What happened to the center?

James A. Lindsay And Helen Pluckrose write,

When polarization is deep, the large and only slightly differentiated middle that normally has nothing to do with anti-modern extremists is repeatedly forced to take sides against whichever is, from their perch, easier to see as the greater existential threat. Thus, we see those leaning left largely internalizing the message of postmodernism and those leaning right widely embracing the message of premodernism. Everyone knows on some level that the anti-modernists are a threat to Modernity itself and thus the other side’s anti-modernists must be massively and directly resisted. This results in nearly everything becoming yet another political battleground, every election is an existential fight for the “soul” of the nation, and extremists on one’s own side are repeatedly excused and defended in the name of the Greater Good.

. . .A New Center is therefore the wrong way to bypass existential polarization. For most individuals on too many political choices, the stakes are just too high. As political events of 2016 showed, when forced to choose consequentially between representatives of two apparent existential threats, mostly everyone just loses their mind and digs in a little deeper.

Thanks to a reader for the pointer.

1. The title of the piece is “A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity.” They characterize the noisy left as post-modern and the noisy right as pre-modern.

2. Much of the essay strikes me as good, but some of it strikes me as daft. The attempt to squeeze Hayek into their pre-modern category was not persuasive to me.

3. In the quoted paragraphs, I think they come close to an important observation, which is that as the stakes of politics come to be perceived as high, centrists get thrown off balance. Michael Anton’s infamous flight 93 election essay is a case in point. In conversation, Yuval Levin has argued vehemently against the thesis of that memo. He prefers a point of view that says, “Wait, things are not that bad. The political process works very slowly. We are not on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the left.”

4. Part of the support for extremism comes from the view of each side that it has been losing. Ask someone on the left what has been the most important political development of recent decades, and they will answer “neoliberalism.” For them, policy has been taken over by free-market economic ideology. Ask someone on the right the same question, and they will answer, “the rise of the administrative state.” For them, policy has been taken over by technocratic interventionist ideology.

5. Both sides may suffer from over-simplification bias. If you believe that social problems have simple causes and obvious solutions, then the fact that the problems persist is evidence that some ideological demon has taken possession of the nation’s soul. If only they would let go of their free-market ideology. If only they would let go of their technocratic elitism.

6. I think that the media environment reinforces this tendency toward apocalyptic thinking. In the context of polarization, “If it bleeds it leads” translates into “If the issue can be used to illustrate in an exaggerated way the transgressions of the other side, it leads.” This accounts for the attention paid to a story of professional football players kneeling that otherwise belongs about 300,000th on any rational news-consumer’s list of concerns.

7. Perhaps the antidote to polarization is the attitude, “Things are not that bad.” And perhaps that applies even to the phenomenon of polarization itself.

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20 Responses to What happened to the center?

  1. collin says:

    Probably the main issue with political center is there are many issues for an individual voter and most voters have 80% of their views in the center. However, voters will have some of the views away from the political center.

    1) The last five Presidents (Bush Sr. & after) have been political center that are fighting issues on the edges each President has accomplishment one or two main goals. (Bush Sr. Iraq 1, Clinton Deficit, Bush Iraq 2 (it was a victory) and Obama Health. Trump we are still waiting.) Otherwise the political battles are between the 40 yard lines.

    2) I am very much a left center Clinton voter but I can’t stand the Bloomberg & Freidman center as I think our foreign policy and war are terrible US policy. So most voters most issues are center but there are issues we are not in the center.

    3) Look at Immigration in which in polls most voters are fairly center but compare the rhetoric. I am with Obama with border security and DACA amnesty versus a Republican with more border security and less legal immigration. Again it is basically 40 yard line battles but compare the political battles. I am an Open Borders that hates America, compared to rascist who calls Mexicans ‘Rapist’.

    4) And look how America voted…They have consistently voted for a centerism government.

    • collin says:

      What is forgotten about Trump is he ran as a very Republican center candidate except on the issue of Immigration.

      He promised to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (Although I think he did not know what Medicaid covered if I had to guess.)

      He promised his health insurance that covered everybody.

