I disagree with Hightower.

What you will find here is: a centrist's view of current events;
a collection of thoughts, arguments, and observations
that I have found appealing and/or amusing over the years;
and, if you choose, your civil contributions which will make it into a conversation.

He not busy bein' born, is busy dyin'. - Bob Dylan

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Friday, June 8, 2012

A centrist is ...

I want to say what I think it means to be a centrist in the America of 2012.

First, I should say that I am an optimist.  I see American history (and more generally the history of Western Civilization) to be roughly on an upward trajectory*.  There are occasional declines (even some rather large ones in Western Civ.) but the trend is upward. 

Second, I see the political community as being spread out over a spectrum from left to right.   (One could be more precise with two dimensions, but one will do for now.)  For this discussion I will ignore the extremes by which I mean those beyond the types who are in Congress (at this time).  That is our BP( =body politic)  will run from, say, Dennis Kucinich to Ron Paul.

Third, the political community is not static.  Like the earth itself, it moves.  The people within it also move.  Sometimes they move with it and sometimes it moves around them.  For example, I remember in my youth hearing George Wallace say that he hadn’t left the Democratic Party, rather the party had left him.  He was right.  George was fixed in his positions (until much later in life) and the Democratic Party (and the whole BP) moved to the left.  The most notable movement is the familiar trajectory of becoming more conservative with age. Therefore, the center, and where the centrist is located, also moves.

Fourth, in order to say what a centrist is first I have say what I think a liberal is and what a conservative is and how they relate to the body politic.  In each case I want to say what I think they are when they are at their best, when each gives to the other the presumption of good faith.  To try to do for them what they would do for each other if they were trying to understand each other rather than win debate points.  The sad thing is that we mostly tend to think about politics in the terms that are used by the babblers on TV and in the blogs and many of those babblers would not give each other a drink of water in the desert.  Many others seem to me to be just playing a role and are not even trying to be people of substance. 
In my view a liberal is impatient because his country is not more perfect and his basic approach to the political situation is that “improvement is always an alternative”.  A conservative is concerned that some changes will make his country less perfect and his basic approach to the political situation is that “the burden of proof is on the advocate of change.” Notice that there is not necessarily a conflict in those two and that many if not most individuals support both perspectives and the category that I would put them into would be based on which of the two perspectives was dominant in them.  If it is balanced in them then I would consider them to be in the center.
Frequently the positions on the spectrum move from liberal to conservative. That is, positions that are liberal are frequently viewed later as being centrist and centrist positions are frequently viewed later as being conservative or off the charts.
I think that the BP (body politic) generally moves in the liberal “direction”.  I think the BP can be viewed as an arrow.  The liberals play the role of arrowhead which has a cutting edge to move the BP “forward.”  The conservatives serve the role of the fletching which stabilizes the arrow’s flight.  The centrists form the shaft that holds the other two parts together and keeps the missile from coming apart.

Finally, I would say that a centrist is a person who recognizes the legitimacy of both the liberal and conservative perspectives described above and who does not allow either of those perspectives to dominant their thinking.  The closer the person comes to giving equal weight to those perspectives the nearer the person is to the center.

*[For those who will not understand "upward trajectory" absent “a slavish subservience to the shibboleth of numerical interpretation at any cost” I would say that if you give me a quantification for “quality of life” , then I will call Q(t) the median quality of life of the individuals under consideration at time t.  If you then put t on the horizontal axis and Q on the vertical, I think that the general trend of that graph would be increasing over time.  That is, P{t: if t < r, then the P{r: Q(t) < Q(r)} > ½}> ½ .]



  1. I applaud Wayne's statement and agree with most of it. Of course, liberals push us forward and seek to make life more perfect and conservatives stabilize the arrow (a nice metaphor) and keep us from rash judgment.

    Wayne also admits that the center does change and I certainly agree with that as well.

