The notion of centrism invites scorn from true believers. In many cases it is justified. A politician or person who just bends to the wind and prioritizes staying out of the crossfire, can often be accused of believing in nothing. Those in the so-called center deserve no respect if it is merely a hiding place for cowards and opportunists. But there’s another way to consider centrism.
Introduced as far back as 1976 by Donald Warren in his book, The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation, the concept of a centrist being a “radical” is based on the idea that a concrete, uncompromising political agenda can form that rejects extremism on the Right and on the Left. This concept is further explored in Ted Halstead’s more recent book The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics, published in 2002.
What Warren came up with in 1976, or Halstead in 2002, may or may not be applicable to America in 2021. But they expressed a powerful idea: The center does not have to be the refuge of cowards and opportunists. It can represent a vision and an agenda that is as revolutionary and as precise, if not even more precise, than the ideologies on the Left and Right that it rejects.
One of the liberating factors in proposing a radical centrist agenda is that it doesn’t have to adhere to ideological dogma from either extreme. It can focus on pragmatic policy solutions that rely on popular support and are designed to improve the freedom and prosperity of all Americans. There are other labels that might apply, although using them may muddle as much as clarify the notion of radical centrism. One of them is conservative populism. The choice of that label may be fraught, but it also provides familiar territory to anyone attempting to define a radical centrist agenda.
A centrist agenda could rest on common sense, facts and logic, and a pragmatic vision that aspires to come up with policies that benefit everyone rather than select special interests or identity groups. Such an agenda could acknowledge the good intent of policies motivated by concern over climate change or racial injustice, while exposing the hidden agendas that propel these movements. There’s nothing wrong with building resilience into America’s infrastructure to cope with catastrophic weather events—we’ve been doing that since the dawn of civilization. There’s nothing wrong with condemning racism—that, too, is consistent with the historical progress of the United States since its inception.
One of the problems facing conservative populists is the failure of center-right politicians, moderate Republicans and even many Democrats, to recognize that what conservative populists are asking for is not extreme. The obligation of conservative populists is to state unequivocally that their positions are moderate, despite how they are tagged by the establishment Left. It is a moderate, rational position to call for an all-of-the above energy strategy to address the energy challenges facing America and the rest of the world. It is a commonsense position to demand a colorblind meritocracy in American institutions, and a positive, patriotic emphasis in public education.
Across every facet of policy, ideas that are commonsense, moderate points of view have been stigmatized as right-wing extremism. The solution is not only to expose the hidden agenda of the Leftist establishment, but to occupy the center. It is a moderate, centrist position to acknowledge that America must control its borders, and to acknowledge that American citizenship bestows rights and privileges that cannot in any practical, equitable, or economically sustainable way be extended to every person that manages to cross into U.S. territory. Asserting these realities belongs in the center of political discourse. They don’t emanate from the extreme Right. They are centrist.
In compiling a list of centrist positions that need to be asserted as such, there’s a lot of ground to cover. It is not extreme, it is commonsense centrism to assert that young children in America’s public schools should not be trained to believe they can be any gender they wish to be. This is confusing to small children and has no place in elementary school curricula, if, for that matter, it belongs in any K-12 curricula. Similarly, it is commonsense centrism to recognize that while every individual deserves respect and compassion, regardless of how they express their sexuality, that doesn’t mean that people must be compelled to endorse every trending gender innovation. This is plain, simple, common sense—and there’s nothing extremist about saying so.
Similarly, it is commonsense centrism to recognize that if you decriminalize crime, and if you designate drug addiction as a lifestyle choice, you’re going to get more criminals and more drug addicts. Commonsense centrism would also recognize that if you legalize vagrancy, designating any tent parked on public property as constitutionally protected private space, and offer the homeless food and healthcare services for free and without conditions, you will remove any deterrent to vagrancy, attracting if not creating as many opportunists and predators among the homeless as genuine victims of circumstances beyond their control.
Awareness of incentives and their consequences should be one of the foundations of commonsense centrism, but somehow the policies and agenda that fall out of this awareness have become stigmatized as extremist. They’re not. If you pay people to remain unemployed, they will not work. If you approve students for graduation who can’t achieve minimum scores on standardized academic achievement tests, students will not study. If colleges and universities admit applicants without competitive academic skills, and if businesses hire and promote individuals based on their group identity instead of their qualifications, then students and workers will no longer apply themselves; they will no longer care if they’re qualified.
For the past few decades, and increasingly in recent years, these positions have been marginalized as right-of-center, if not extreme right-wing. They’re not. They are commonsense centrist positions. The people holding these positions need to calmly and relentlessly self-identify as moderate centrists. They need to demand that moderate politicians recognize them as such, and find the courage to support them.
What is known today as the American Right, or as populist conservatism, needs to occupy the center, giving it substance. They need to push the establishment Left firmly aside, into the extremist margins where they belong.