14 min read

We Need to Talk About Reactionary Centrists

Sympathizing with the right while punching left is not the neutral position pundits seem to think it is
We Need to Talk About Reactionary Centrists

We have a crisis of lopsided political polarization in the United States.

There are fewer moderates than ever in the Republican Congress. Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has thrown out the rule book to undermine healthcare and steal a Supreme Court seat. The United States is the only country with a major political party that denies the scientific reality of climate change. Republican state legislatures are attacking people’s voting rights instead of trying to win their support. And right wing media routinely promotes conspiracy theories, from questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship to suggesting that the Parkland student activists are “crisis actors.”

But despite these developments, a great deal of popular political commentary still approaches our politics with a strange form of unearned evenhandedness. Opinion columnists, influential academics, and think tankers feel a need to occupy a middle ground, even if it’s one that is increasingly a product of their own imaginations. As a result, they wind up giving the right wing a free pass or accepting its worst impulses as a reality we have to live with, while reserving their criticism and armchair quarterbacking for anyone to their left.

I’ve come to call these pundits “reactionary centrists.”

Reactionary centrist (n) — Someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.

Reactionary centrism is an ideological stance that isn’t really centrist at all. It can elevate a speaker in the mainstream media as a liberal-ish critic of liberalism and make someone feel good about being above it all and not taking sides, but it’s increasingly a stance that leads to sloppy thinking, especially as the Republican party continues to lurch rightward and away from democratic rule. We should identify reactionary centrism when we see it, challenge it, and ask what reactionary centrists could be doing instead to more productively contribute to public debates.

Reactionary centrists think politics is about positions, not actions

Did you know Exxon supports a carbon tax? Well, that’s what they say when they’re challenged to do something about climate change. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on Capitol Hill whose ever felt pressured by the company’s lobbyists to actually pass a carbon tax.

Taking a political position is a cheap form of political action. But a lot of our thinking about politics is grounded in the idea that positions are more important than what political actors actually do to build and use power. Positional thinking leads reactionary centrists to the conclusion that if only the left and right could meet in the middle, wherever that middle is, we could settle contentious debates.

For instance, writing in Enlightenment Now, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker posits that if only the left embraced nuclear power, they could compromise with the right on climate solutions. But he doesn’t account for the fact that mainstream environmental groups have been exploring deals like this for years with little to show for it.

The cap-and-trade emissions trading debate in 2009 and 2010 was an attempt to use a market-based emissions reduction system to bring businesses and Republicans on board, including Republicans who supported carbon pricing and taxpayer subsidies to boost the nuclear industry. A handful of Republicans did come along, just enough to squeeze the bill through the House, but not enough to make a deal happen in the Senate. Most of the House Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade were primaried out of office in 2010 for daring to compromise with Democrats on anything. The story of Obamacare was quite similar.

When Vox’s Ezra Klein challenged Pinker on these facts during a podcast, it became clear that Pinker was not familiar with this political history or with the real advocacy positions of mainstream climate groups. Yet Pinker’s views still hold sway in the science and tech world, with prominent philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates promoting his book as a must-read.

More fundamentally, Pinker’s book admonishes the left to change its stances on climate policy. But why not tell the right to change their stances instead? It’s a question we too often fail to ask because conservative movements have made antipathy to compromise a key part of their political worldview. In admonishing the left to find more ways to work with the right, reactionary centrism does the right’s job for them.

For Pinker and a lot of people who don’t work in politics, public debates look like this:

Horseshoe theory.

And it feels good to believe that there’s a noble compromise to be had in the center. But the Republicans who are in power right now are telling us with their words, their actions, and their political muscle, that they’re not interested in one. Failing to listen to them—and blaming the left for not doing enough to compromise with them—is a recipe for sloppy thinking.

In political science terms, what the right is doing is shifting the Overton Window in their direction, trying to make extreme ideas such as climate denial, undermining voting rights, and dismantling the social safety net appear mainstream. Reactionary centrists, in urging the left to compromise with the right, play into this strategy.

