These are heady times for the hard left and hard right. A paradoxical side effect, however, is a renewed interest in ‘centrism’ – and not just as a punchbag for online extremists. In the US and UK there is talk of setting up a new centrist political party, inspired by the success of Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement.
But what exactly is centrism? The simple answer is that centrism is the opposite of extremism. However, that covers an awful lot of ideological territory. Is it possible to be more exact?
For liberals, centrism is another word for liberalism; but liberalism – whether in its economic, social or cultural dimensions – is rarely to be found on the centre ground of an argument, but firmly on one side or the other. It is only on the extent of state intervention that they take a middling position, guided by practicalities rather than principle. Otherwise, it’s all about maximising individual autonomy – as if that were the only thing that mattered.
In a must-read essay for the indispensable Quillette, Bo Winegard proposes a more exacting definition of centrism – one that’s distinct from contemporary liberalism:
“Understood properly, centrism is a consistent philosophical system that attempts to guide political and cultural systems through change without paroxysms of revolution and violence. The centrist, in this sense, believes that political and cultural progress is best achieved by caution, temperance, and compromise, not extremism, radicalism, or violence.”
Liberalism, while mostly non-violent (leaving aside the violence delivered by a military drone from 20,000 feet), isn’t averse to the more peaceful kind of paroxysm. On issues from modern architecture to educational theory, immigration to family structure, liberals are relaxed with – or actively work towards – profound and experimental departures from traditional belief and practice.
It’ll be fine, they say, because all that human beings need to flourish is more freedom. “Damn braces, bless relaxes” as William Blake once wrote. Liberalism, in other words, is supremely optimistic – and thus stands in contrast to Winegard’s conception of centrism:
“Like the conservative, the centrist begins with a pessimistic observation about human nature: It is flawed (or, in religious terms, it is sinful). Humans are not infinitely flexible or perfectible. They cannot use reason to transcend fully their basic impulses and prejudices… humans are ‘designed’ to navigate a small-scale society; and that they are limited, parochial, biased, prone to violence, status competition, and nearly inescapable tribalism.”
So much for liberalism; how does Winegard distinguish his definition of the centre from conservatism?
“This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.”
Naturally, this is where I take issue with his argument.
Conservatives do not loathe change. In making his point, Winegard brackets Edmund Burke with the likes of Joseph de Maistre. In fact, only the former is a conservative while the latter is more accurately categorised as a reactionary. On the question of change, the extremes are reaction (anti-change) and radicalism (indiscriminate change); the moderate position is conservatism (cautious change).
Indeed, more than mere caution, true conservatism is about the necessity of both change and continuity, and rejects the idea that the two are necessarily opposed.
On to Winegard’s second distinction:
“The great conservatives of the past also believed in a transcendent moral order, a divinely sanctioned social structure whose ultimate correctness was determined by God. Modern conservatives are, on whole, probably less certain of a transcendent moral order, but most would still endorse some version of a divinely guided or inspired social world. The centrist rejects this as fanciful.”
This ignores the long history of centrist politicians who did appeal to a “transcendent moral order” – for instance Abraham Lincoln, William Gladstone, Abraham Kuiper, Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi.
Indeed, western civilisation itself (which, in a further contrast with contemporary liberalism, Winegard says “should inspire awe and reverence”) is rooted in the truth claims of Christianity. It was not born fully-formed at the Enlightenment.
Finally, Winegard’s claim that “the social world is not tied together by transcendent values, but by secular laws” and that “our best understanding of human nature today comes from the evolutionary sciences” represents a complete break with most of western history (including the Enlightenment). As such it constitutes a revolution in thought and action that is surely inconsistent with the moderation that Winegard recommends elsewhere. Note that this is not an argument against science as a source of understanding, but against science as the only source.
Despite these points of disagreement, I welcome Winegard’s essay. It brilliantly defines a distinct and legitimate ideological position – one with which conservatism should be allied in the defence of western civilisation. But while conservatives should be willing to share the centre ground, we must not surrender our claim to it.