This one may ruffle a few centrist manes.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Centrists and Whataboutism
- Numbness, Apathy, and “I’m Not Political”
- The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism
- What Do Conservatives Actually Believe In?
- Conclusion: The Paradox of Tolerance
Why such a confrontational title? Because as far as I’m concerned, there’s really no point in burying the lede here. Politics and democracy are at such a place that there’s no longer any value in euphemism or half measures. Is it a bit incendiary? Sure. But don’t worry, I intend to show my work.
Centrists come in a number of varieties, but are most often characterized by an aloof detachment from partisan politics and political issues. They also often hide behind the argument that both sides are the same1. Rather than risking being wrong or seeming uninformed, centrists maintain an ill-earned sense of ethical and moral superiority by refusing to be pulled down into supposed political mud-slinging. Like a bizarre inverted version of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz they present themselves as courageous, as being motivated by reason and above petty squabbles. Unlike the Cowardly Lion, however, who eventually finds his courage and stands up for his friends, they never actually stand up for anything, instead wearing their prideful mane without ever having earned it.
I originally started this post and then decide to put it away for fear that it might be too overtly political, but in the wake of another spree of deadly mass murders over the weekend in the United States, enlightened centrists like Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter with blazing hot takes like this:
Others tried to shift the discussion back to the repeatedly debunked myth that video games are linked to violent crime. Still others tried to attack the politics of the Ohio shooter or characterize the violence as a result of the media rather than the violent rhetoric of the President of the United States, his followers, and other right-wing media figures and organizations. All of these attempts at supposedly using “logic” or “perspective” to discuss the issue are actually nothing more than transparent attempts at Whataboutism2 and misdirection. These arguments are vapid and empty; and most people making them are not doing so in good faith.
Why do I have such an issue with this? Why does this put his argument to the far-right rather than the centre where I’m sure he believes it should be? I mean, c’mon, it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, do I really think he’s a bad guy? He did Cosmos. And he was buff in college! And he’s probably not a sexual harasser! Sure, but whether he likes it or not, he’s contributing to controlling the conversation, to shifting the discussion from the actual issues of gun violence and the political radicalization of young (white) men. This sort of whataboutism and aloof centrist “ideology” is directly supporting the far-right’s desire to control and shape the conversation. And the far-right needs this kind of centrist buffer to help them mainstream their ideas and give them plausible deniability.
As for the “both sides are the same” crowd3, in the wake of the two deadly shootings, right-wing websites have begun printing articles with headlines like, “If Trump’s To Blame For El Paso Shooting, Is Warren To Blame For Dayton?”4 and “As the media blames Trump and his supporters for every shooting, it proves they’ve become nothing more than a propaganda arm for the far-left” 5. Conservative and right-wing message boards are overflowing with reposts of Tweets that simultaneously engage in both whataboutism and the supposed logical superiority of the centre. Take, for example:
The top comment on this post when it was shared on a far-right subreddit was: “Also notice they are talking about El Paso shooter and his manifesto and keep bringing [up] white supremac[y] every 2 seconds. They are not talking about the background of the Dayton shooter [and] left wing hate.” Even just reading that Tweet and comment, I could barely help myself from blurting out that the differences are obvious and myriad, both in policy, language, and response. But that’s what they want. The bottom line is that both deGrasse Tyson’s Tweet and the Tweet above contribute to changing the conversation, shifting the goalposts, and whataboutism. One is obviously more nefarious than the other, but they nonetheless (at least tacitly) support far-right ideology. So, get those hot-takes way the hell out of here.
The most common fall-out of the “both sides are the same” crowd is apathy and lack of voter engagement. This is what the right wants. If you stay home, they have a better chance of winning. Even those with political fervor and desire to support change and equality have begun to burn out. And I get it, it’s hard – so bloody hard – not to become numb to the constant stream of hatred, idiocy, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and anti-trans actions and rhetoric that fill the headlines on a daily basis. But numbness leads to apathy and apathy leads to lack of action. And choosing to abstain from politics, from voting, from society is not a viable option. And it’s certainly not a neutral option. Or, as John Stuart Mill put it in 1867:
Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
This quotation (and variations of it) are so over-used as to become nearly cliché, sure, but I think it continues to hold meaning. I would go one step further, however, and suggest that when those “good” people look on and do nothing they cease to be good. Looking on and doing nothing is a choice. As George Orwell put it in “Why I Write“: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” He goes on to add:
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
Orwell concludes this brief essay with a sentiment that I try to live my life by: “I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.” Opting out isn’t and never was, an option.