A generalized example of an “Overton Window.” Credit: Hydrargyrum via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Online leftists jokingly dismiss “horseshoe theory” with “fishhook theory,” an illustration of how the right, in refusing to compromise, drags mass perception of where the middle is over their way.

“Fishhook theory.”

And on issues where political actors disagree about the very reality of a problem, finding middle ground can not only be impossible, but actively misleading.

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.

Map of the NYC Climate Mobilization in 2017. A physical manifestation of the climate coalition.

This is a tougher, longer-term path to walk than negotiating a grand bargain on nuclear power. But it has the helpful advantage of being grounded in reality and enjoying the support of actual climate advocates. The fact that Pinker doesn’t lead with work like this suggests that his own politics are more focused on appeasing the right than building power on the left.

Reactionary centrists need an intolerant left to match the intolerant right

Pinker is among many scholars who worry that intolerance on the right is being matched by a different kind of intolerance on the left. To be clear, reactionary centrists don’t deny that the hard right is bad and terrible. They see the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the conspiracy theories, the voter suppression, the censorship of government researchers, the ICE agents picking people up off the street. But then they look for something, anything on the left to balance this out so they can stay in the middle.

This analysis lacks a sense of who actually has power on each side. Do we really think that a student activist group protesting a controversial speaker is as much of a threat to free speech as a Republican president who calls for jailing journalists and firing protesting NFL players? Of course not, but why then do Pinker and other scholars and pundits keep coming back to campus free speech debates as an example of lefty intolerance? Maybe their own positions in and around academia bias them toward caring more about these debates, but it may also speak to a deep need to perform a centrist balancing act that isn’t backed up by the facts.

And in some cases, reactionary centrists’ need for an intolerant left causes them to make stuff up or uncritically pass on obvious misinformation.

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psych professor and best-selling author, came to fame for insisting that a Canadian human rights law would require him to use specific gender pronouns in his classroom. There was nothing in the legislation in question that actually did so, and Peterson’s claims were routinely debunked by law professors, the Canadian Bar Association, transgender rights groups, and members of the Canadian Parliament. But Peterson was able to use his criticism of a fictional radical leftist position to elevate himself as a reasonable middle man, even as he professed to sympathize with liberal positions on labor and worker’s rights. Peterson has found himself a welcome guest on the campus free speech moral panic media circuit, from David Rubin’s podcast to Real Time with Bill Maher, where iconoclasts can conflate progressive activists disagreeing with them with having their views suppressed and their rights trampled.

Rubin, a former Young Turks host, says he ditched the left for its purported intolerance of competing views. But in doing so, he routinely promotes sensationalized stories about campus protests directed at conservative speakers. And in at least one case, he’s helped promote an entirely fake leftist critic. The Twitter account “Official Antifa” lambasted a talk he was set to give, counting him among “racist, anti-LGBT fascists” who weren't welcome on campus and he took the bait, sharing their post to mock the left. But as Buzzfeed exposed in 2017, the account is not run by anti-fascist organizers, but by trolls who are trying to discredit the left and get amplified by commentators like Rubin. Bari Weiss, an opinion columnist for the New York Times helped them out when she cited Official Antifa’s take on Rubin as an example of left wing campus intolerance. The Times had to issue an embarrassing correction and Twitter, at long last, finally suspended the fake account.

These incidents are silly, but they speak to the deep need some pundits have to punch left, even if they’re punching at works of fiction. They also fail to recognize the outsize power of right wing news media on conservative politics and how right wing news outlets routinely lie to their audiences about campus activism, taking out-of-context stories from right wing advocacy groups like Campus Reform and laundering them them through more staid commentary magazines like the National Review and Weekly Standard, eventually pushing them into columns and op-eds in mainstream publications like the Times and Wall Street Journal.

