The Centrist Delusion: ‘Middle Ground’ Politics Aren’t Moderate, They’re Dangerous

by Raoul Martinez

11 December 2019

In a world of competing narratives serving competing interests, there’s always a temptation to gravitate to the political centre ground, the would-be midpoint between two apparent extremes, with its aura of moderation, reasonableness and realism. After all, isn’t the truth supposed to be ‘somewhere in the middle’, a composite of competing claims? The simple answer is no. Not in science and not in politics. When there are two opposing sides to a debate, sometimes the midway position is empirically false or morally abhorrent. In every civilisation, the centre ground of political opinion has been home to dangerous, inaccurate and oppressive ideas. 

A consensus of the powerful.

In eighteenth century Britain, centrists endorsed slavery, reformists called for improved working conditions for slaves and radicals demanded the abolition of the entire institution. As historian Adam Hochschild recounts, if in 1787 “you had stood on a London street corner and insisted slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured you ending slavery was wildly impractical.” The centre ground is a social construction, commanding most loyalty from those whose privilege protects them from the ravages of the system they support.

The centre ground doesn’t necessarily represent majority opinion — it’s a consensus of the powerful. In the US, for instance, public opinion has for decades been in favour of universal healthcare, while most US politicians — Republicans and Democrats — have staunchly opposed it. The shifting centre ground has reframed political perceptions to such an extent that someone like Bernie Sanders, who would once have been regarded as a middle-of-the-road politician in the mould of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, has long been characterised as a radical insurgent. 

Struggles to abolish slavery, end child labour, resist colonialism, extend voting rights, achieve racial and gender equality, and grant basic human rights to all required courageous members of society to challenge the dominant identities and narratives of their day. Those who did were labelled as extremists, and sometimes punished with imprisonment or death. It’s easy to look back at the injustices of history with moral clarity and ignore the fact that this clarity owes its existence to the hard work of those who came before us. Our moral compass is the outcome of yesterday’s sacrifices and struggles. 

Extremists for love or hate?

Today, Martin Luther King is viewed by many as one of the greatest Americans in history. In a 2011 survey, 94 percent of those polled viewed him positively, yet in his own lifetime, a 1966 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of respondents viewed him negatively. In 1961, a Gallup survey showed that even when Americans supported the stated goals of the civil rights movement, a majority did not support their tactics — sit-ins, freedom buses and mass demonstrations. When King spoke out against the Vietnam war, Life magazine described his speech as “demagogic slander”. King, Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists were regularly called ‘Anti-American’, ‘communists’ and ‘traitors’. The FBI referred to him as “the most dangerous negro leader in this Nation”. Robert Kennedy signed off on a surveillance program to monitor King’s home, offices, phones and hotel rooms, as well as those of his colleagues. At one point, the FBI even sent him an unsigned letter encouraging him to kill himself. Why?

King was deeply critical of the centrist politics of the day. His demands for change challenged the legal, cultural and political mainstream. In his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, he described his views of the sympathetic so-called moderate:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

King was often called an extremist. Initially he was distressed by the term but later “gained a measure of satisfaction from the label”. As he put it, “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”. King felt that the world desperately needed creative extremists for “love, truth and goodness” and argued that freedom was never given away by systems of power. It always had to be won by “strong, persistent and determined action”.

One of the reasons King is celebrated now is that his legacy has been sanitised in ways that distort what he believed and fought for. He is remembered for his inspiring message of racial equality, an area where the dominant story has been revised, but his message of economic justice and his anti-war campaigning are deemphasised or ignored. Few people associate him with the view that the global system of capitalism takes “necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes” and has “outlived its usefulness”. These views are as challenging today as they were in King’s time.

The saintly aura of bygone human rights icons is rarely matched by those who wage the same struggles today. They are constructed after a battle has been won, and in ways that prevent us learning from history. How many of us would have supported King and the movement he represented when to do so came at a cost, when the struggle was dangerous, the methods unpopular, and when those who did support him were dismissed as cultists or threats to national security? 