Aside from aloof detachment, the most common defense of the centre-right is claiming to be a “Socially Liberal Fiscal Conservative.” In my personal experience, which I acknowledge is purely anecdotal and non-scientific, this man (it’s almost always a man) is never nearly as “socially liberal” as he claims. Usually he smoked pot a couple of times in college but has always voted for right-wing political parties and plans to continue doing so. Aside from the incredibly lax use of “socially liberal” there’s an ideological issue with fiscal conservatism: it’s a myth. If you ask a self-identified fiscal conservative what they believe in, they would likely offer something along the lines of: support for low taxes, reduced government spending and minimal government debt, as well as a strong belief in free trade, deregulation of the economy, and privatization.6 But how has this actually played out historically? Here’s a chart from the Treasury Department presented without comment:
Okay, maybe with some comment. The public debt was increased by a whopping 189% under conservative golden boy and unapologetic racist Ronald Reagan. Trump’s proposed budget would see the national debt climb by about 46%7. He has already, however, increased the debt to $22.1 trillion dollars, as of the end of June of this year, which is well ahead of the estimated increase in his proposed budgets. On this side of the border, let’s take a quick look at current Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s fiscal plans. While claiming that he will balance the budget by 2023-2024 – and while cutting funding to education, healthcare, arts, research, the environment, and Indigenous programs – he also managed to increase the annual deficit by about 50%.
So the “reduced government spending and minimal government debt” part is out the window. But what about lower taxes? At this point, this shouldn’t be a secret, but Trump’s $1.7 trillion tax cut has had no effect on the average American’s after-tax income.
All of this begs the question, what the hell do fiscal conservatives actually believe in? This is where it gets a bit tricky8. This is also where the feather ruffling really begins. Fundamentally, conservative political and economic thought does not believe in equality. What they do believe in, however, is the political fiction of the Equality of Opportunity:
Equality of opportunity is a political ideal that is opposed to caste hierarchy but not to hierarchy per se. The background assumption is that a society contains a hierarchy of more and less desirable, superior and inferior positions. In contrast [to a caste society], when equality of opportunity prevails, the assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is determined by some form of competitive process, and all members of society are eligible to compete on equal terms.
Essentially, conservatives believe that our society is a meritocracy. The issue, however, is that due to a vast number of social, political, and economic factors, not everyone has the opportunity to compete “on equal terms.” There are so many sources of power and inequity in our society that treating it as a free market seems inherently unfair and unequal to liberals. On that note, it seems worth mentioning that the source of the term meritocracy was actually a satirical essay by Michael Dunlop Young, which pointed out the follies inherent in any such system. The term was used in a similarly pejorative manner by Hannah Arendt9. But that is the fundamental belief underpinning conservative thought: we are all members of the same society and therefore all have the opportunity to rise up or down the social and economic ladder based on our individual talents, effort, and dedication.
Whereas left-leaning people like myself see the issues in our society as coming primarily from such a hierarchical structure, conservatives believe that many of society’s flaws come from artificially manipulating that structure. Social programs such as free college tuition, a higher minimum wage, or affirmative action in hiring processes, rather than working to slightly level a very, very tilted field, instead allow people to rise up (and be pushed down) the social hierarchy improperly.
This belief lies at the very root of conservative thought and ideology10. Edmund Burke, the Father of Modern Conservatism, in reflecting on the French Revolution, was mortified by the potential for power to flow up the social hierarchy (from the masses) rather than down (from the monarch). Burke believed that they needed to insulate the social order from similar upheavals occurring in England. To this end, anyone wishing to be part of “civil society” had to “abdicate all right to be his own governor” 11. Each man cedes their right to be their own governor, but each man does not get an equal say in who that governor should be:
He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to [a fair portion of all which society can do in his favor] as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion. But he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock; and as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.
Therefore, for Burke, each man has a right to be a member of society, but not an equal right to share in its proceeds. And the determination of who should have the greatest share should rest in the convention, or tradition, of that society and their financial means. In short, those with money, nobility, and power are at the top of the social hierarchy and that is the way it ought to remain because that is the way that it is. Like a bastardized inversion of the famous Oscar Gamble quote12: “It be like it is, because it do.” To paraphrase another way, as Ian Danskins (of Innuendo Studios) put it:
Humans are innately unequal and society flourishes when power is doled out to the deserving.
