Why the Fringes Are Winning, And How the Tides Can Be Turned
As the loudest voices on our political spectrum seem to be bringing us ever closer to civil war, some are asking the question — what happened to everyone in the middle? What, oh what, ever became of the great center that was such a force in our politics of yore, that swung elections and got bills passed? Are they still around? Does anyone still believe in that sort of thing anymore?
As a popular leaning, it does seem that the center — the broadly defined middle of the American political spectrum — is still with us, the rumors of its death exaggerated. At least as of somewhat recently, most of our nation fell outside the zealous revolutionary and reactionary camps that seem to make the headlines. Our primary window into the popular conscience, after all, is a handful of social media networks that have a tendency of amplifying those with the strongest opinions. A dedicated partisan may post on Twitter or Facebook with aplomb, making or echoing grand declarations, garnering easy likes and shares from like-minded compatriots. For a centrist, a moderate, or a milquetoast, the barrier to wanting to get involved in social media politics is far greater and ever growing, and what they do post, should it be weighed down by nuance or uncertainty, tends not to spread very effectively along the webs. The result is a large contingent of thinkers in the middle left mostly silent, while those on the fringes — fringes still, though they seem to be growing — dominate conversation.
But in the halls of political power, the ongoing demise of our political center is very real. The same social media-driven paradigm that distorts our perception of public opinion, after all, has completely changed the game for those seeking office. Primary success no longer comes down to who is perceived to play best to the middle — rather, it is who can play better to the social media crowds, who can stir the fervor, the emotion, and the free publicity that they offer. It is a test of who can best rile energy, and it lies at the core of both Trump’s 2016 success and the ongoing rise of progressivism among the Democratic Party ranks.
For those interested in seeing centrism succeed and push back against partisan polarization in this new world — and I am one of them, if you’ve not been able to tell — it is clear that the approach needs to change dramatically. Moving forward in the current pace and manner would be futile. The loonies, if you will, will continue to dominate the bubbled forums of discourse, and will convert that dominance downstream into elected success. As the ‘Other Side’ becomes consumed by its most ardent advocates, the polarization will bounce back upstream into popular thought, and a vicious cycle will take hold.
There is no shortage of capable messengers in the center. From the prolific podcasters of the Intellectual Dark Web to online publications like Quillette and UnHerd, many of the finest — and indeed, a few of the most popular — thinkers of our day are those who fall outside the partisan orthodoxies. But so much of this intellectual capital seems to be spent on criticism, fighting a war on two fronts while offering little positive around which to rally.
The path forward for the American center, and for the center in the entire western world, must encompass an understanding of what we are fighting against, an appreciation for why the public may be apprehensive to embrace a third way, and a realization of what we can change and how we may position ourselves to be better suited for success in our current reality. The steps we need to take are not simple ones, but they may make the difference between a conglomerate of intellectuals helplessly observing the course of history, and a movement capable of changing it.
Understand What Resonates and Why
Many pitfalls await a center trying to reclaim political relevance, and the first to consider lies in appreciating what stands against it. To the moderate-minded, the ideas of the Progressive Left and Trumpian Right may seem crazy, but to dismiss them as such, to credit their success solely to misinformation and naivety, is to terribly underestimate them. After all, these ideas offer a lens not only into what resonates with the sensitivities and sensibilities of our most vocal political tribes, but also into what it takes to really spread a message in the current communication paradigm.
On the left, we have a political tribe enamored with action. Their ideas, bubble-forged in the halls of elite academia and the well-insulated progressive spheres of our social media, are loaded with radicality, urgency, self-certainty, and invented language. To the like-minded listener, they are invigorating, speaking to a desire to champion the downtrodden and battle the forces of oppression. To those less inclined to agree, they are baffling, indicative of delusion, malice, or both.
On the right, in turn, we have reaction, the often guttural response to leftist, globalist, and technocratic encroachment upon our society and institutions. It is a school of thought well exemplified by Donald Trump’s brashness, and emboldened by every seeming advance the Left takes against him. To those sharing the distrust of big government, mainstream media, and everything trying to “revolutionize” society, the beliefs and solutions of the Trumpian right seem perfectly sensible. To those outside of that group, the same notions often seem backwards and paranoid.