Reactionary centrists also elevate these incidents, in part, because they believe that intolerance on the left somehow causes polarization on the right. But the mechanism by which this occurs is never explained. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor who has written a book about political tribalism, blames the left for the rise of Trump and the so-called “alt-right” white nationalists. In her telling, if the left had more tolerance for mainstream right wing views or tamped down discussions of topics like cultural appropriation, the right wouldn’t be as tribal. In making this argument, Chua ignores the role that right wing media plays in misrepresenting views on the left and stoking resentment on the right. But as evidence, she offers a handful of blog comments around the 2016 election purportedly written by conservatives who were troubled by Trump and the hard right, but who were somehow more troubled by campus activists and so-called “identity politics.” Chua never seems to have asked herself if these comments are genuine or simply a form of right wing concern trolling based on messages propagated in the right wing press.

Indeed, if you only watched Fox News, you would think that Black Lives Matter is a violent street gang, not a wide-ranging civil rights movement with a detailed policy platform and community anti-violence initiatives. You might also think that students activists spend all their time trying to deplatform right wing speakers. You’d never hear about the widespread activism among students to reduce their debt load, increase their wages, and organize their peers. And you’d definitely never hear about religious colleges that routinely fire employees and suspend students for violating right wing forms of political correctness.

The truth is that if everyone on the left followed the advice of Peterson, Weiss, Rubin, and Chua, Fox News would still lie to its base to keep them whipped up about something. It’s just what they do. And taking right wing propaganda at face value is perhaps the worst error reactionary centrists make.

But when questioned on another Ezra Klein podcast about the pervasive power of Fox News on the American political right, Chua refused to engage with how the network spreads resentment, fear and misinformation. Instead, she said cable news generally was bad, keeping herself firmly in the middle.

Even more prosaically, professional centrist groups like No Labels have found themselves misrepresenting the ins-and-outs of wonky policy debates on healthcare premiums to paint Democrats as if they’re as ideologically hardwired and compromise-averse as Republicans. Not only were they wrong in that instance, but political scientists would scoff at the notion that the parties are equally polarized.

Washington Post.

These are hard political realities to acknowledge. Our national political system is deeply different than it was in 1985. But retreating into a fantasy world where the right can heal itself through the power of centrism or noble compromises exclusively made by the left is no solution at all.

Reactionary centrists have to prop up the moderate right

Reactionary centrists often enter into political debates with the presumption that they should always be cool, level-headed, and respectful. And that’s nice, but politics is a very contentious field precisely because it’s how we resolve otherwise unresolvable conflicts. Further, a lot of reactionary centrists are part of a chattering class in publishing and academia that views respectful discussion as the central goal of politics rather than the building or use of power, the granting of rights, or the distribution of resources and wealth. Thus, they work overtime to elevate the views of what they consider moderate or reasonable voices on the right, even though those voices have very little power in policymaking. And they give far too much credit to actual powerful political actors on the right for being reasonable when they’re actually quite extreme.

This leads to some truly strange commentary. For instance, Conor Freidersdorf, in attempting to criticize The Atlantic’s decision to fire the incendiary right-wing blogger Kevin Williamson, ties the incident to the literal destruction of the American project.

More specifically, I dissent from the way that Williamson was dragged, regardless of his position. That dragging would be a small matter in isolation, but it is of a piece with burgeoning, shortsighted modes of discourse that are corroding what few remaining ties bind the American center. Should that center fail to hold, anarchy will be loosed.

But what is the nature of this anarchy and its loosening? This is left to the reader’s imagination. I doubt most Americans even know who Kevin Williamson is.