It takes courage, effort, and imagination to rewrite dominant narratives, to perceive the familiar as extreme and the normal as outrageous. It takes robust understanding to develop and defend convictions that are incompatible with the assumptions of peers and the powerful. This is the moral challenge of every generation: to see beyond the prejudices, lies and smears of their own time; to identify the injustices, threats and problems of their era, and work together to overcome them. The location of the centre ground is never a given — it is precisely what we want to change when we engage in political struggle. 

The unconvincing mask of moderation.

In my own lifetime, centre ground politicians have launched illegal wars based on false claims, in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed; made billions in profits from selling arms to the most repressive regimes on the planet; systematically dismantled the regulations of the financial sector leading to one of the most devastating economic crashes in history; pursued, unnecessarily, economic austerity which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted great suffering on millions more; allowed tens of thousands of desperate souls to drown in the Mediterranean; and all while overseeing soaring inequality within and between nations. These are serious and tragic failings, but the problems with business-as-usual politics go deeper still. If we take the warnings of the scientific community seriously — and we must — the very survival of our civilisation depends on us radically and urgently redefining the centre ground of political opinion. 

Confronted with the extremism of the far right, many in the establishment are clamouring for a return to the centre-ground, to turn back the clock to the 1990s. These dynamics played out clearly in the US election of 2016. During the Democratic primaries, poll after poll showed that Bernie Sanders, with his populist progressivism, stood a far better chance of beating Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. The data signalled that a contest between Trump and Clinton would be extremely close, with some polls putting Trump ahead of Hillary, but that a contest between Trump and Sanders would very much favour Sanders. In May 2016, analytics expert Dustin Woodard wrote that Sanders “beats Trump in every single poll and by an average margin of 14.1 percent.” Yet institutional support — within the Democratic party itself, but also in the wider media — rallied behind Clinton. According to Democratic National Committee Chair, Donna Brazile, this support extended to rigging the primaries to keep Sanders out. At a time of deep anti-establishment sentiment, this was a gift to Trump. Ultimately, Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election. A poll on the eve of the election suggested that Sanders would have emerged with a large majority. After the election, pollster guru Nate Silver concluded “Bernie probably would have won”. 

Clinton’s loss is symptomatic of something deeper: an establishment committed to holding the unconvincing mask of moderation firmly in place over a corrupt, exploitative and unsustainable system. Trump and the emboldened far right across Europe represent a new category of threat, but the reality behind this mask reveals greater continuity between Trump and previous administrations than we have been led to believe. Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants is hateful, but Obama deported more immigrants than all of the presidents in the twentieth century combined. Trump’s idea to build a wall along the Mexico border has rightly angered many, but in effect the wall already exists, consisting of an extensive system of detection technologies, guards, and hundreds of miles of barriers and fences.

Moreover, under Obama, the annual budget for border and immigration enforcement rose to $5bn more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Trump’s brash climate denial is terrifying, but Obama’s environmental record was dismal. According to climate scientist James Hansen, he “failed miserably” on climate change, presiding over policies that were “late, ineffectual and partisan”. Indeed, under Obama’s watch, the US became the world’s number one producer of fossil fuels; oil, gas, and coal subsidies rose by 45 percent (to almost $20 billion a year); and the US repeatedly weakened climate negotiations, resisting any legally binding emission targets. The assessment of Harvard professor Cornell West is that: “Despite some progressive words and symbolic gestures, Obama chose to ignore Wall Street crimes, reject bailouts for homeowners, oversee growing inequality and facilitate war crimes like US drones killing innocent civilians abroad.” 

Redefining the centre ground.