      He sounded like long time Democratic Dick Gephardt on free trade.

      He ran slightly dovish on HRC on foreign policy but promised to bomb ISIS.

      So outside of Immigration and policy minority rights, Trump ran as a center Republican in 2016.

      • Massimo Heitor says:

        Not on every issue except immigration, *especially* on immigration, Trump ran as a moderate Republican.

        The Republican party leadership knew that their voters wanted less immigration but they pushed an increased immigration strategy anyway for long term political strategy.

        Trump sided with the voters. Ted Cruz also ran as an immigration hawk and he won second place in the GOP primaries by a very large margin. The previous GOP leadership had a chance to throw their full weight behind Cruz and beat Trump and they refused to do it. The GOP leadership thought they could trick their own voters on immigration and that strategy triggered an internal ousting. And if Trump didn’t oust the GOP leadership, Ted Cruz was standing next in line to do so.

  2. Denis Drew says:

    Want a new center? Rebuild American labor union density. Then the power will swing back to the “newly created” middle class majority with old middle class motives — in the middle (er, the center :-]).

  3. Tom DeMeo says:

    “6. I think that the media environment reinforces this tendency toward apocalyptic thinking. In the context of polarization, “If it bleeds it leads” translates into “If the issue can be used to illustrate in an exaggerated way the transgressions of the other side, it leads.” This accounts for the attention paid to a story of professional football players kneeling that otherwise belongs about 300,000th on any rational news-consumer’s list of concerns.”

    In our lifetime, the marginal cost of news media went from very expensive to near zero. News orgs now have massive blocks of space to fill. The new metric is cost per eyeball. Long, complex, substantive investigations are an expensive way to attract eyeballs.

    While there may be 300,000 stories that are more important, the NFL story is very inexpensive to produce and accommodates the needs of many of these new formats. The sides are easy to understand and produce visceral reactions in the audience. You can line up a panel of commentators on call, and no one needs to work too hard to have something to say.

    So, the media environment is not reinforcing a tendency toward apocalyptic thinking so much as it is reinforcing a tendency towards the cheapest way to get attention.

    Congratulations. Economics has ruined the world. Now, far too many people have learned the lesson that all the profit is found in working the margins, and the middle is rotting away.

  4. lliamander says:

    I would actually say that the NFL story is more important than you give it credit for. Football isn’t just a game, it’s an integral part of American culture (not to mention the economy). For the average person, culture has an arguably more significant and observable impact on their lives than many policy decisions.

    It’s also worth pointing out that many people have stopped watching the NFL not (just) because it is being used as a platform for political ideas they disagree with, but the fact that it is being used as a platform for partisan politics at all. From what it appears to me this concern is being echoed across many aspects of our culture, but so far the NFL controversy has been the most salient because it affects the most people.

    • Moo cow says:

      I watched a football game for the first time in decades last Sunday. Seahawks vs Chiefs? Idk. Anyway, what culture war? What politics? I saw and heard nothing that might be construed as controversial. Did they kneel? Honest to God I have no idea.

      If people are reading into NFL Week 7 that the neoliberals are winning the war omg, I really don’t know what to say.

      • steve says:

        You have to tune in early and watch closely or you miss it. If you want to have your daily dose of faux outrage, you gotta work for it.


      • lliamander says:

        Neoliberals? Who are they in this context? I usually hear that term in the context of economic policy, so I honestly don’t know what side you are referring to.

        I also didn’t say who I thought was “winning”, simply that it was important. And if you didn’t see anything about it, then that probably means that the NFL is realizing how much this issue is affecting their bottom line and they would like it to go away as quickly as possible.

  5. Handle says:

    Re: Point 3: Has Yuval Levin captured those arguments against the flight 93 thesis in writing? I would argue the opposite, and that, if anything, the essay was insufficiently urgent. Short of a Handle-Levin debate, seeing a document would be useful to help me understand how Levin arrived at this conclusion.

    • Massimo Heitor says:

      Please, do elaborate. I’m sure most readers here would be interested in the Handle perspective on why the Flight 93 essay was insufficiently urgent.

