 

Despite the bizarre nostalgia expressed by Joe Biden for a time when "you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together" with segregationist members of Congress and work together, the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was pushed through over the strenuous objections (and filibusters) of the Dixiecrats, and alienated many Southerners from the Democratic Party. Once again, it was the end of a compromise between sectional interests that helped move the country forward, and a decidedly uncompromising attitude--particularly on the part of the activists and leaders like King, Malcolm X, and others (whose radicalism, it's worth noting, went well beyond just the racial issues of their day).

I realize these examples might not be especially convincing. After all, it now seems so obvious to most of us that segregation and slavery were inhumane and unjust all along. It doesn't seem comparable to the issues that we face today, and, of course, people across the political spectrum now recognize that these policies were completely indefensible. But there's another example--not historical, but modern--where even many centrists, I believe, would agree that the "extreme" position is correct, and compromise is certainly undesirable. That issue is freedom of speech.

In the United States, freedom of speech applies to views and expressions that would be proscribed in even many other advanced countries. For instance, many countries in Europe have laws against hate speech and Holocaust denial--and a 2015 Pew survey across 38 countries found that Americans are exceptionally opposed to restrictions on speech, and ranked first on their Free Expression Index measuring public support  for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The average American's view of freedom of speech, then, is clearly toward the extreme end of the international spectrum. The idea that freedom of speech should apply even to Nazis and Holocaust deniers, while relatively uncontroversial in the US, is not at all an uncontroversial proposition internationally.

I assume that many self-identified centrists in the US would support freedom of speech in a relatively absolute sense, arguing that even heinous views and hateful speech should be protected by the First Amendment, that even neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan should enjoy the right to express their views openly and peacefully assemble (I happen to agree with this). But, internationally speaking, that's not a moderate position; on the contrary, even in advanced democracies like Germany and Italy, less than half of those surveyed supported applying freedom of speech to utterances that offend minority groups. A moderate position on the issue of freedom of speech, then, would grant certain restrictions on offensive speech, but on the issue of freedom of speech, and hate speech in particular, many centrists are anything but moderate (and rightly so, in my view).

The point of this post is not that holding moderate positions is inherently bad; on the contrary, there are issues where I see myself as being relatively moderate (gun control, for instance). But the idea that moderate positions are in and of themselves desirable and that "radical" positions should be shunned is simply ahistorical and ignorant. The same goes for any glorification of the idea of compromise; of course sometimes compromise is necessary, but there's no reason to celebrate it; it means, by definition, not getting everything you want, and it's senseless to glorify a willingness to appease your political opponents just to "make a deal." And, again, sometimes compromise is completely undesirable, as it was before the Civil War, when it would have avoided conflict at the expense of preserving slavery.

One can say the same for the the centrist fetishization of "rationality" and "practicality." Of course, being rational and practical by no means indicates that one's a centrist--one can certainly have a radical goal but a practical, rational idea for how to achieve it. But, furthermore, rationality and practicality are not enough to give us a view of the society we want. A CEO may be acting rationally when deciding to keep their workers' wages low, or pollute the atmosphere, or grossly overcharge customers. Owning slaves may have been practical for a plantation owner in the antebellum South. Practicality and rationality are, of course, important, but they're not enough to give us a positive idea of what we want to achieve.

As a corollary to all of this, it's also time to stop demonizing people for being "radical" or "extremist." To quote Malcolm X (who seemed to be borrowing from Barry Goldwater), "when...a human being is exercising defense of liberty for human beings it's no vice, and when one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings I say he is a sinner." Supporting racial egalitarianism a few hundred years ago would have been a very radical position, and supporting free speech for Nazis would likely be seen as radical by plenty of people today, depending on where you are in the world. Of course, radical positions aren't ipso facto good, but they should be appraised based on their actual merits, not dismissed on the grounds that they're radical. Moderate positions should be subjected to the same scrutiny. In fact, this is what genuinely rational discourse requires.