The Fallacy of Centrism

I thought this was a fascinating article on how political reformers may be underestimating the moderation of voters

Most voters support some liberal policies and some conservative policies. Academics have long taken this as evidence of voters’ underlying centrism.

But just because voters are ideologically mixed does not mean they are centrists at heart. Many voters support a mix of extremeliberal policies (like taxing the rich at 90 percent) and extremeconservative policies (like deporting all undocumented immigrants). These voters only appear “centrist” on the whole by averaging their extreme views together into a single point on a liberal-conservative spectrum....

Donald Trump’s rise exemplifies these dangers.

Political scientists and pundits alike argue that it would improve governance to devolve political power from the political elites who know the most about politics and policy to the voters who know the least. Polarization scholars hold these uninformed voters in the highest esteem because they look the most centrist on a left-right spectrum. They are also Donald Trump’s base.

Yes, you read that right. Political scientists have long exalted the centrist wisdom of those who now constitute some of Trump’s strongest supporters — the poorly educatedauthoritarianxenophobes who are attracted to a platform suffused with white supremacy, indulge in unapologetic nationalism and use violence to silence opponents. As commentator Jacob Weisberg has written, these extreme voters’ views are a mix of “wacko left and wacko right” — the key credential one needs to qualify as centrist by scholars’ most popular definition.

A large part of the problem is the left-right political spectrum with which we are saddled.  This spectrum was pushed on us by Marxist academics of the 1950's-1970's.  It is meant to show a spectrum from really bad (with fascism at the far Right) to really good (with their goal of communism on the far Left)**.  For some reason non-Marxists have been fooled into adopting this spectrum, leaving us with the bizarre scale where our political choices are said to lie on a spectrum with totalitarianism on one end and totalitarianism on the other end -- truly an authoritarians "heads I win, tails you lose" setup.  In this framework, the middle, whatever the hell that is, seems to be the only viable spot, but Brookman is arguing above that the middle is just a mix of untenable extreme positions from the untenable ends of the scale.

The Left-Right spectrum is totally broken.   Trump is unique in the current presidential race not because he appeals to centrists, but because he simultaneously demagogues both the Conservative civilization-barbarism language and the Liberal/Progressive oppressor-oppressed narrative.  The fact that his supporters find appeal in extreme versions of both narratives does not mean they should average to centrists.  A libertarian like myself would say that they are extremists on the far authoritarian end of the liberty-coercion axis  (I, of course, am an extremist as well on the other end of this scale).


** Postscript: This is part of a long history of the Left trying to define political terms in their favor.   I love the work on totalitarianism by Hanna Arendt, but you will sometimes hear academics say that Arendt was "repudiated" (or some similar term) in the 1960's.  What actually happened was that a new wave of Leftish professors entered academia in the 1960's who admired the Soviet Union and even Stalin.  They did not like Arendt's comparison of Nazism and Stalinism as being essentially two sides of the same coin, even though this seems obvious to me.  Nazism and Stalinism were, to them, opposite sides of the political spectrum, from dark and evil to enlightened.  Thus they dumped all over Arendt, saying that her conclusions did not accurately describe the true nature of life under communism.  And so things remained, with Arendt pushed to the margins by Leftish academics, until about 1989.  As the iron curtain fell, and new intellectuals emerged in Eastern Europe, they cast about for a framework or a way to describe their experience under communism.  And the person they found who best described their experience was... Hannah Arendt.


  1. J K Brown:

    I recently read Ludwig von Mises' 'Liberalism'. I found his discussion of modern political parties enlightening. The modern parties are all parties of special interests, anti[classical[liberal parties. He noted the problem classical liberals had as a party is that they were for liberty for everyone. Not unlike how I saw the modern libertarian would have a hard time staking out a platform of leaving everyone alone as much as possible. When you divide up the Left/Right, Progressive/Conservative, Democrat/Republican as parties of special interests things become clearer and you see the internal struggles to be the dominate interest in each.

    It [classical liberalism] promises special favors to no one. It demands from everyone sacrifices on behalf of the preservation of society. ... Because of this, liberalism finds itself, from the very outset, in a peculiar position in the competition among parties. The antiliberal candidate promises special privileges to every particular group of voters: higher prices to the producers and lower prices to the consumers; higher salaries to public officeholders and lower taxes to taxpayers.

    Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (p. 179).

    However, both parties seem to be migrating to be socialist parties. The socialist party favors the officeholder. "At least, those who are not office holders will, under Socialism, have the hardest kind of a time."

    This raises issue of how even the "opponents" of socialism have let the term be defined out of a 10th grade economics texts. And all seem eager to deny socialism as long as one share is owned by a private interest. And that none seem to want to point out that the alternative is capitalism, but rather there is the intervening Interventionism, which is the definition of the regulatory state.