At the end of the day, people will latch on to the ideas that make sense to them, that add up with their experiences, with what they see in the world (distorted as their view may be), and with their foundational beliefs. It is when a message is resonant upon these wavelengths, in the face of so much madness in the world, that shouts of ‘yes!’ and ‘finally!’ arise, that likes and shares pour in, that action is spurred on, that tribal membership grows and loyalty solidifies.
To bring an idea into the environs of our social media age, it must be built to succeed within those environs, to find that deep resonance. Broadly defined notions of reason, compromise, and nuance may garner nods, but they don’t spark passion. “Centrism” is not new, and even those closest to the center of the political spectrum may find themselves unenthused and apprehensive at its mention — often for good reason.
Acknowledge the Faults of Centers Past
For all that the mess of politics today has done to foster longing for friendlier times, relying squarely on that nostalgia is not a likely recipe for popular or electoral success. The phrase ‘politics as usual’ will still elicit wariness and disdain, evoking at best a lesser and more distant evil. For the center, likewise, banking on the brand established by perceived centrists and moderates of yore is unlikely to yield the needed results.
The first problem with an unwavering endorsement of centers past is a popular conflation of the sort of politician who values compromise, with the sort of politician who compromises values. The former is a type of individual dearly missing from our current governance, essential to sustainable societal change. The latter, however, is the epitome of corruption, the suit that can be bought and sold by any number of interests, and just about the last bedfellow any fledgling political movement would want. Failing to make the distinction would result inevitably in association, and potential death thereby.
And in much the same way that a commitment to compromise must be qualified, so too must a commitment to stability, and in particular the center’s relation with the status quo. It stands to logic, after all, that if the Left wants us to move left, and the Right wants us to move right, then those in between would want us to stay where we are, but who wants to do that? Of course, the center would be wise to distance itself from the notion that it supports sticking to the status quo, but it can actually go beyond that, by declaring that such an adherence is fallacious. The system, after all — our government, our society — is entropic, plagued constantly by the corruptive tendencies of every entity seeking to better its lot within the current structures, and must be sustained through constant dynamic reform and improvement. This is a conclusion not far off from the ideas of radical centrism put forth by Mark Satin in the early 1990’s, and embracing it would do well to free any new centrist movement from the stay-put stigma.
Centrism is not a glamorous idea for all, and selling it is a harder task than it may seem to those exhausted from partisan nonsense. Even if a new centrist movement should succeed in dismissing all of the misconceptions, in distancing itself from the failings of its predecessors, an even more difficult and essential challenge will lie ahead. If the movement of today can convince observers that it is not any school of thought seen before, then it begs the question — what exactly is it?
Bring Some Ideas to the Table
What the center stands against is clear enough. Authoritarianism, blind tribalism, illiberalism, identity politics, cancel culture — all have been decried in excellently articulated pieces across multiple media. But, other than some broad notion of enlightenment liberal values, what does it stand for?
If today’s new wave of centrism is to prosper as a political movement, it should stop saying that it is the side of reason, sanity, and real solutions — everyone thinks that of their tribe, frankly — and start showing it. Otherwise, the Left will continue see the center as an extension of the anti-progressive Right, the Right will see the center as the slightly-less-crazy Left, and the center itself will see nothing to get excited about.
To avoid being mislabeled or pigeonholed, the center needs to bring new ideas to the table. Maybe a plan to counteract price inflation incentives within the healthcare industry to sustainably reduce cost to both patients and taxpayers? Maybe a plan for gradually incorporating more social services and community policing programs to reduce stress placed upon police officers and effectively reduce police-related deaths without allowing crime to spike? Maybe a plan for addressing our social troubles with large-scale programs in mentoring, counseling, teaching, and more, under the umbrella of a national service initiative that also happens to offer those serving a profound character-building experience? These are all hypotheticals (okay, one might be a shameless plug), but the point is that there of plenty of ways to show ‘better ways of thinking’ in action, and the center would do well to spend more time and energy embracing them.