Similarly, Sam Harris flipped out at Vox Media for publishing a criticism of an interview he did with Charles Murray, a right wing political scientist whose uses data about race and IQ to argue for dismantling civil rights programs. Harris’s beef? One day science may say something inconvenient for the left, therefore liberals have to demonstrate that they can respectfully discuss race science with Charles Murray while ignoring Murray’s policy goals. For Harris, being able to avoid criticism from outlets like Vox is more important than the public policy debates he wants to participate in. And he’d rather invest his time, energy, and considerable podcast platform into presenting a moderate version of Charles Murray’s views than elevating the voices of civil rights activists or scholars who work on ending racial discrimination.

When pressed on these issues, again by the infinitely patient Ezra Klein, Harris demonstrated that while he thinks everyone else is politically biased, he is not.

That discussion reminded me of so many others I’ve had with researchers who participate in political debates. They think the middle is where they’re supposed to be regardless of where the sides stand in a debate, but they can’t quite explain why. If you point out their political biases and the effects of their political advocacy, you’ll get a blank stare, a denial, or simply have accusations of bias thrown back at you.

For instance, Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist who rose to prominence among climate deniers for criticizing other researchers, endorses a handful of right-wing policies on climate change, including revisiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that carbon emissions endanger public health and creating a “red team” to challenge official climate science.

When I pressed Curry to acknowledge that she was engaging in political advocacy, including testifying about these issues at the invitation of Republican members of Congress and conducting a deeply misleading interview with Fox News, she insisted that she isn’t really an advocate and doesn’t have an ideology at all. But in this case centrism — and a particular reactionary form of centrism—is the relevant ideological stance. In Curry’s case, it led her to tell Congress to follow the lead of right wing think tanks on climate science and to tell Tucker Carlson that climate change could be both good and bad while also, at Carlson’s prompting, trashing Al Gore. The fact that someone can do that while still claiming to occupy an ideological middle ground is mind-boggling, but reactionary centrism persists precisely because it is so often unthoughtful.

Roger Pielke Jr., another researcher who has made a career out of criticizing climate scientists for their political advocacy has made some similarly odd leaps about just how moderate and compromise-happy conservatives are in the Trump era. For instance, after Trump’s election, he dismissed Trump’s climate denial and embraced the view that he was actually quite flexible on climate policy, advising scientists that they should work with the administration:

Despite Trump’s rhetorical nods to the social conservative wing of his party during the campaign and his enthusiasm for convenient conspiracy theories, he is clearly a pragmatist with little worry about changing his policy preferences.

Needless to say, that hasn’t panned out. More recently, he has tried to dismiss the Trump administration’s widespread scientific censorship as a form of “neglect,” insisting that a president who believes climate change conspiracy theories and appoints a wrecking crew to lead the EPA actually doesn’t care about these issues.

Yet when engaged on these points, particularly the pervasive nature of climate denial, Pielke Jr. still blames the environmental left for not being welcoming enough of views on the right. Although he has liberal values, Pielke Jr. has secured his position as a go-to expert for right wing political actors, including being called in to testify by Republicans at the same hearing Curry participated in.

It’s OK to take sides

There is a role for centrism in our politics. But moderation or centrism as a goal is easily exploitable by the modern right, especially for public figures who see political debates in purely partisan and positional terms.

At best, reactionary centrism is a lazy response to politics. If progressive groups are doing something you can describe as distasteful or beneath you, or ineffective, 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.

But at worst, reactionary centrists fail to critically assess how the right operates in America and wind up playing along with its agenda as a result.

There’s always going to be disputes between Democrats and Republicans that require compromise. But increasingly, the disputes we face are over basic rights and realities. Is climate change real? Does everyone deserve the right to vote? Are democratic institutions worth defending?

In this era, taking sides on those issues is of fundamental importance. The goal of any progressive political program should be to build power, strengthen democracy, and deliver more benefits to more people.

There’s plenty of room for compromise along the way, including compromise with committed centrists and conservatives. But one should never be blinded into compromise as a goal in and of itself. Compromise and standing in the middle is a tactic and a tool, not an ideology. And in an era where the right refuses to compromise on anything, reactionary centrism isn’t centrist at all.

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.

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