  2. stan:

    I think Trump is a disaster. But the MSM and pundits are totally missing the boat if they think that Trump's support is all about racism, xenophobia, and hatred. I know a huge number of steadfast conservatives who have college and graduate degrees, run successful businesses, and are supporting Trump because they are so pissed at the GOP that they are willing to blow it up. Not racist. Not xenophobes. Really good people. Smart as hell, savvy as hell, pissed as hell. I keep trying to reason with them, but they are so angry they don't care.

  3. xtmar:

    I think you have a formatting error, as some of the words in your blockquote come out as double words, like extremeliberal. (Or perhaps we've embraced Orwelling language for real?

  4. xtmar:

    Berners to the left, and Burners to the right...

    Or perhaps: Bernie to the left, Burn It to the right...

  5. Shawn Randall:

    Several years back SF writer Jerry Pournelle developed his own five by five grid to better reflect where people really fell in their political views. He pointed out that the "left" & "right" dated back to the French Sun Kings when where you got to sit related to how much you supported of opposed the King.
    IIRC the bottom axis went from the individual at 1 to the state at 5, the vertical axis went from emotion at 1 to logic/reason at 5, So a 1/1 was an anarchist and a 1/5 would be a libertarian. While a 5/1 was a Nazi and a 5/5 was a communist. Most of us of course end up clustering in the center. While more accurate it is a bit less useful as a club to beat the other guy.

  6. bigmaq1980:

    Nolan Chart is also very popular way to depict this rather than the simple left right view.

  7. bigmaq1980:

    “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the
    source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.” - Eric Hoffer, True Believer

    This seems to sum up Trump supporters.

  8. Q46:

    The error is to confuse the non-existant, 'centre ground' with 'common ground' which is nowhere on the political spectrum, just the ideas jointly held by voters irrespective of their party affiliations.

    And yes, the 'centre' is a sump for the malcontents for whom the Left is not Left enough, and the Right is not Right enough, or those who cannot identify with either.

    And it is in that cesspit that modern politicians wallow trying to dredge up support, and thus end up covered in all sorts of detritus.

  9. Q46:

    He was speakng in the sense of thevastmajorityof...

  10. Q46:

    But then how can one really appreciate a good wine without having a bad one; if you have always lived on sunlit uplands can you appreciate it if you have never visited the dark, depressing valley bottom?

    The modern day problem, and it is a serious one, is most voters have never known absence of freedom and prosperity - it is the status quo they never had to work for - and lived in societies with controlled markets, mercantilism, where only a few can become wealthier.

    They need a good dose of what they Trump/Sanders... the modern voter certainly deserves it: it will alter their outlook in time.

  11. David in Michigan:

    "....but they are so angry they don't care." Yeah, that's how I feel too. Dam the torpedoes, full steam ahead!!

    But on the other hand, I don't "think Trump is a disaster". Rather I say that he understands what an executive does and can do. For a man running for the Executive Office, that's good qualification.

  12. David in Michigan:

    "This seems to sum up Trump supporters." And how would you characterize those who support Ms Clinton? Mr. Cruz? Commie Bernie?

    Your preachy quote and comment are ridiculous on the face of it because it always comes back to how YOU interpret words and events.

  13. Bram:

    So many lectures over the years like - "Reagan is way too conservative to win a general election" - heard over and over in '76 and '80. But HW Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney were "just right" moderates who would appeal to everyone.

  14. David in Michigan:

    These type of charts were (maybe still are) popular in Management courses where they were used to somehow determine your management style. The grid was larger but the idea was the same. Participants filled out a fairly extensive questionnaire and then were rated on certain characteristics considered important to managers. Don't recall much about it as it was long ago but I do recall the saying that "those who end up in the corner boxes get the offices with the corner windows." It was true to SOME extent in that it those in the middle WERE in fact poor managers.

  15. xtmar:

    Trump seems like he would be a Berlusconi type president. Which is to say, not very good, but also not terrible, and certainly not the second coming of Hitler or whatever the chicken littles see it as.

  16. bigmaq1980:

    " it always comes back to how YOU interpret words and events."

    Yes, and MY interpretation is that people either are not really bothering to see the man for what he is, are choosing to ignore it all, or really do want an authoritarian as President.

    Just because many of us are angry does not mean we should shut down our minds and blindly choose someone like him.

    "he understands what an executive does and can do. For a man running for the Executive Office, that's good qualification."

    Given Trump's profound lack of depth on any of his "policies", evident from his lacking performance on the last few debates, the above statement looks more like an excuse or rationale, than a reasonable "qualification".

  17. bigmaq1980:

    "They need a good dose of what they Trump/Sanders... the modern voter certainly deserves it: it will alter their outlook in time."

