What does it mean to be a centrist? A response to Bo Winegard

As a regular reader of Quillette Magazine, I've read amazing good opinions and essays on a wide range of topics from the perspective of a scientist. If I could, I would dedicate a blog to each one of them. But not often does an opinion bugs me (in a positive sense) as the moderate manifesto by Bo Winegard. It bugged him to as he wrote a sequel.


The first one is fairly long essay, and it would be impossible to summarize it without being crude, but if I would cut it down it would be this: centrism is according to Bo Winegard a philosophy that positions itself in the middle between conservatism and progressivism, between stasis and radical change. A centrist recognizes we are all human, worth tolerating our flaws. A centrist is not guided by dogma but by a number of scientific-proven assumptions. Bo Winegard sums a number of those assumptions in a clear list:
  1. Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.
  2. Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.
  3. Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.
  4. Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.
  5. Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.
  6. A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.
  7. A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.
I immediately recognize myself in these words. Does that necessarily mean I'm a centrist? Not really, it just means I'm a modern, secular conservative. I've also communicated this to Bo Winegard and he acknowledges this is not an unique critique.

So where did he go wrong? That's what I'm going to try to find out in this blog.

Collective vs. individual
It is strange but the essay focuses mainly between the conservativism vs. progressivism divide and less between the collectivism vs. individualism divide. I could only find one paragraph regarding social and economic issues:
"The centrist, however, is equally skeptical of radical libertarian ideas on the Right. The modern welfare state, whatever its flaws, has done a pretty good job of holding together a broad and largely urbanized society in which private charity cannot solve the worst problems of poverty. Many libertarian theorists (although not all, of course) appear as wrong about human nature as socialists or other utopians. Not all humans can thrive in a modern information-based economy. Education is obviously a great social good, but it cannot turn a person with an 85 IQ into an engineer. Creating better incentives will not create a society of Einsteins.
Furthermore, markets, although brilliant wealth generators, are often corrosive to social values. This, among other reasons, is why political and cultural leaders have always established rules to guide markets, and have often tried to remove certain commodities from the market system altogether. In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed. The centrist does not need to take a firm stand here; rather he or she should carefully examine the available and future evidence about the effects of legalization. The more important point is that market libertarianism is a radical political philosophy and therefore should be greeted with skepticism."
As you can see, the centrist view of Bo Winegard on economy is mostly based on skepticism. It doesn't give much clues if a centrist society should put the needs of the collective before the individual, if it should focus more on liberal, negative rights rather than social, positive rights or what model the welfare state should be.

The answer will most likely be in the middle, of course, but it should be based more on skepticism and pragmatism. There are however many centrist views on economy and the individual, most notably communitarianism and personalism. They both believe people are embedded within a community, thus rejecting both the all-encompassing collective of the Marxist left and the isolated individual of the libertarian right. 

It shouldn't be surprising that centrist economic perspectives are mostly derived from Catholic social teaching. In Europe, there has been a long tradition of centrist Christian democratic parties. If Bo Winegard wants to know how to find the balance between runaway capitalism and dogmatic communism, classical Christian democratic writings like the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno might be inspirational.

If he believes this to be too religious, I would recommend the German Freiburg School of economics. They formulated ideas that reconciled capitalism with state intervention. They are the basis of the German Wirtschaftswunder and the economic performance of Germany to this day. The ideas of the Freiburg School are collectively referred to as ordoliberalism or Rhine capitalism. I can recommend this essay for more information on ordoliberalism.

I would summarize the centrist position this way: a capitalist economy is the best way but it needs state regulation to ensure free and fair competition. It also needs to be democratized to ensure that every person can develop its talents, this is both by ensuring equality of opportunity and a welfare state based on a Bismarckian insurance model. The backbone of the ordoliberal economy is what is known as the Mittelstand (best translated as small and medium-sized enterprises), while the backbone of society being the non-governmental civil society. The German tendency towards order means they value rules and independent institutions in order to protect the market.

But could the communitarian and ordoliberal centrist sway the American voter? It is clear that the centrist would heavily disagree with Republican conservatives, as they advocate the Chicago School economics of total laissez-faire rather than state intervention. However, Republicans can be swayed by the hard stand of the ordoliberal against debt and for austerity. Democrats on the other hand can be persuaded by the advocacy of a welfare state and minimum wages. This might offend Republicans, but because the Bismarckian welfare model values contribution before benefit, this can be sold. I think centrists with such economic programme might have a good chance of success.