The centrism of our time is the gateway drug to the far right. This lesson needs to be learned — and quickly. Just as the US establishment treated Sanders as a greater threat than Trump, the UK establishment — even its more progressive wing — has treated Jeremy Corbyn as a greater threat than Boris Johnson. As a result, during the present UK general election campaign, I have heard friends warn of the dangers of all extremes: both Corbyn on the left and Johnson on the right. I have seen the Liberal Democrats attempting to position themselves as the sensible choice between these wild alternatives. A string of prominent voices, from Tony Blair to John Major, have called for a return to the centre ground. They, and many others, suffer from the centrist delusion: the notion that the existing centre-ground, almost by definition, is the home of reasonableness and moderation. It’s intellectually lazy, oblivious to the fact that it has been the establishment consensus — embodied by the likes of Tony Blair and Barack Obama — that has created the intersecting inequality, democratic and climate crises we now face. Failure to recognise the disease of toxic centrism prevents us treating its ugly symptoms: Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Modi and now Johnson. Ideologies of hate are thriving on the failure of establishment politics to respond to the crises it has unleashed. 

In the UK’s imminent election, the choices are clear. The Conservative manifesto was described by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies as being so lacking in substance that it would be inadequate for a budget, let alone a full term in government. And the promises that have been made (such as 50,000 new nurses and 40 new hospitals) have not survived scrutiny. But we don’t need a manifesto to know what we are going to get. A party funded by billionaires and shielded by the billionaire-owned press does not exist to serve the majority. The Tories have been in power for almost a decade, with Johnson offering them firm support throughout most of that time. Judging by their record, we can expect more NHS privatisation, more tax cuts for the rich, more inequality, more homelessness, more public and private debt, more hungry children, more underfunded schools, more weapons sold to human-rights-abusing regimes, more scapegoating, and more broken promises. And in the context of the climate crisis — the most serious issue we face — their manifesto, should it be emulated, amounts to a death sentence for countless people in the Global South and a grim future for us all. Internationally, a Johnson government constitutes a boost to the far right which has been chalking up victories from the US to Brazil to Hungary. 

The Liberal Democrats embody the toxic centre ground. Their 2045 decarbonisation target is a polite form of climate denial — inadequate to the extreme. Their leader, Jo Swinson, has voted with the Tories over 800 times, more than a number of Tory politicians. These votes include supporting fracking and backing a punishing austerity regime which not only was economically illiterate, costing Britain over £100 billion, but is implicated in the deaths of over 120,000 Britons. One of the researchers behind this finding called it a form of ‘economic murder’. Shortly before the election, the Liberal Democrats abstained on a motion demonstrating opposition to NHS privatisation. Since the start of the campaign, they have repeatedly misled the electorate about how to vote tactically to keep out the Tories. By splitting the vote, they may well hand the keys of No. 10 to Johnson, guaranteeing a disastrous Brexit, and contravening their stated aim for the election. Perhaps most tellingly, from Gordon Brown to Ed Miliband to Corbyn they have shown a far greater willingness to work with the Conservatives than Labour. 

A new common sense.

The Labour manifesto, in stark contrast, is a big step towards a genuinely reasonable and rational centre ground — a new common sense. Placed in international context, their spending and taxation plans, endorsed by hundreds of senior economists, are unremarkable. Were every spending pledge implemented, the UK would still be spending less than Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Finland and France. Were corporation tax raised to 26%, as Labour intend, it would still be lower than in Germany, France, Australia, Canada and Japan. It may not be radical according to international standards but, in the context of British politics, it represents a warm embrace — a decisive break with neoliberalism that reverses austerity, renationalises the NHS, rescues our schools, removes the debt burden from our students and makes affordable housing a reality. When it comes to addressing the climate crisis, Labour would turn the UK into a world leader while creating a million green jobs in the process. More needs to be done, but it’s a bold start — one judged by Friends of the Earth to make them greener than even the Greens. Labour’s Brexit position — a referendum within six months with a credible Leave option beside a Remain option — is the height of moderation in a nation split down the middle by the issue.

If the majority of people simply voted in their own interests, Labour would come close to winning almost every seat in parliament on December 12. Yet the billionaire-owned British media — parked as it is on a socially and ecologically toxic centre ground — has made the choice between a warm embrace and punch in the face seem confusing and difficult. How have they achieved this? Mainly by moving the conversation away from policies, voting records and party funders, and onto the reputations of party leaders. It’s  easy to destroy someone’s reputation, much harder to destroy support for the NHS, affordable housing, well-funded schools and a million green jobs.

