Paul Krugman’s op.eds. vary in quality–from very good to excellent. Today’s is pretty close to excellent. Krugman excoriates centrists who refuse to acknowledge the ideological asymmetry of our two-party system. Clinging to the ideal of bi-partisanship, they cannot come to grips with the fact that one of our two major parties has become so radicalized as to reject longstanding basic norms of our democracy. Along with Krugman, I have repeatedly pointed out that the Republican Party has been going bananas for a long time. Trump represents an accelerated culmination of the GOP’s recent evolution, rather than a departure from the party’s norms.*
Today, though, I don’t want to talk about Republicans, but about centrists and centrism. Krugman’s op. ed. reminded me of an earlier post, in which I argued against the view that ideology and pragmatism are incompatible. In that post, I alluded to my belief that pragmatism is often an ideology in disguise, but didn’t elaborate. Today I will elaborate, prompted by Krugman’s reference to “fanatical centrists.” That’s is not a term that I would use, but it does suggest the broad argument I want to make. We tend to assume that in hotly contested disagreements, the truth is likely to lie somewhere in the middle. In American political culture, especially, the center is celebrated as the place where wise and reasonable people predominate. Extremists of left and right view the world through the distorting prism of ideology; centrists are more likely to see the world as it really is.
The main problem with this view is that centrism is itself an ideology, with its own potential for bias and distortion. Centrists, of course, don’t see it that way. They think they are “non-ideological,” pragmatic. But what is a political ideology, anyway? It’s a “big picture” way of looking at the world, based on certain core values and assumptions about reality. Leftists, for example, are generally very dissatisfied with existing levels of social inequality and believe that greater equality can and must be sought in a re-distribution of political power. Centrists are less troubled by existing levels of inequality and believe that desirable social change can be achieved without major political conflict. The second is no less an ideological perspective than the first, but centrists don’t see it as such because they aren’t forced to articulate it that way, for others or for themselves. They don’t have to elaborate their views in broad ideological terms because their views aren’t far from the current reality. Leftists, by contrast, are challenging a resistant status quo, and therefore feel compelled to articulate a fairly comprehensive, big picture view of the direction in which they seek to move society. So, leftists will tend to call themselves socialists, or social democrats, or progressives or liberals. Centrists, disdaining ideological labels, call themselves pragmatists. But their pragmatism reflects the fact that they really aren’t looking for big changes. For centrists, ideology is largely unconscious; centrism is an ideology that doesn’t say its name.
Centrism can be as rigid and intellectually confining as ideologies of the left or right. There is nothing inherent in a centrist point of view that endows its holder with perspicacity and objectivity lacking in more self-conscious ideologues. Beware of the self-proclaimed pragmatist: he (she) is often a centrist ideologue without knowing it.
* For another masterful refutation of the latter view, see this excellent review by historian Sean Wilentz.