Why I am a Centrist

After the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror began. (Public domain. Source: Wikipedia)

It takes a crisis of the magnitude of the Ukraine war to see who’s really on the side of democracy. On the hard left, we have whataboutism; on the hard right, appeasement.

Hard left and right really are cut from the same cloth. What makes these political positions ultimately similar is that they dread a world that is unaligned with the way they think the world should be. That is, a free world.

The hard right openly fawned over and even courted Putin. They love Putin for being a so-called “strong man” — anti-immigration, anti-gay rights, and overseeing a hyper-capitalistic economy with a flat tax rate and capital concentrated into the hands of the few.

Though, it’s hard to figure out what’s so “strong” about somebody who seems so terrified of a free press, or protests.

These right-wing goons blamed NATO “expansionism” for the crisis in Ukraine. “Expansionism” makes it sound imperialistic and ominous, but NATO’s growth is essentially democratic countries freely signing up to a defensive alliance.

These people said, “don’t poke the Russian bear”. We’ve known for a decade what that entails — the former Eastern Bloc to be eaten up by a new and hungry Russian Empire led by kleptocrats. It’s outright appeasement.

The self-loathing and revolutionary left of the West see Putin’s war as no different from Afghanistan or Iraq. They refuse to sympathise with Ukraine, believing gestures of solidarity would make them complicit with Western imperialism.

Ethical culpability is made complicated by Marxist theory. Marxists tend toward the belief that we are constructed by socio-economic structures and “ideological apparatuses”.

Most people don’t really have agency in this world-view, except when participating in revolution. The only people who are morally culpable are rich white people, and the definition of “rich” (or even “white”) varies from context to context.

No matter what horror is unleashed in the world, you can be sure that leftists will trace the responsibility back to Western imperialism.

That the West can be accused of hypocrisy is a fair point, and it’s certainly a more principled position to take than the right’s appeasement. But there’s a big difference. When the west went to war with Iraq in 2003, thousands, even millions, marched and protested — including me.

In Russia, attending an anti-war protest will see you snatched off the street, and could see you in jail. In fact, in Russia, you’re not allowed to call this war a “war”.

Totalitarianism attacks language first, it attempts to preclude the very means by which people can articulate dissent. While we felt collective shame and guilt for 2003’s “shock and awe” inflicted on Iraqis, ordinary Russians are being conscripted into the wider information war.

Centrism has been a dirty word for about a decade now. In these wildly polarized, hysterical times, we’re implored to a take a side on either extreme end of the political spectrum.

Henry Kissinger remarked that the politics of the university campus is the most vicious because the stakes are so small. Yet we’ve seen this level of viciousness bleed into mainstream high-stakes politics across the western world.

Both sides of the political spectrum have done what they do best: cultivate an atmosphere of fear. The hard left has given us cancel culture, the right has given us industrial levels of trolling.

John Cleese makes a serious point by taking a light-hearted look at the psychological appeal of extremism.

Centrist is perhaps a misnomer. In the spectrum of political beliefs there isn’t really a centre, and there’s no real middle between left and right, which is what “centrism” implies.

The alternative — “politically moderate” — seems weak, as if we hold no strong convictions. Centrists or moderates are probably more substantially described as pragmatists.

They are pragmatic but — crucially — their pragmatism is grounded in foundational belief in freedom of speech and expression, democracy, equality. While equitable outcomes are pursued, they shouldn’t endanger those three pillars of democracy.

Centrists also embrace doubt. While the extreme right and left feel absolutely certain of what is good for people and society, centrists feel it’s best left for people themselves to decide.

We know what’s best for us both as individuals when making choices about their own lives, and in aggregate when going to the polls to vote or participating in free public discourse.

This sounds like libertarianism, but it’s not. Libertarianism as an anti-statist ideology is extremist too.

For the centrist, the bureaucratic structures of the state are necessary to guarantee freedom and democracy and to protect people from other potentially exploitative structures (like political movements, organized religions and corporations).

What’s essential to the centrist is that those bureaucratic structures are as transparent and representative as possible. It’s a constant battle.

The Real Dividing Line in Politics

Centrists can be left or right, and they can disagree — sometimes passionately — about the best way to achieve our shared aims.

Centrists can ultimately share the outcomes that the hard right and left desire — such as socialism or libertarianism. The difference isn’t the objective, it’s the method. Centrists being pragmatic incrementalists, and the hard ideologies being hell-bent on no-compromise revolution.

The real dividing line in politics is not “left and right”, it’s about those who want the best for everybody, and those who want the worst for some. In other words, it’s a dividing line between extremists and centrists.

The real dividing line in politics is the pragmatists of the centre, and the ideological left and right at the extreme ends of the spetrum.

The hard right and left want to punish those who they see as opposing their world-view, be it the rich, the “undeserving” poor, minorities, gays, “the elites” (whatever that means), etc. etc.

What’s most common among centrists is unifying rhetoric, the desire for an equitable win-win outcome. Centrists want the best aggregate outcome, without damaging those three sacred pillars of freedom – democracy, equality and free speech.

We know our systems are far from perfect, and we battle to reform our way to the best possible political system.

It’s comforting to be an extremist — to believe in a noble cause of revolution and rapid wealth redistribution on the left, or religion, nationalism and “traditional values” on the right. Revolution is cool too, isn’t it? As a teenager it was de rigueur to have a Che Guevara poster on your wall, to rage against the perceived complacency of democratic norms.

To be a centrist is to forever be debating and refining ways in which society can be improved without any need for coercion or violence. It’s thankless and unglamorous, but it’s served society well for hundreds of years.

But things have been difficult in the last decade. Populism tests the dividing line between extremism and centrism. That invention of fanatics, the “culture wars”, draws otherwise reasonable-minded people into open conflict with each other.

The hard right and left hate peace, they think peace is banal. The hard right hate pride parades and unions, the hard left hate consumerism and wealth. They have bought into the lie of authoritarians like Putin and Chávez that the West is somehow decadent and weak.

They want to free our minds with their ideology. The irony.

It turns out that Western democracy is stronger now than ever, and that Putin’s Russia is the very template of decadence.

The invasion of Ukraine — besides being an imperialist land-grab — was supposed to be a showcase of what a newly-mighty Russia could achieve — a Russia with traditional values, a strong leadership and a powerful military in comparison to the liberal, effete and decadent West. Its Breguet-wearing high priests claim Putin to be a bulwark against morally-corrupt Western values (read: freedom).

But the Ukraine expedition has been a humiliation for Putin and his cronies, as much as it has been a tragedy for Ukrainians and the innocent Russian soldiers thrown into a battle they are reluctant to fight.

It has galvanized the supposedly weak West. Mighty, resurgent authoritarian Russia, led by “genius” Putin, turned out to be a damp paper tiger.

Russia is so corrupt that its soldiers lack basic provisions or suitable clothing and equipment. Putin believed his own propaganda, but he inhabited a Potemkin village constructed by the swarm of greedy oligarchs.

This alternative to centrist “decadence” and “complacency” — a cause many cynics in the West have sympathized and even rallied to — is a chimera. It’s a sham exposed by the outnumbered Ukrainians who are fighting for freedom — the most noble cause of all.

Unlisted

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Steven Gambardella

Steven Gambardella

I am a history PhD sharing the lessons of philosophy and history with practical benefits for your life and work. Get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com