Centrism as Moral Ideology:
Biden and the Independent Voter

Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has ensured he is a virtual pariah in the political atmosphere of 2020—an atmosphere in which one’s virtue extends exactly as far as one’s dedication to the ur-cause of “Antiracism.” Nevertheless, Goldwater offered a great deal of political wisdom over his many years in public life. His most famous quote, from the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, remains cited with some regularity: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Both the American Left and Right invoke this idea, usually for different reasons. But the central insight of the quote is often lost on many. Goldwater’s point was that moderation and centrism are not always in themselves good, and extreme measures are not inherently evil. Justice and liberty are the inherent goods and the best measures for securing and protecting them depend on context. Failure to recognize this fact can lead to political catastrophe.

In spite of the dwindling number of centrists and moderates, both sides profess a respect for moderation, if only because so many people believe that the middle is a moral place to be. And for this reason, the idea of centrism will play an important role in the 2020 presidential election. But is the virtue attributed to moderation justified? And if so, is an appetite for centrism and moderation beneficial when deciding which candidate will receive your vote?

Centrism and Moderation Are Not Synonyms

As a particular approach to political action, moderation proceeds from the supposition that the most extreme policy options are necessarily inferior. It is natural that moderation and centrism are intricately connected in the American mind. The “golden mean,” a maxim that advises synthesizing a middle option from two existing and opposing ones, has a history dating back to ancient philosophy. Because the doctrine of the golden mean seeks a solution in the middle, it generally can be characterized as both moderate and centrist.

People often assume that extreme solutions are riskier, but this is untrue: sometimes, choosing a moderate option when faced with an urgent situation can result in disaster. One need look no further than the way that many western nations initially appeased Hitler, even when they recognized the threat he posed to global stability. Such situations clarify that the virtue of moderation and centrism are not the same thing. One can be a centrist (a person who tends to seek a position located between two opposing viewpoints) and nevertheless advocate decidedly immoderate policy positions. Similarly, one can support moderate policy positions and not be a centrist.

In spite of all this—the inherent risks of moderation and its difference from centrism—it is still widely accepted that it is good to be a moderate and/or a centrist. Most people assume this is obvious, and the ubiquity of the sentiment frequently casts dissenters  as examples of why moderate centrism is desirable in the first place.

Polarization and Leftward Movement of the Left

Commentators regularly note the polarization of our politics, an observation that both asserts the relative absence of moderates and calls for a return to a more moderate politics of the center. If America has grown more immoderate, we must recognize that this is not because moderates have departed the middle for the poles of the political spectrum. Rather, over the course of the last half century, the entire spectrum itself has moved to the left. That is, the Right has moved substantially towards the political Left, while the Left has moved far to the left of where it existed even twenty years ago. The important insight here is that “the middle” isn’t in the same place that it used to be. Today, the “middle” is in a place on the spectrum that we would have called the “center left” in the recent past. And those who did formerly occupy the middle now find themselves classified as people of the Right—not because they have changed their views, but because the spectrum itself has moved to the left under their feet.

This shift of the spectrum is the reason that America will remain polarized: a compromise requires moderation where the people at both extremes agree to move towards the middle to one degree or another. At least since the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatives have been making that move—their support for gay marriage has steadily increased, their traditional opposition to government spending has substantially eroded, they have increasing sought to avoid deportation of illegal immigrants by embracing other measures, etc. This sympathy toward leftist perspectives is also evidenced by the frequency with which “conservative” justices in the Supreme Court side with their liberal counterparts (who rarely break ranks with their ideological partners).

In contrast, not only has the Left not moved toward the center, “mainstream” Democrats have embraced positions that would have been viewed as dangerously radical only a short time ago: abortions up until the time of birth, defunding the police, using American revenue to provide health care for illegal immigrants, rapidly moving from the “decriminalization” of marijuana to the legalization of it, etc. Even after the Right’s move toward the Left, conservatives are still characterized as extremists, since the sweeping leftward movement of the Left has increased the distance that conservatives are from the new “middle”. The now-commonplace smearing of even moderate Republicans (notably presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney) as racists or misogynists is an effect of the leftward movement of the Left. So is the fact that every modern Democratic president or presidential nominee has been consistently identified as a “moderate” or “centrist”—even the one who was ranked the most liberal member of the Senate during one of the few years he spent there.