      I agree, but I’d rather hear you explain.

      • Handle says:

        Well, I’d prefer to see Levin’s side of the case first, so I’m not arguing past him, or attributing views to him that he does not actually hold.

        The general issue of Kling’s point three is whether there is a gap between perception and reality of both the magnitude of the stakes in any particular political context, and the general prospects for some particular political/social vision going forward.

        Well, certainly such gaps are not only possible but can take either sign – either too optimistic or pessimistic – and can have all sorts of distributions throughout the population, which can result from all sorts of reasons. One can imagine a metaphor to the public attitude about different stocks during a volatile and speculative era, with lots of media hype, boosterism, and doom-mongering. Now, there is also a meta-issue here that is like the EMH-bubble question, of whether one can even make reliable objective statements about these political “gaps”, but I’ll leave that to the side for the moment.

        Kling’s thesis seems to be that right now, because of the nature and incentives of the current “information media markets”, that both conservatives and progressives in American are being deluded into their own “pessimism bubbles”, in which they both imagine that the stakes are much higher than they really are, and that the prospects for their side’s visions and goals are collapsing. Imagine half of market participants levering up to go long on a stock, and the other half going short on margin. But in the information market, without the market “clearing” or a “correction” of these perceptions to make them fall more in line with a less alarming reality, calm and couteous centrism has no market, and civil centrists are considered to be naive or worse.

        Of course, just because people perceive their prospects as being quite poor and gloomy doesn’t necessarily make them pessimists. In fact, they could still be optimists, and still be underestimating their future misfortunes. I’d argue that there are good, objective reasons to concluse that even the doom-and-gloom conservatives aren’t nearly doomy-and-gloomy enough about the future of American conservatism. They think they have stage 1 or 2 cancer, which is already pretty bad news. But in fact it’s at stage 3 or 4. The difference is significant. At stage 1, maybe you’ll take a little chemo, but radiation and surgery seem too risky. At stage 3 or 4, even amputations or life-threatening surgery with a good chance of fatal consequences might be worth it for a chance at survival.

        Levin’s point is focused specifically on the right, and he seems to be saying that Anton is both living in and perpetuating the right’s pessimism bubble. Anton said that American conservatism – especially as someone would have understood the implications of that label in the Reagan administration – is indeed on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the progressives. Levin says it is doing ok, and that no one need be alarmed, or conclude that special, drastic measures must be taken to shore up defenses.

        And it is here that I simply must defer until I learn more about how Levin defines victory or defeat here, who he imagines “we” to be and the ideas that “we” hold, and what he conceives the “table of danger indicators and escalating response measures” to be in the big game.

        As a kind of baseline crude strategy, in any game, one’s willingness to engage in drastic measures and compromise ideals of gentlemanly play should be follow military legal principles of necessity and proportionality, in that actions should be suitable to both the scale and proximity of looming dangers, with an eye to minimizing losses and collateral damage to the extent possible, but while still accomplishing the mission.

        In this particular case, it’s good to use the political evolution of California as a contextual backdrop for some thought experiments.

        Because California used to be a place where Republicans could win – at least in a Presidential contest – and is now a One Party State where all sensible people know that it is simply indisputable that genuine conservatives are completely shut out.

        So, maybe some very prescient and perspicacious Republican observers would have seen the writing on the wall in, say, the early 1950’s, and taken some mild measures to try and shape things in a different direction, maybe drawn lines in the sands a little further out, been willing to play real hardball on those issues, been willing to fight fire with fire, etc. If they hadn’t noticed until the 60’s, then it would have taken more drastic measures, and if not by the 70’s or 80’s completely radical and extreme measures that may have stressed the limits of what the federal courts would allow.

        But in that case, it looks like the GOP was in an optimism bubble the whole time, and now it’s too late to do anything.

        At some point, it would have been correct to write a “Hotel California” version of the “Flight 93″ essay. Let’s say that year was 1977 for the sake of argument. Well, if the essay came out in 1967, then 67-Levin would have been right and 67-Anton would have been, well, not “wrong” exactly, but premature. On the other hand, if Hotel California came out in 1987, then even though Bush Sr would win there in 1988, not only would 87-Anton still be insufficiently urgent and alarmist, but 87-Levin would have been completely off base.