    You talk as if this kind of outcome would not affect you.

    And, it assumes their supporters would be able to put cause to effect. That neither's supporters seem to be putting basic cause/effect linkages together today, one cannot have much hope that they would "learn their lesson" in your scenario.

    As an average joe, have got to say that sentiment, if it were to come to fruition, would set us all back a generation, if not put us squarely on the road to serfdom, to borrow a phrase.

    I would much rather they leave to a country more befitting their political views.

  18. David in Michigan:

    @bigmaq1980:disqus :

    You are correct. I was upset with the media in 2008. But to compare the executive experience of Donald Trump in 2016 to the executive experience of Barak Obama in 2008 does not make a winning argument for you.

    And regarding your Eric Hoffer quote (above), didn't I hear one with a similar tone in a movie? This quote:

    "Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can't be
    bargained with. It can't be reasoned with It doesn't feel pity, or
    remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are

    The movie was called "End of the Republican Establishment"..... or something like that.

  19. David in Michigan:


  20. ErikTheRed:

    Ehhhhh... the problem with these discussions is that they tend to occur within self-selected groups that actually think about these things, and we're a tiny percentage. The number one factor in political leanings for all of human history has been simple-minded tribalism. Most people are either born into a tribe (indoctrinated by their parents), or find a tribe during college. They will then hate whomever their tribe tells them to hate, and defend their tribe against even the most obviously true criticisms. This is the main reason that we have two tribes whose "deeply and eternally held" beliefs move around all over the place (and even switch sides - look at military interventionism) and the masses just eat it up.

    But even tribalism, which is a historically powerful force, is having a tough time in the age of the Internet where people are more exposed to ideas outside of their tribe. I think 2016 is either an inflection point or close to it - the Trump and Sanders supporters have realized that their tribes are run by duplicitous assholes. In a sense, this is a great thing - the beginning of political wisdom is realizing that most of the stuff you were raised on is bullshit, and what truths are mixed in are built on a foundation so sloppy and anti-intellectual that they exist only by luck and accident. The problem, though, is that smelling bullshit doesn't magically turn on the introspection in people and for the most part they just jump to whatever new thing sounds good to them - hence, the execrable Trump and Sanders.

  21. bigmaq1980:

    Not comparing the "executive experience" between the two (and you know that). It is the nature of the quality you are espousing that is debatable.

    A good executive would be prepared and knowledgeable about what they speak. During the debates and in his campaigning, Trump has a profound lack of demonstrable knowledge on what he speaks, and a dearth of detail on his so-called "policies".

    Worse, he's had plenty of time to come up to speed, but seems not interested in doing so. Makes one wonder how much he cares about any policy, and by implication his respect for his own supporters.

    Not sure the relevance of the quote. Sounds more like something a Trump fanboy would say... simpler to say "Resistance is Futile".

    Behaving like the "low info" voters of 2008 will get us all into trouble. Start some serious digging on Trump, his policies, and his track record, instead of relying on some high level platitudes like "he has executive experience".

  22. poitsplace .:

    Sorry to get a little off topic but it reminds me.

    Now many of us naively base our view of the world on statistics with the assumption that essentially everyone is "average" and impacts detected by studies sort of, randomly impact those "average people"...rather than being largely confined to tiny subgroups of extreme individuals/ it extreme ideologies, extreme sensitivity to chemicals/pollution, people on the extreme ends of the economic spectrum, etc

    ...and it's the same sort of mindset that makes people fall for the idiotic assumption that jobs that should clearly have wildly different appeal to people of different demographic backgrounds...should have demographics that are exactly the same as society. People push ad campaigns complaining that this state and that are Xth in schools, or crime, or whatever...oblivious to the fact that each region should be expected to be somewhat different and that more to the point, there will essentially ALWAYS be a 50th out of 50 states.

  23. Thomas Reid:

    Not necessarily. Those who live under bad government often assume the fix is more government. As our current government expands and worsens, the Democrats become more Socialistic and the Republicans are turning to a fascist.

  24. stan:

    His executive choices have been uniformly horrible his whole life. What evidence do you have that he has ever been a good executive? Other than his own dishonest bragging.

  25. stan:

    the problem is right there in the first word of the 2d sentence. "Academics have long taken this ...

  26. David in Michigan:

    Come on Stan.... you make an allegation without providing ANY facts ....then expect me to provide facts to show you are wrong. That's a laughable tactic in a debate.

    Here's something factual that's not deniable. He's run various entrepreneurial enterprises for the past 40+ years. Now possibly, even probably, he was not successful in all of them.

    But can one can say he has made "uniformly horrible" executive choices in the face of his present financial position...... as a billionaire self financing his own presidential campaign? I think not.

