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Reactionary Centrism: a Response to Jonathan Chait

Reactionary Centrism: a Response to Jonathan Chait

Jonathan Chait recently criticized a 2018 essay I wrote about “reactionary centrism," a term that's picked up some steam over the years from journalists like Michael Hobbes and history professor Thomas Zimmer.

Below, I've quoted some relevant passages from Chait's essay and some brief responses.

Huertas defined a reactionary centrist as “someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Zimmer, in a recent podcast, said, “The term refers to people who claim to be moderate, in the middle, while always punching left."...The actual standard, and the term’s most commonly applied usage, is an insult for liberals who sometimes criticize the left.

The important thing to understand about my original definition is that a reactionary centrist is someone who tries to hold a middle, neutral position in a debate – not necessarily a liberal one — while punching left. It's not meant as an insult, at least in my mind. It's a descriptive term about ideology and resulting communication strategy. Further, some people who engage in reactionary centrism, including one cited in my essay, do explicitly identify as centrists.

But the left’s critique frequently slips into a maximalist version, which holds that, since the right poses the greatest danger to liberal democratic values, one should never criticize the left.

This seems like a straw man. There's lots of consistent, good faith, intra-left criticism one can easily access in magazines, podcasts, list servs, organizing meetings, etc. A major point of my essay is identifying the ways in which reactionary centrism constitutes a bad faith source of criticism.

So what are the liberals supposed to do if we believe the left is wrong about something? Having read or listened to several expositions on the evils of reactionary centrism, I have yet to find any usable guidance for such an instance. All the arguments I have seen assume away any such possibility.

Huertas, in his foundational essay on the phenomenon, comes close at one point to acknowledging the possibility that a liberal critic may be correct, before veering away. “If progressive groups are doing something you can describe as distasteful or beneath you, or ineffective,” he writes, “that’s an excuse to avoid the hard work of participating in the progressive political movements that are actually trying to make our politics better.” You might believe progressive groups are misguided, but rather than saying so, you should simply work harder, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

To be clear, the essay I wrote was not about good faith criticism, which obviously exists, at least to my intended audience. In these passages, I'm describing some of the ways reactionary centrism is psychologically satisfying to people who do not actually contribute to political movements. The answer to what one is supposed to do with criticisms of progressives is contained in the quoted passage, at least in a very general sense, and is something tons of liberals and progressives do every day in political organizing and legislating. The absence of such efforts from reactionary centrists is often revealing in this regard.

My old essay's conclusion also has some unsolicited advice for reactionary centrists:

"Reactionary centrists should understand these dynamics, question their own largely unexamined political beliefs and ideological biases, and ask themselves if what they’re doing with their public advocacy work is actually accomplishing what they think it is. And I hope in giving a name to this stance we can debate reactionary centrism for what it often is: an unthoughtful ideological stance that helps a speaker build their platform, but fails to make our democracy stronger."

To illustrate how his principle would operate in practice, Huertas turns to a specific issue: climate change. He cites criticism of the climate movement, Huertas’s area of speciality, by Steven Pinker: “Pinker’s book admonishes the left to change its stances on climate policy. But why not tell the right to change their stances instead?” Huertas’s point is not that Pinker’s specific criticisms of the left are wrong. (I have not read Pinker’s book, and can’t judge them.) It’s that it is reactionary centrism, and therefore wrong, to criticize the left at all.

As I point out in the essay, Pinker is actually wrong on the substance of what climate advocacy groups believe and do and was gently corrected on this point during an Ezra Klein podcast. It illustrates a general point that many reactionary centrists believe the left can secure compromise from the right, but doing so is actually difficult to impossible across a range of issues. Specifically, most of the Republicans who might have been open to cap-and-trade in 2009 and a related deal on nuclear wound up running away from negotiations as the Tea Party threatened them from the right. Politics is dynamic and opposition groups can quickly counter-mobilize in response to possible compromises, something reactionary centrists often don't consider because their view of politics is generally overly focused on position-taking rather than power analysis.

Rather than take issue with progressive activists, he proposes, the correct response is to support them:

“So what does an alternative path look like on an issue like climate change? In short, trying to win. The climate mobilization last year showed how interconnected groups can work together to build political power around a platform of climate, jobs and justice. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the People’s Climate March, for instance, are doing more work to protect voting rights in marginalized communities — the same predominately black and Latinx communities that are the most likely to suffer from environmental injustice and the most reliable voters for environmental champions.”

This part of the essay is not a recommendation for good faith liberal critics of progressivism, it is contrasting a "reactionary centrist" political strategy of knee-jerk compromise with an imaginary or out-of-power center-right with a political strategy of coalition building. Chait also conflates "support" for progressive groups with the action of "work[ing] together to build political power..."

Huertas’s argument is that questioning the progressive line — say, by arguing that empowering local activists to block new construction makes climate change worse — is reactionary centrism.

Respectfully, this is simply not what I believe. Further, there is nothing in the essay about permitting reform or local activism. There are, in fact, many good faith debates about permitting reform in the climate movement.

I'm happy people are finding the term "reactionary centrism" useful and criticism is welcome, but I don't think Chait fairly represents my original essay or my views in this instance.

Here are some pieces of additional commentary from other folks named in the essay, a few of which have responses from Chait:

1/6/23 update: I'm making a good faith effort to discuss these points with Chait. He has not responded to me and I'm not sure if he's read this post. (My tweets auto-delete and I'm using the platform sparingly in favor of Mastodon, so screencap below, but the link is here.)

1/15/23 update: Chait replied to me, but unfortunately he seems stuck on his strawman "maximalist" definition of reactionary centrism and keeps mischaracterizing what I wrote. For instance, in this post, he misinterprets a simple rhetorical question I posed in response to a Steven Pinker argument as a blanket denial of any possibility that criticisms of the climate movement might be valid. He also doesn't seem interested in charitably interpreting what it might mean to participate in a political movement one is trying to influence, including through criticism. Of course, even if he overcame these problems with textual interpretation, there's still the small matter of the person whose beliefs he is attempting to describe telling him — over and over and over again — that he is getting them wrong. It's extremely frustrating to see someone with such a large platform ignore my actual arguments and beliefs. I responded here and once again offered to discuss this topic with him in the hope, however vain, that he might put down the keyboard for a second and empathetically consider what I actually believe based on my years of political work rather than continuing to misrepresent a 2018 essay I wrote to his followers and readers.

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