        I think this framework is a useful way to think about how to assess the merits of these positions, but again, I’ll wait until I can read or hear Levin’s argument in full.

        • Jeffrey S. says:

          This is a good place to start:


          By the way, when our host says,

          “Ask someone on the right the same question [‘what has been the most important political development of recent decade’], and they will answer, “the rise of the administrative state.” For them, policy has been taken over by technocratic interventionist ideology.”

          I think this is a fine answer but certainly one I wouldn’t give. As someone who is concerned with moral issues, I would point to things like the political reaction to the breakdown of the nuclear family or the sexual revolution (and the legal support for this revolution — things like legal abortion, so-called “gay marriage”, transgender ‘rights’, etc.) as the most important political developments.

          And these development also make me pessimistic about the future (e.g. look at the percentage of young people who have no objections to gay sex or living together before getting married.)

          • Tom G says:

            Yes, Jeffrey, a huge number of Rep voters would answer abortion (easy one word answer) or the sexual revolution and its ramifications.

            Another large group would say “illegal immigration”, related as much to loss of “rule of law” as to “too many immigrants”. Many Reps want more legal immigrants and less illegals.

            The NeverTrumper GOPelite might well be more concerned with the admin state — but that was NOT clear while the IRS was targeting conservative groups for negative treatment.

          • Handle says:

            Thanks for the link Jeffrey. I read through that essay, and it helps, but surprisingly, not very much on the issue we’re discussing here, that is, how much alarm is appropriate for traditionalist conservatives given an accurate assessment of the present state of affairs. It was hyperbolic of him to use the measure of “dystopia” – perhaps some North Korean tyranny or Venezuelan-style Communist-collapse – as the standard by which we should measure the appropriateness of real alarm at current trends. Just as it is a mistake to confuse the current, technologically-enabled levels of material prosperity with “good times” and healthy prospects for conservative ideas and traditional ways of life.

            Let me back up a little. Read what Kling paraphrased, “The political process works very slowly.” When I read that my immediate thought was this:

            No! This is 100% incorrect. The repeated lesson of history is that political processes and even major, radical – and often irreversible – changes can occur with lightning quickness! And not just because people find themselves at the sharp end of a sword. Indeed, much of the “Nisbet-Alienation” of which Levin writes is precisely a reason to people irritated by those political processes moving too radically, too fast. Instead, more correctly put, Levin wants the political process to run slowly, incrementally, cautiously, with an enlightened pessimism and wise skepticism. That’s the traditional conservative perspective on “positivist politics”, and there are strong arguments that we ought to pursue politics in such a manner, or at least hope that social, cultural, and economic changes evolve in a more comfortable absorbable manner that benefits from the optimal adaptation of tradition instead of its sudden erasure and replacement. But, alas, they often don’t. And right now, they aren’t! I would say that a conservative politics should, at the very least, notice when that’s happening, and be willing to argue for the necessity of doing whatever it takes to slow it down, and “Stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” as one of those conservatives once said. But that’s what the Flight 93 essay did, and the reason it was so powerful and moving was because the rest of what become of the inheritors of the “conservative” scene were not performing this fundamental function at the time it was needed most. All they are being “conservative” about is a “business as usual” approach to their advocacy, which is merely the virtue of “conservatism” perverted into the vice of complacency.

            In that essay, Levin is simply too vague (one could say strategically evasive) on the most germane points relating to the general claim to make any critique fruitful.

            For example, we could ask the question, “How important is winning Presidential elections to the prospects of traditionalist conservatism in this country, both in terms of the contemporary intellectual scene going by that label and trying to retain ideological influence over the Republican party, and in terms of the way life is lived by ordinary Americans?

            Now, Levin is not a lawyer, but I really can’t believe that any smart observer of the American political scene can honestly believe that it doesn’t matter much, especially given the power of the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary, and the often radical role these have played in terms of selectively guiding the nation’s political evolution in a mostly non-conservative direction. The “it doesn’t matter much” claim hasn’t been true for over a century, alas.