    The points that I was trying to make in "Will the Center Hold" were qualitatively different than the points Wayne is making. In that post, I was trying to make several points: 1) you can find truth or value in the midst of error on occasion and thus centrists should not dismiss as mere "ranting" statements by "extremists" (so-called) on either side since they might contain some truth--even if we don't like their tone, they are worth some analysis, and 2) the center that is mot important is not the arithmetical or numerical center but the moral center [there, I have used the forbidden word!].

    We should, then, be willing to acknowledge that ultimately there are many truths that are all part of one greater Truth. Some recent discussions on NPR, for example, made the point that severe income inequality in our society will eventually hurt the rich as well as the poor. This seems to me to make rational sense (who will keep the rich rich if the poor are too poor to contribute to the economy that sustains all of us?) as well as moral sense. But I must confess that, when push comes to shove, the moral issues are more important to me.

    Wayne argues quite intelligently that liberals and conservatives should be able to talk to each other since their concerns are not mutually exclusive. I agree. But what do we do if today's conservatives and liberals refuse to do so? Is lamenting the lack of moderates in Congress enough? Is there anything we can do? I would like to join Wayne in his fundamental optimism about our political system's sustainability, but am finding it harder and harder to do so--especially when the lazy media hacks seem to be content with "plague on both your houses" journalism, instead of thoughtful analysis.

    But even if we cannot fix the political system, we can each behave morally and with justice for those who are being screwed by that system? That conviction is what helps me find a bit more of value in liberalism than conservatism. It also puts me, I suppose a bit left of where the center is today.

  2. KW, I can add nothing to what you have said but "well said".

  3. First to quibble with the word "admit" - that the center does change. That sounds like I have been resisting it. I have not. I have always "thought" the center very obviously changes.

    1) I will admit that you might find truth in a "rant", but whether it is worth looking for is dependent on a) the "rantor" and b) how much time you have.
    2) I have always said the the center is not to be understood in a mathematical sense. But you introduce the "moral center" without the slightest hint as to what that might be. For example, what is the "moral" position on abortion?

    I'm not sure what it means to put a capital on Truth or to say the "moral issues are more important".
    Sounds like we are moving into religion.

    I completely agree with you about the irresponsible media (across the board).
    But what can we do? Those from the rational left to the rational right make up a much larger group than the centrists alone. That group can interact with each other. We can say to the politicians that there are limits to how far into the ridiculous you can go and still get our votes.

    Each side can try to move their near rational brethren to pitch their tent on the rational fringe of their preferred side, rather than slipping into the jungles of liberal and conservative nonsense.

    For an example of that last proposal, first I would say that your positions put you a good deal further than a “bit” to the left of center. Happily, you are still clearly among the rational liberals. Suppose an acquaintance of yours explained to you (as a Texas liberal friend of mine recently did to me) that the conservatives and the whole Republican party is opposed to Obama because they are still mad at the fact that the Federal Government had freed their great-great-granddaddy’s slaves.
    Do you:
    a) chuckle in the certainty that you’ve got a solid democratic vote there,
    b) tell him not only that, the Rs are just stupid, or
    c) argue that, while you agree with him that the Rs are wrong on most of the issues, that not a lot of them had ancestors with slaves and probably that is not the reason. Maybe they are just scared about the debt and the Rs and Ds just have a difference of opinion about that.

  4. OK, I will retract the word "admit" as you are right about the center shifting.

    I certainly agree with your comment that "each side can try to move their near rational brethren to pitch their tent on the rational fringe of their preferred side...." but this seems like a nearly impossible task these days. The rational right and rational left both seem to be shrinking--at least among those in the group of people who run for office?

    And this is where my attention to morality (ethics, not religion, by the way--most atheists I've read take pride in their ethical behavior) comes into play. There are some things that are morally good and others that are not. This can be demonstrated rationally and is not dependent upon religion or spirituality of any sort.

