Skip to content

Centrist authoritarians

A radical centrist disciplines a partisan. George Cruikshank, 1839, Wikimedia Commons.

I believe it was Paul Krugman who came up with the term “radical centrists.” Here’s how I would define them: Smug, preening, mediocre intellectuals who strut their undoubted moral superiority, claiming an ability to see “both sides” and believing themselves to be innocent of bias and “partisanship.”

Radical centrism has had a long run. We have a track record now about where radical centrism got us as a political practice. It brought us the “Third Way” of the Clinton administration. It badly tainted and weakened the Obama administration, always blocking progress while averting its eyes from growing threats from the right. Centrism is always about the left conceding to the right, and rarely or never the other way around. Fortunately the Biden administration seems to understand this. It’s not the progressives who are making trouble for Biden, it’s the narcissistic “moderates” such as Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. If people like Manchin and Sinema truly were centrists, they’d be pulling Republicans on board rather than blocking Democrats. Centrists are blind to the one-sidedness of their centrism. That blindness is part of the syndrome. Like fundamentalism, centrism needs to simplify the world to make it comprehensible and comfortable. That both sides are just the same is a centrist axiom, even though nothing is like that in the real world. It is a projection of the centrist mind.

As damaging as centrism has been as a political practice, I would argue that it has done just as much harm as a media practice. Radical centrist pundits and authors imagine that they are doing some kind of principled public service. But what they really have done is serve as apologists for the radical right, paralyzing — for years — any effort to rein in the radical right before the U.S. found itself right on the brink of fascism, Reichstag moment included. Warnings from the left were ignored and vilified as “partisan.” Right-wing lies weren’t just unchallenged; they were amplified and dignified with “equal treatment.” Anything partisan is automatically wrong, you see, because only centrists can see clearly.

Though the Atlantic remains one of America’s best publications, it is nevertheless a refuge, a training ground, and a well-paying employer of the country’s most well-known and most radical of radical centrists. The Atlantic proved that yet again with a new piece yesterday with the title “The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left.” The piece was written by Sally Satel, a right-wing psychiatrist who works for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. A key assumption of radical centrists is that everything is symmetrical with themselves at the fulcrum of virtue. To a radical centrist, if a vice such as authoritarianism exists on the right, then it also must exist on the left. If there is an existential threat from the right (say, fascism, insurrection, and coup), then there also must be an equally severe existential threat from the left. Hence all the shrill warnings about “cancel culture,” a hobgloblin of the centrist mind. Centrists do sometimes warn about threats from the right, but such warnings must always be “balanced” by a symmetrical warning about the left. Such things as authoritarianism and cancel culture must be found on the left, as centrist self-protection against cognitive breakdown.

Fortunately, the damage done by so many years of being instructed by centrists is being exposed. Eric Levitz wrote about it last June in New York Magazine, “The delusions of the radical centrist.” An old colleague of mine in the newspaper business, Dan Froomkin, has a web site devoted to monitoring centrist bias in the media, Press Watch.

It’s bad manners for me to quote Levitz’s conclusion after his longish and thoughtful piece, but here it is: “But America does not need more highbrow apologetics for the conservative movement, nor sophistry that conflates the pathologies of each major party. And unfortunately, this era’s most prominent iconoclasts seem less interested in honestly criticizing America’s lesser evil, than running interference for its greater one.”

That, I would say, is an understatement.


  1. Dan wrote:

    Are you saying cancel culture isn’t a thing or isn’t part of something the left participates in?

    Tuesday, September 28, 2021 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    I do think that there are truths and real concerns behind what is called cancel culture. But what I resent is the shrillness and dishonesty that tries to make it symmetrical with fascism and insurrection, and that pretends that the right doesn’t do the very same thing (for example, trying to stamp out critical race theory or demonizing never-Trump Republicans). The motivations are entirely different, too. Leftists, even when they go too far, are motivated by trying to bring the quickest possible end to racism and inequality, whereas on the right it’s all about dominance, privilege, and drowning democracy.

    Tuesday, September 28, 2021 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    Their motivations may be righteous and angled towards social equality, but they may not be all that important compared to what would actually achieve better circumstances for most Americans. Economic justice and class struggle should be the mission of the left, especially in America, not being tattletales on the internet.

    Tuesday, September 28, 2021 at 11:20 am | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *