Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mommy, What's a Centrist?

In a moment when centrism is all the rage, Callimachus declares he’s not a centrist. He explains why:

If you're a "centrist" all you have to do is say, "you're both partially right," and without even necessarily knowing whether that's true, you're probably one step up the evolutionary ladder from both of the sides. Because chances are they're both partly right.

But you still haven't really broken out of the dualism just because you've connected two points and made a line…

The position I'm looking for is one that considers what both sides say, but then goes down to the cellars of their arguments and swings a sledgehammer at the foundation to see if it holds up. Follow the references, check the footnotes, and go gather some research on your own. Put everything to the baloney test: Does it fit the known facts? Is it internally consistent? Ideally, ignore the stated positions and come to a conclusion entirely on your own. Definitely ignore the personalities on either side.

Callimachus acknowledges the high-level of difficulty in his approach but clearly views it as superior to the usual centrist thinking. Without question, independent thought is preferable to simply measuring out the middle on any given position. But is Callimachus right in thinking his mode of thought is not part of centrism?

Yes and no. And maybe. As I have noted, there is no centrist ideology to which the so-called vital center subscribes. The center is vital not because it has policies or even a political methodology but because it has numbers. A significant number of us voters hold fast to our independence, suspicious of party orthodoxy and critical of partisan games. We cannot be easily organized but we can be powerful, serving as the ultimate check against political excess and ineffectiveness.

Fundamentally, centrism is the absence of party loyalty. For some, that means rejecting the positions of both parties and looking for the answer somewhere in between the two dominant views. But for others, being centrist is about finding an entirely new axis. “Centrist” is the label because it represents the willingness to look both left and right for answers. But it’s not quite accurate because it fails to convey the willingness to look up and down as well.

Those with Callimachus’ level of curiosity and independence look up and down and side-to-side and under rocks and on top of cupboards too. Their opinions are not a balancing act but the result of intellectual investigation and discovery. That type of person is not what the big boy pundits mean when they say centrist (they tend to use the word as a euphemism for swing-voter and moderate). But that type can still be a part of centrism.

If centrists are never more than just a moderating force, we’ll still perform an invaluable service. But if at least some centrists can embrace the level of critical thinking Callimachus describes (as many of those I list in my blogroll already have), then centrism could mature and begin advancing not just balanced positions but whole new ideas devoid of the old assumptions. At that point we might have to call it something other than “centrism,” but the centrist label works for now.

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7 Comments:

Blogger cakreiz said...

Brilliant, Alan. I've never been interested in the parsing of terms like "moderate", "centrist" or "independent"; it's a frustrating effort. But my centrism is more than adding two extremes, dividing by two, and declaring truth. It involves an honest search for answers, always understanding that truth rarely resides within the confines of a single political party.

At the end of the day, I am a conglomeration, a mish-mash. I'm pro-choice, pro-stem cell research and anti prayer in school. I favor lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government. I tend toward being a hawk, but always tempered by reason. I like pluralism. I still believe we're a great and good nation. And I trust Colin Powell's instincts. Steeler's Wheel had it right: I'm stuck in the middle with you.

7:41 PM  
Anonymous BrianinMA said...

You know that this has always been my criticism of "centrism", that it really does not stand for anything in particular, and therefore I refuse to call it enlightened as a philosophy, primarily because it isn't a philosophy with principles to begin with more than a cornucopia of political preferences.

What you have described above ASC is something known as "critical thinking". It applies to many people in any and all political parties, but unfortunately political positions of the well thought out are also shared by half-wits who let other people do the thinking for them.

Take for example the whinings of Lincoln Chafee. JG was hot to trot to buy everything Chafee said about Cheney and Bush without really analyzing, because he is a partisan for so-called "moderates (at least in that article and as a general rule)". My university is in Smithfield, RI, so I've had a close-up view of Chafee's positions during the primary and election. This is the man who claims he is a "loyal Republican," but ever since he lost his seat he's been trying to figure out how to backstab the GOP the most times throughout his remaining months in office (this ignores the fact he votes with his colleague Jack Reed 60% of the time). He blamed Steve Laffey for running against him in a costly primary, the GOP itself for being "too far to the right", and basically blamed everyone for his loss except for Lincoln Chafee. He has said the seat was in the family for three decades, but Chafee has only been in one term, so really, it looks like he's whining about losing "daddy's seat" to be honest.

Therefore I argue, being a centrist or moderate or independent is no guarentee you will be above partisan politics, you will just be partisan for different people.

Therefore, I propose to you since you aren't trying to promote an ideology and aren't in favor of any particular set of party values, why don't you forget the whole "mighty middle" shtick and just call yourself a "critical thinker". It is a whole lot easier and more principled then saying "I'm in the middle", since you really aren't in the middle of much in particular, just left on some thngs and right on others. The only real difference between you and so-called "partisans" is that more of the "partisan's" political preferences happen to be either leftward or rightward.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Brian,

I couldn't agree more that being in the middle doesn't make one any more or less likely to be partisan. I know a lot of "centrists" who still just follow the partisan lines -- only they follow the Dem line on some things and the Repub line on others.

I would call what I described as critical thinking, but I see that as an ideological definition -- like conservative or liberal. Centrist is a political definition--a recognition that I want to take that crictical thinking and apply it to governance.

I've struggled with the centrist label for quite awhile and have been very critical of what centrism is and what it has the potential to become. Generally, I think it's a very weak label but there are some very strong thinkers who it can apply to. So I'll probably keep struggling with it.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Rob Jackson said...

In general, people are thinking WAY too much about this and, in part, without a clear focus about what bothers them. Obviously ideology exists on a spectrum and, by definition, there is a centerpoint. Yes, there is an ideological center. Sometimes it seems that being in the center means dividing by two. Sometimes it seems that being in the center is towing a party line (because sometimes the party line is towards the center depending on election season strategies). None of this changes the fact that there's an ideological center and people within that center.

Is it a higher order of thinking? No, it's just a different place on the spectrum.

Would it be better if we could take a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of every argument?

No...who has the time? Who has the data for that matter?

10:27 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Rob, I don't know it there IS an ideological center. There's a political center, that's obvious. But ideology is something else, something far more complex and expansive. A lot of people don't have much of an ideology. Some people have way too much. But there's no such thing as a "center point" between say marxist ideology and survivalist ideology. There may be a political center point between those two, but policy and beliefs are not the same thing.

Centrism from a political standpoint is not a higher order of thinking. But the question is: can centrism have a deeper ideology? Is it just a balancing act or is there something else there? I don't think we're thinking way too much about this at all. I think it's an extremely important question because, if there is no ideology, then centrism in America will always be defined by where Dems and Repubs have staked their turf. But if there is something more, then centrism can be more than a reactive force. It can be a proactive one.

To go back to what Brian said, I agree with much of it. After all, critical thinking is not an ideology (it's a method) and it's not exclusive to any one political group. But there is very little critical thinking being done on the partisan wings because most partisans are more interested in protecting their foundations rather than testing them. So, if a new ideology is to arise in the U.S., it will likely come from those who are, for lack of a better label, referred to as centrists.

At least I see that as possible. I also see it as possible that centrists will never be more than a moderating force--an important but undramatic role.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I seem to have contradicted myself. I first said critical thinking was an ideological label and then said it wasn't. That's what I get for writing too fast. In the first comment, what I should have written is: critical thinking can be a pathway to ideology and that being centrist is a political definition that I think could imply a desire to apply non-ideological critical thinking to governance and policy. But that critical thinking could also lead to a whole new ideology.

12:55 PM  
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2:48 AM  

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