            Again, Levin doesn’t want elections to matter much, the conservative perspective on politics is that they ought not to matter much, but the fact remains that in today’s American they do. If, for example, a few thousand people in a few key states would have voted differently, it would have been Hillary Clinton who would have been able to appoint Scalia’s replacement, and it is simply indisputable that we’d be dealing with Warren Court 2.0 right now as a result.

            It would be quite a stretch, to say the least, to say that “The Warren Court didn’t matter,” which would be close to saying, “The New Deal didn’t matter.” They mattered a lot, to the country, and especially to “conservatism”.

          • John Dougan says:

            A couple observations:

            Social change often follows the same pattern as bankruptcy: gradually then all of a sudden. It can be difficult to tell how close to the “all of a sudden” we are. I personally believe that Anton may have been wrong, but it wasn’t alarmist.

            It is arguable that some parts of the left were lined up to push for drastic stuff. Granted, the usual systemic constraints would have helped slow this a bit, but if Scalia had been replaced by someone in line with the more left side of the court? As Handle mentioned, Warren court all over again.

            Centrism as a political doctrine is basically insane as it lets other people set your beliefs as the region of the left-right spectrum moves around. It is an abdication of beliefs.

            Reading the Levin essay, I note that he appears to be a political personification of the joke economist who doesn’t lean over to pick up a $20 bill on the sidewalk because “It can’t be there, someone would have picked it up by now.”

  6. RohanV says:

    Perhaps it goes back to your Three-Axes model. I feel that the political center used to be the civilization-vs-barbarianism axis, and that liberals felt that they were advancing civilization with their proposals. The other two axes were relegated to the fringes, or incorporated within the civilization-barbarian worldview. (Perhaps explicit oppressor-oppressed language was seen as communist.)

    The with the rise of the oppressor-oppressed axis, the country is genuinely spit into two world-views. If you chose one view, you are no longer a centrist. The previous centrists have all been shifted to one of the sides.

    Basically, it’s easy to be a centrist if most people share the same worldview and the question is one of degree. It’s a lot harder to be a centrist if you have to reconcile completely different, and sometimes opposing, worldviews.

  7. Tom G says:

    The NFL story illustrates the polarization – Democratic radicals wanting to politicize a sport, one where most fans want to avoid politics. The polarization happens AFTER the politicalization.

    And for most Dem radicals, the personal IS political.

    A huge part of the Trump supporters are against accepting the PC/ anti-Christian/ anti-male/ anti-conservative politics of Dem radicals — and Trump seemed to be the best fighter.
    Rep middle folk, like McCain & Romney, were both losers.

    In football like a sport, being a loser-supporter isn’t a problem. But in the culture wars, where your own personal identity is tied with your politics, being part of the losing culture feels terrible. Even under Bush II, many pro-life folk felt like they were losing the culture war.
    In sport, the ‘hate’ against the other team is almost all just theatre, essentially forgotten. Nobody gets fired or hired primarily because they love the Dodgers or Yankees; nor hate them.

    When people, including me, feel that our free speech has to be curtailed because we can get fired, the constant self-censorship causes a bit of rage to build up, fired by the injustice.

    Injustice. The main thing that allows good people who think they are good people to justify violence to fight against; the fight against injustice. Among the vast majority of Americans, they believe their side is more supportive of real justice. (Me too.)

  8. asdf says:

    Perhaps the antidote to polarization is the attitude, “Things are not that bad.”

    I don’t get it. Is the main problem that we live in an “era of complacency” or that we live in the total opposite.

    Polarization is up because we all have less in common and fewer ties. We aren’t an in-group having political disagreements, we are out-groups fighting for dominance. It’s impossible to make us all an in-group because there is too much genetic distance, so having a positive attitude is like buying a lottery ticket and assuming you’ll win. It’s not a real plan. This won’t end until one of the outgroups wins and expels the other.

    • Kevin C. says:

      “This won’t end until one of the outgroups wins and expels the other.”

      Expels the other, or crushes the other into oblivion? The latter seems more likely to me.

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