These ideas need not be limited to surface-level politics. Structural reforms — ranked choice voting, which enjoys support from across the political spectrum, comes to mind — may also garner attention and enthusiasm. They can even be philosophical —perhaps an understanding of power and potential for abuse, that allows for critical assessment and positive reform without reducing everything to identity politics. For all the (again, sometimes excellently written) critiques the center puts forth towards identitarians, having a cogent countervailing narrative would help immensely.
Whatever the chosen ideas may be, whatever level they may operate on, the time has come for the center to move beyond criticism and build something of its own. To start brainstorming, petitioning, and really coalescing around its intellectual output. Pure negativity, however justified, is not enough to energize a movement or separate it from a pack, and neither will empty platitudes. Strong ideas, however, can go a long way.
Defy the Duopoly
Once upon a time, moderates and centrists flourished within the ranks of the major parties, using mainstream appeal and a perception of general electability to conquer primary conquests. Those days are likely gone, but the opportunity for electoral success remains, if the center is willing to think outside the box.
Perhaps, a revitalized center might one day be able to turn some primary tides against the populists and progressives currently dominating our parties, but it is a tall mountain to climb. These intra-party contests, after all, are where the social media energy game has proven most effective, where the activation of a passionate base has driven both Justice Democrats and Trumpian Republicans (the POTUS himself included) to stunning victories. They are contests limited de jure in many places only to party members, and de facto to only the most politically engaged and active. In states and districts that skew strongly red or blue, where a primary win is tantamount to a general triumph, the hyper-partisans have exploited our election structure to seed their own into the highest legislative offices in the land. Their use of this exploit, however, provides the center a critical opportunity.
Were an attractive, credible centrist candidate run in such a district without party affiliation, they would have a massive base of potential voters to draw from. The most obvious would be political independents, the largest bloc of registered voters in the nation, and a growing one at that. But beyond those, there are members of the minority party, whose own candidates — if they run any at all — would be no more viable. Lastly, there are the increasingly disaffected moderates within the dominant party, those who may be lured inward towards the center. Taken together, these groups can offer a way to break partisan monopolies in lopsided districts. And thanks in part to gerrymandering intended to strengthen party footholds, the number of districts where such an approach would be possible is enormous.
From there, the path to political relevance and power is not long. The center would need not gain majorities or even pluralities of the legislative bodies it seeks to impact. With only enough seats to deny either major party a majority, the center can completely change the dynamics of American congressional politics, forcing compromises and ending the era of strong-arming and obstruction. This approach is called the fulcrum strategy, and it has been posited by centrists before. Perhaps, it can help a legislature that has gotten worse and worse at getting things done, well, get things done.
With a strong fulcrum established, the parties would lose power, but they may gain critical freedom in return. Perhaps, without the zero-sum, endless tug of war of American politics to worry about, they may take on a new identity, as advocates for their constituency, for their schools of thought and theory, and for their party missions. They could embrace their new blood without worry of having to constantly pose a united front, able at last to put forward their varied ideas into an arena of actual effective discourse.
If the center is going to correct its course and move from a disparate bloc of heterodox thinkers into a formidable political force, then there is no better time than now. Faith in our legislature is crumbling, trust in our politicians is shattered, and our sense of urgency as a nation — even among those who usually refrain from political action — is boiling.
More and more, those in the disaffected political middle are trying to take action. Recently, I became involved with Unity2020, an effort begun by Bret Weinstein to draft a politically heterodox pair of candidates to run against Trump and Biden in a unified ticket. The plan is unique for its non-reliance on political outsiders or the unaffiliated, and for its failsafe against becoming a spoiler ticket. The road to electoral success this year is certainly a long one, but the excitement and the positive, productive discourse that has coalesced around the movement bear the hope that good may come of it regardless.
What is at stake in this historical moment is far more than an election. In this new digital age, where communication is so distorted, where fanaticism and emotion play so powerfully, where lies and propaganda are so easily disseminated, there is no guarantee that liberal democracy can survive. The vulnerabilities within our political institutions and within our society have been exposed, and will continue to be exposed and exploited by forces inside and outside of our nation. To stand pat and leave these troubles to the current political players is nothing short of insanity.
The center has all the tools before it to rise up and change this course. And so the question remains — will we?