The Siren Song of Moderation

Despite the fact that Trump’s 2016 platform could be construed as a “centrist” one in that it intermingled policy objectives that were associated with both Republicans and Democrats, almost no one will vote for Trump because they perceive him as a centrist (and rightly, even fewer will call him a moderate). But the same cannot be said for Biden. As with Democratic nominees before him, he will be relentlessly characterized as an exemplar of centrism in the media.

There are three types of Biden voters. There is a large group of staunch Democrats who are lukewarm on Biden: either he isn’t “progressive” enough, or he isn’t cognitively prepared for the job, or he wasn’t their first choice in the primaries. This group will vote for Biden in any case because they would vote for the Democratic candidate no matter what.

A second group includes those on the liberal-Left who are genuinely excited and hopeful about Biden’s candidacy—not because he is the alternative to Trump, but because they somehow think he would make a great president. Anecdotally speaking, this group seems to be rather small.

A third group consists of “independents,” the people who are theoretically up for grabs in any election. Obviously, this group will play an outsized role in battleground states, and the ideas of centrism and moderation will be a central factor in determining the votes of many of them.

Independents understand moderation and centrism somewhat differently than those who are solidly on the Right or the Left. Progressives and conservatives value moderation and centrism as a kind of strategic prudence: these approaches can be useful, or necessary, or preferable. Put differently, they view them as good in certain situations. In contrast, many independents view centrism and moderation as inherently good, regardless of context.

There is a great deal of irony in this: to a large degree, moderation is appealing to independents because they view it as a refusal of ideology. Whereas Democrats and Republicans have certain preexisting, unquestionable goals and commitments that necessarily determine their position on most issues, the independent comes to each issue as a political tabula rasa—his position, he claims, is not determined by outside factors, but rather by a rational detachment unswayed by partisan interests. But once moderation and centrism come to be understood as a moral good in and of themselves, they take on the function of any other political ideology. Just as the principles of conservatism will draw many conservatives to sympathize with Republican candidates, the notion that moderate centrism is an inherent virtue will draw independents to the candidate they view as most moderate. The irony is this: in embracing centrism as a means to circumvent the irrational influence of ideology, those who view centrism as an inherent good make it into one more ideological orientation. The only difference between a moderate centrist and a conservative or a progressive is that the latter two will more readily admit they are ideologues.

Understanding “Independence”

Many votes in November will be determined by which candidate independents view as most moderate or centrist. Given that virtually all of America’s major institutional powers (corporations, legacy news outlets, academia, Hollywood, etc.) have spent the last five years braying that Trump is a radical extremist or a Nazi, almost no one will view him as the more moderate or centrist candidate.

Excepting third-party candidates, the vast majority of voters will grant moderate status to Joe Biden. He is neither moderate nor centrist. Biden served as vice president to a man who promised to “fundamentally transform” the nation—hardly a moderate goal. There are innumerable other ways to prove that Biden is a staunch partisan.

But the truth doesn’t matter. Perception does.

Thus, the only relevant question is whether voting for a candidate because he is a moderate or a centrist even makes sense. Independent political ideology often justifies centrism on the basis that “neither side” can have the sole claim to what is good for America. Republicans are right about some things, Democrats are right about some things, and this reality must be acknowledged in the voting booth. Or so the story goes. It is true that both sides are wrong about certain issues. But proponents of “both sides” moralism never admit that just because neither side is wholly right doesn’t mean that both sides are equally wrong. And if that is true, then choosing the candidate closest to the center isn’t a moral act—it is an abdication of the responsibility to consider moral issues in politics. In practice, choosing “moderation” for its own sake can be a way of enabling excess and extremism.  

Goldwater rightly observed that the morality of a moderate approach is dependent on context. That is as true today as it was 50 years ago. 

Given this truth, every voter is called to consider the following question: “Is the current state of the nation one that calls for moderation or centrism?” If “moderation” means open borders, defunding the police, and accommodation of an ascendant China, then it seems we could use a sharp course correction. If “centrism” is the Green New Deal, the “1619” curriculum in schools, nightly riots, and an endless government-imposed lockdown to limit the transmission of an illness that 98 percent of people will survive, then we face an urgent crisis. 

Regardless of what the corporate media says, this is the brand of “moderation” the Biden-Harris ticket embodies. In this context, then, a vote against “moderate centrism” begins to look like an imperative for the health of the nation. Goldwater’s admonition bears repeating as we near election day: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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