This line of thinking can be traced directly from Edmund Burke to the marginalists (like Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger) to James Fitzjames Stephen, to Nietzsche, to Ayn Rand, to Irving Kristol13, to contemporary figures like Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. All of these thinkers rely on the same fundamental beliefs espoused by Edmund Burke: that social hierarchy is necessary and beneficial to society, that people are fundamentally unequal, and that a free market rewards those who are deserving. This thinking continues to characterize conservative political strategy and economic policy14. So it is, so it’s always been.
This is why I see centrists and conservatives as being so dangerous to our democracy. I believe in a fundamental equality of all people, not a purported equality that’s actually just another attempt to make sure people end up in the right part of the pyramid.
For several years now I have been a staunch and vocal (seriously, I’m sorry if you’ve had to listen to me rant about this more than once) supporter of the “The Paradox of Tolerance.” The term was originated by philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 tome The Open Society and Its Enemies. Originally, relegated to an explanatory footnote in a section about leadership, the Paradox of Tolerance states:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.15
As intolerance continues to grow and manifest itself in deadly ways in our society, I feel obligated to push back. Not just against specific acts of intolerance, but against the ideology that underpins it. Not every Trump supporter is a racist, but by supporting him (or not voting) you are supporting racism. The most common defenses of these positions, not just for Trump, but for folks like Doug Ford as well, is that they are voting for fiscal conservatism and that they don’t support all of their policies, but they support that one. I think I’ve shown here that fiscal conservatism as it presents itself is a myth and that behind the Wizard’s curtain there is nothing but a system built on inequality, oppression and maintaining the status quo.
Therefore, if you say you’re voting for Doug Ford because he will freeze the minimum wage at $14 (and not increase it to $15 as the previous Liberal government had planned), I will tell you that that makes you an asshole. Because while you’re voting on a single issue that effects you, you are intentionally or otherwise supporting a system of continued inequality, oppression and intolerance. Doug Ford is anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, unqualified, corrupt, and took a hatchet to public services designed to provide for Ontarians and to in some small way attempt to make right the unequal access to opportunity and advancement in our society. If you see the minimum wage freeze as a pro (which I don’t), the tally still comes up looking like this as far as I’m concerned:
In essence, supporting a right-wing politician’s “fiscal conservatism” is, to me, akin with saying that the minimum wage freeze is more important to you as a voter than the cuts to: education, healthcare, Aboriginal Initiatives, the environment; the increased deficit; the trans-phobic and archaic sex-ed curriculum; his corruption; and his lack of qualifications. The implication of this line of reasoning is that what effects you, someone deservedly towards the upper side of the pyramid (or striving to be there), is more important than the myriad of issues that effect millions of people who you perceive to be below you on the pyramid. How can you then turn around and argue that you believe in equality, equal opportunity and equal access? The two positions are incompatible, because conservatism is a philosophy built upon inequality and shoring up the power of the few over the many. And I refuse to look on and do nothing.
Note: I realize this post may be a bit contentious and if you have anything you want to say about it or if you’re interested in talking about any of these ideas further, please feel free to drop me a line.
- Pro-Tip: They’re not.
- Attempting to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Essentially, responding with, “But what about –” instead of engage in actual discussion.
- Note: I will not be linking to these sites, but will provide the URLs in footnotes for you to visit if you so choose. But please think before giving these outlets any more traffic and allowing them to turn tragedy into clickbait
- Coates, David. The Oxford Companion to American Politics, Volume 2. Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Proposed increase of $9.1 trillion on current debt of $19.9 trillion.
- Throughout this piece, and for this section in particular, I want to acknowledge the amazing series The Alt-Right Playbook on YouTube by Innuendo Studios
- Arendt, Hanna. “Crisis in Education“, 1954.
- Take a look at “Endnote 3: The Origins of Conservatism” for a very clear breakdown of exactly how.
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, 50.
- “People don’t think it be like it is, but it do”
- Known as the “godfather of neo-conservatism”
- Think of Reagan’s mythical welfare queen or the imagined threat of immigrants stealing jobs. Both are direct results of this philosophy, that people are cheating the natural social hierarchy and ending up in strata where they don’t belong.
- Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Note 4 to page 128.