The End of Centrism?
Some scattered thoughts on the meaning of centrism nowadays.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is currently on vacation to recharge all the batteries in preparation for the fall semester. I might post, but I very well might not — it depends on whether anything rousts me out of my vacation torpor or not. In the meantime, however, I’ve been contemplating my place in the American political landscape.
Wikipedia reminds me that back in 2011 I wrote, “I find liberals write ‘even conservative Dan Drezner...’ while conservatives often deploy terms like ‘academic elitist’ or 'RINO.’ In my case, at this point in time, I believe that last appellation to be entirely fair and accurate. I'm not a Democrat, and I don't think I've become more liberal over time." Well, now I’m not even a Republican in Name Only, as I formally left the GOP the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
So what am I? Back in the day I had always defined myself as a centrist, a moderate — the kind of person who figured that no one had the monopoly on political wisdom in this country and that the center felt like the proper place to be. This was particularly true in foreign policy, when I would often find those on the right too hawkish and those on the left too dovish.
That was a long time ago. I think it’s safe to say that the political landscape has been scrambled. And after reading way too much about Richard Hanania, I think I’m going to have to stop calling myself a centrist.
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If you don’t know who Hanania is, well, I am jealous of your blissful ignorance. If you want to learn about him, read Hanania’s statement on what he calls “enlightened centrism.” Then read Henry Farrell’s dissection of Hanania’s slippery set of first principles, Christopher Mathias’ Huffington Post exposé of Hanania’s racist alter-ego from his early twenties, Hanania’s quasi-contrite-but-not-really response in Quillette, and Jamelle Bouie’s reflections on the whole imbroglio in his New York Times newsletter.
If you don’t want to learn about him, the tl;dr version is that Hanania represents Intellectual Dark Web 2.0: someone initially portrayed as a bold, counterintuitive thinker turns out to hold some awful opinions about race, intelligence, and/or democracy. Even if one wants to accept Hanania’s claim that he’s less of a garbage human being than he used to be, it’s hard not to notice that in just the past few months he’s argued that, “‘I don't have much hope that we'll solve crime in any meaningful way. It would require a revolution in our culture or form of government. We need more policing, incarceration, and surveillance of black people. Blacks won't appreciate it, whites don't have the stomach for it.”
Sounds pretty racist to me! And not just me, either. John Ganz notes that Hanania “has demonstrated a passionate sort of misogyny and racism that’s still not acceptable in polite society on Twitter, in one notable case calling Blacks ‘animals.’” Radley Balko tweeted, “The revelation in the expose of Hanania wasn't about Hanania. His racism was always right there in the open.” Henry Farrell concludes, “The hidden continuity between the awful things that he wrote pseudonymously as a young man, and the things he writes today as a pundit is tolerably straightforward.”
There are lots of angles one could take about the implications of Hanania’s intellectual rise and
plateauing fall. Bouie focuses on the plutocratic support for the likes of Hanania, which is definitely an Ideas Industry-related phenomenon.1 Others might want to consider whether one who espouses abhorrent beliefs as a twentysomething merits rehabilitation. The question of why so many political philosophy Ph.D.s seem to break bad is a topic I’ll leave to Mark Lilla and others.2
I want to talk about how Hanania labelling himself a “centrist” contributes to the degradation of that term in multiple ways. As Farrell noted:
Hanania seemingly wants to reconstruct policy and intellectual debate around a center in which questions of race and IQ are once more legitimate topics of inquiry and discussion. Back in the 1990s (a time that Hanania is nostalgic for), soi-disant centrists such as Andrew Sullivan could devote entire special issues of the New Republic to the urgent debate over whether black people were, in fact, stupider than white people. Big Scientific Facts Said That It Was So! Now, that brand of intellectual inquiry has fallen into disrepute. Hanania, apparently yearns for it to come back.
Yeah, I want zero part of that debate. In fact this is likely the area where my own thinking has drifted furthest to the left as I have aged. The past decade alone has revealed too many examples ranging from bank lending to law enforcement to teaching surveys for me not to conclude that way too many U.S. institutions stack the rules of the game in ways that discriminate against a welter of minorities. In 2023, being a centrist seems to require contesting that assertion.
Now, do I have somewhat contrarian thoughts about the best way to respond to this situation? Probably! Witnessing efforts to see DEI policies implemented have soured me on that form of remediation. There are probably a lot of other policy arenas I’d like to see addressed before tackling the issues raised by DEI policies. But that is a very different conversation from what one might call “first principles” on the extent of discrimination in American society. There is simply too much data on that question. Re-litigating it — as folks like Hanania want to do — is both tedious and exhausting.
If the racist right is trying poach the term “centrism,” leftists seem perfectly willing to concede the ground.3 Daniel Bessner recently declared, “‘Centrist’ is probably the least useful, yet most occluding, term in modern political discourse.” Reason’s Jesse Walker thinks this is a recent phenomenon: “I don't think this was true a decade ago, but it may well be the case now. I regularly see radicals, even outright socialists, derided as ‘centrists,’ sometimes by people whose ideological outlook is barely to the left of Bill Kristol.” The implication here is that to the left, centrism is just crypto-fascism in sheep’s clothing. And hey, Hanania certainly gives them a data point to advance that argument!
To the extent that I have first principles when it comes to American politics, they are:
If you lose an election and attempt to overturn the results through extralegal means you should be exiled from politics;
Presidential control of the executive branch is not in fact absolute;
Technical and subject-matter expertise is inherently a good thing and should play an important role in policymaking;
The United States needs to preserve its open economy if it wants to preserve its leadership status among its allies and partners;
The threats facing the United States come as much from complex systemic risks as they do from other great powers.
I don’t know where that places me along the left-right political spectrum at this point in time. What I do know is that I’m not calling myself a centrist anymore. That term has way too much baggage in 2023.
Seriously, between Hanania’s Ph.D. in political theory from UCLA and Bronze Age Pervert’s doctorate in political theory from Yale, there needs to be a reckoning in the field.