Centrism of what?

I'll move on to the second essay called "The Spirit of Centrism". If you expected that Bo Winegard would detail what the essence of centrism is, you like me got disappointed. I'll probably be crude here again but to summarize his essay I would just take the first and last paragraph:
"Centrism is a decidedly wimpy word, but it is a powerful political idea. Over the last few weeks, many commentators and critics have compelled me to contemplate centrism more carefully. Is centrism a kind of “average” of extremes: They want single-payer insurance; the other side wants free market insurance; centrists want some unique hybrid? What then when the extreme position is the correct one? Does the centrist defy the truth simply to mold the world to his or her obsessions with compromise? As I’ve contemplated these important questions, I’ve begun to believe that the truly unique and important thing about centrism is its insistence on debate, and its uneasiness with prepackaged dogmas and identity narratives. Centrism is a flexible political position, but it is inflexible in its urging of open inquiry and spirited discourse. 
(motivating the advantages of free debate) 
This, to me, is the spirit of centrism: a vivacious spirit of debate. It contends that we should whittle away sacred narratives so that we can engage in honest discussion that recognizes the painful tradeoffs our favorite policy proposals entail. And it contends that we should approach those with whom we disagree with charity. We should not attack their moral character. We should address their arguments. This won’t always result in a middle way, because the truth isn’t always in the center. Instead, it will result in the right way, because lively discussion and debate are almost always better guides to the truth than intuitions or dogmas."
I highlighted two important parts in bold. Bo Winegard doesn't need to convince me why debate is necessary; but I simply don't see the relevance in explaining the spirit of centrism. Free debate is simply a means to an end, not an end on itself (I'll address what end later).

What bothered me is that Bo Winegard started off with the right questions, but somehow evaded or incompletely answered them. It becomes clear when you compare the questions in the first paragraph with the answer in the last paragraph. Is centrism a kind of average? I don't know, his answer suggests a maybe. Does the centrist defy truth for compromise? I don't know, maybe.

It seems Winegard hasn't fully understood the gravity of his earlier questions. It is not trivial on how centrism should be perceived. I've thought a lot of it myself and every time I come to one single point: it depends on your vision of the centre.

Ok, this requires clarification. There are roughly three ways to view centrism:
  1. Continuity: the centrist does not subject society to wild social experiments or nostalgic romanticism. The centrist recognizes the complexity of life. Radical change makes the centrist nervous. The centrist is the competent captain who can guide the ship through the stormy sea, doing what is necessary to avoid making shipwreck. The centrist does not have high ideals, but a keen sense of duty, prudence and diligence.
  2. Compromise: the centrist does not like bipartisan bickering. The centrist: "Why can't we just go beyond the ideological divide, sit around the table as grown-ups and get things done for the public good?".  The centrist is at the same time rooted in civil society, sensing what the public wants and turn it workable policy. The centrist is a chameleon that adapts itself to the political current, maybe going centre-left or centre-right but taking overall the middle road.
  3. Radicalism: the centrist does not have an image of dullness. When all tried recipes failed, the centrist provides the alternative. The centrist sees the value of both sides and composes a refreshing centrist ideology based on facts, needs and progress. The centrist sees that in the most polarized times, it is the centrist who is the counterculture.
In reality, most centrist parties combine two of the three ideal types of centrism. Angela Merkel is 1 and 2 (or used to be, her image as centrist is damaged since the refugee crisis) and because of that, is she the longest reigning Chancellor in German history. Emmanuel Macron is 2 and 3, his radical centrist movement En Marche originated during the deepest political crisis France ever faced.

Every ideal type has its flaws. Too much continuity makes the centrist look conservative for the Left and weak for the Right. Too much compromise might disappoint voters. Radical centrism might not work if it is too idealistic.

The question of Bo Winegard on what the spirit of centrism is, might be unanswerable. There are many centrisms. What America needs, is up to him to choose.


In these highly partisan times of ever more SJW-esque Democrats and Trumpian Republicans, a straightforward call to centrism is refreshing. I have no doubt that a Centrist Party will not work in America, but I do believe there are enough people within both parties who might have similar ideas as Bo Winegard and willing to cross the Rubicon.

I'm a European in a country which already has a centrist Christian Democratic party. However, it is lost. It is trapped in the multicultural liberal-left consensus since the 80's. My country does not need continuity or more broken compromises. I doubt the party leadership can make the change. Maybe centrism is not the solution...