Since his election as leader, Corbyn has been attacked for being incompetent, a threat to national security, disrespectful to the queen, a terrorist sympathiser, a foreign spy, a Russian stooge and, most recently, an antisemite. From within his own party, a small but determined group of MPs and officials have been working to force him out, orchestrating mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, public warnings of electoral disaster, repeated pleas for him to resign, a failed leadership challenge, and numerous attempts to smear his reputation and undermine his credibility. Those behind these attacks have demonstrated a willingness to sabotage the electoral chances of their own party in order to achieve this aim. 

This is nothing new. It is worth remembering that socialist Tony Benn, who passed away at the age of 88 having achieved near national treasure status, was — when running for deputy leader of the Labour party — viciously attacked by the media and labelled “the most dangerous man in Britain”. He was demonised in news articles and cartoons, repeatedly called “mad”, a “loony leftist”, and once was depicted as Hitler in a Daily Express cartoon. Like Corbyn, he was attacked by other Labour MPs such as Tony Crosland who described him as “just a bit cracked”. The media attacks reached their highest intensity when Benn ran for the deputy leadership. David Powell, the author of Benn’s biography, described the ensuing campaign as “venomous”. According to Labour MP and Benn supporter, Michael Meacher, ‘There was never less than a half-page of vitriol in the press every day, and the source was the right wing of the Labour party.” When Benn stood in a by-election in 1983, the day of polling saw the Sun run a feature with the headline: “Benn on the couch: a top psychiatrist’s view of Britain’s leading leftie”. The article diagnosed Benn as “a Messiah figure hiding behind the mask of the common man … greedy for power and willing to do anything to get it.” Benn himself concluded that press owners used their papers “to campaign single-mindedly in defence of their commercial interests and the political policies which will protect them.” 

Protecting privilege.

Those holding most of the wealth and power in society need centrist politics to rationalise and protect their extreme privilege. They work to normalise whatever policies and ideas will favour them. Over the last few decades, this has meant low taxation, deregulation and privatisation — neoliberalism — coupled with an amoral, exploitative and extractivist foreign policy justified under the rubric of ‘national interest’. To succeed, a compliant media is essential. It is absurd to call the media ‘free’ when it is controlled by a handful of billionaires whose outlets each day feed millions of people words and images designed to reproduce the toxic centre ground from which they profit. Historian Mark Curtis recently conducted a search of the UK national press spanning the three months leading up to the election. He found 1450 articles on “Corbyn and antisemitism” and only 164 covering “Johnson and Islamophobia”. He also found 272 pieces on “Corbyn and the IRA” compared with only 2 mentioning “Johnson, Yemen and war crimes”. 

In some parts of the world, individuals and groups that threaten entrenched interests are assassinated. In Britain, they are character assassinated. When you are swindling most of the people, most of the time, the only way to engineer consent is through deception. This is a constant, yet the current Tory campaign has reached Trumpian proportions of deceit. To give just one example, the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, a non-partisan group, have found that 88 percent of the Conservative party’s promoted ads, on Facebook and elsewhere, contain false claims. Hundreds of the ads put out by the Liberal Democrats were found to be potentially misleading. As for Labour, not a single ad was found to contain falsehoods or distortions. 

We have long been told that there’s no smoke without fire. Unfortunately, in the world of politics, not only is there smoke without fire, there is often fire without smoke. Real crises go unnoticed while fictional crises saturate the news cycle. This pattern has brought our civilisation to a crossroads. The scale of the crises faced in Britain and the world requires a rapid, bold, ambitious change of direction. Winning this change requires sustained struggle each and every day. But some days are of special significance, presenting opportunities to dramatically broaden or narrow our collective horizons. December 12, 2019 is one of those days. Let’s use it to start this change. Let’s elect a Labour government.

Raoul Martinez is a philosopher and the author of Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for our Future.

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