    You say that my proposal to help those screwed by the system puts me well beyond center left. Well, I know the word "screwed" is a "rant" word and thus unpleasant but I would ask you, for example, to what extent, if any, you would defend those greedy bastards (ooops, more rant words) who knowingly sold people mortgages that they knew they couldn't pay? Where does PRIMARY moral responsibility for the collapse of 2008-09 lie--only with the suckers who stupidly (and also immorally) signed the mortgages? What companies like Countrywide did was politically, economically, legally (I think) and, yes, morally wrong. Can't one in the left center make such judgments, assess blame by way of analyzing the problem?? Why does / should my position on this put me so far away from the center?

    Re: an earlier comment you made: I disagree that MLK was far away from the center. He was appealing to stated and professed American values, was non-violent, and sought Justice which the political system of his time was reluctant to provide [the "let's not be in too big a hurry" argument I heard as a teenager]. In what way does that make him a person who could not be considered a centrist--except by saying that a majority of people in 1956 probably saw him as a radical? Does that make him a radical, too far left?

    I must admit that my position is in danger of making me sound a bit like Jim Hightower, but I will take refuge in the Bob Dylan quote also found in the blog masthead. People must act or die. The only way significant political or social change can occur, based upon my study of history, is for people to get angry and "not take it any more". The American Revolution, all things considered, was a nice combination of reason and emotion, as was the construction of the Constitution. The French were not so lucky; their revolution descended, after three years, into irrationality and eventually dictatorship. We may have had more balanced leaders than the French, but do we still have them and are we willing to elect them? Look at poor Lugar.

    If we don't get off our butts and start making some progress on issues such as the debt (see, I put your chief concern first), the problem of inequality, the dangers posed by climate change, and our responsibility to address the real needs of our people and planet, we will, to use a word Angela Merkel used last week, be facing a real shitstorm--and that is more realtiy than rant.

  5. Technical point: I did not say that your “proposal to help those screwed by the system puts me well beyond center left.” I did say that “your positions” put you there. I did not think that that would be in any way offensive. I thought you were a proud liberal.

    Moral responsibility: You went on to discuss where the “PRIMARY moral responsibility for the collapse of 2008-09” lies and whether it should go to the bankers as well as the people who signed the mortgages. I would say that both are blameworthy, but you left out the preeminent role that was played by the government. They were the ones who noted that home ownership was good and pressed the banks to make loans to people without due regard to creditworthiness. (In the la la land of congress the ability to repay is not a factor.) A banker would not do that on his own because he would lose money. The government brought the bankers in by arranging to have Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy the mortgages from the bankers. That assured the banker a profit and took away his risk of default.

    I think that that is how it happened.

    I am happy to assign moral responsibility in that situation.

    At the lowest level of responsibility are the people who made the mortgages. They should have known that they were overreaching themselves, but their greed overcame them. Their responsibility is the least because they should have been able to rely on the integrity of the banking system and the government’s obligation to construct a rational system of regulations.

    At the next level of responsibility are the bankers. They most certainly did know they mortgages were not sound and abdicated their responsibility to “alert the media”. But their greed overcame them. But they also should have been able to rely on the government’s obligation to construct a rational system of regulations. Who are they to object if the Federal Reserve has no problems with it? Congress oversees this kind of thing don’t they?

    When the system goes this sour, then the real culprits are the ones who made the rules that controlled that situation. The government constructed an irrational system. Why did they do it? Did they forget that the participants in the system might be influenced by greed? What were their motives? Whatever they were, the system that they made collapsed. Theirs is the primary moral responsibility. And I don’t mean just Bush and Greenspan. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and Congress were all over it too.

    It was perhaps our last bipartisan effort.

    1. I agree with Wayne’s 3 main culprits in the mortgage loan mess. If I were to assign levels of blame it would be 1) the people who signed the note knowing they could not pay, 2), the Government that coerced (by threatening to revoke FDIC insurance) the banks into making the loans, and 3) the banks.

      I am not yet at the point I can break moral responsibility into levels. Call me old fashioned, but for me "moral" is pretty much a binary choice.

  6. Very interesting discussion, but I need a reference point. KW, would you share an example (1 please) of someone “screwed” by the system?