  27. David in Michigan:

    I agree with you 100% on the tribalism of people. I've been saying the same for years. It's bred into all of us. Sports are classic examples. I had some problems with your extension of the theme in the second paragraph. You seem to be saying, well, NOTHING. Negativity and Nihlism is not my cup of tea.

  28. ErikTheRed:

    Well, you are, of course, free to have whatever problems you want with it. What I was trying to say was that the teams are shifting, which is at least interesting. Nobody knows where it will go really - Presidents don't have nearly the power and influence they pretend to as candidates, and none of us know what they really believe and what they're just saying to get votes. If people want to get excited about it then that's fine and dandy, but since I have no control over it (I am fairly certain that I will not generate The Blog Comment That Changes The World) I just view it as free entertainment and a gauge as to which way the winds are blowing so that I can adjust business and personal plans accordingly. Some of the best advice I heard several years ago was "Acquire capital - disregard the state." Obviously you have to pay enough attention to protect your capital, but other than that it's perfect advice. Politics is a pretty close to zero ROI game unless you're morally flexible enough to wade into the slime pit of lobbying and bribery, which I am not. The time, energy, and money is better directed at family, friends, business pursuits, hobbies, etc.

  29. David in Michigan:

    My last comment to you sir:

    "America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser". (Gen. George Patton)

    Denigration and insults will not change this. Policy comes later. Trump is a winner. He makes certain we know it.

  30. bigmaq1980:

    Therein lies the problem....The search for a "Winner!" (cue Charlie Sheen)

    "Policy comes later."

    Bass ackwards!

    The point of winning anything politically is what you will do with power once you've got it.

    If you cannot articulate what Trump is going to bring then you merely want power for the sake of power, with the implied notion that might makes right.

    "people either are not really bothering to see the man for what he is, are choosing to ignore it all, or really do want an authoritarian as President."

    Pretty much sussed it out. It appears you , sir, are arguing for the latter.

  31. wilfranc:

    I am not sure David has read the "True Believer" to understand fully what you are saying, and I think he would have to. I agree with you, and not just with Hoffer's observation, but also Hayek's "why the worse rise to the top" and Stove's "Columbus Argument" all give weight that Trump should be viewed with caution. I know people like winners, but this isn't a reality show where you get a do over next season..

  32. bigmaq1980:

    Learned something new... somehow missed Stove's piece, all these years. Agree with your statement, and Thanks!

  33. wilfranc:

    "That brings us to the second caveat: The vast majority of Trump’s contributions to his own campaign — about $12.6 million — are loans rather than donations. This means he could expect to eventually recoup these funds."

    The argument that Trump is successful in business does not necessarily mean he will be that in government. Snyder, Corzine, Bloomberg are all successful businessmen too. Jefferson was bad in business as was Lincoln.

    You are correct that people like winners, but for a lot of us, the definition of a winner is not a single variable.

  34. wilfranc:

    The average person has one testicle and one ovary.

  35. Ann_In_Illinois:

    How on earth could a 5 for logic/reason be communist? The communist system is purely an appeal to emotion/envy. The only way that the rest of it can possibly be made logically consistent is by first swallowing the assumption that the economy is zero-sum, and that's a blatantly illogical assumption (no matter how many times Bernie waves his hands).

  36. MJ:

    To play devil's advocate, the counterpoint to this argument is George W. Bush, who was elected twice. He ran on a mantra of "compassionate conservatism", but in hindsight his agenda proved to be neither compassionate nor terribly conservative. I believe whatever agenda he initially had may have been hijacked (pardon the pun) by the 9/11 attacks, which brought about overriding concerns about national security and the promotion of the horrible 'security state' we now endure.

  37. MJ:

    But this brings up an interesting question: what does the contemporary GOP really stand for? I agree that many in the media have been too eager to write them off as a bunch of cranks and xenophobes, but at the same time the party and its foremost members seem unable to articulate a serious platform. I would argue that the GOP has not really taken policy seriously in the past two decades, going back roughly to Gingrich's Contract with America.

  38. Ann_In_Illinois:

    Nice reference to the liberty-coercion axis! I think of it as choice versus force. Market systems allow people to make their own choices, with the government as neutral referee to see that everyone follows the rules.

    Communism, socialism, fascism, collectivism, crony capitalism, etc. are all systems where the government rigs the outcomes in various ways, using force to prevent people from choosing for themselves. Only the propaganda varies - communists promise to rig the system in favor of certain groups, while fascists promise to rig the system in favor of other groups.

    In the current election, candidates on both sides say that the system is rigged against 'the little guy'. The question is whether we should continue to rig but in a different direction, or try to truly fix the system so it's not rigged at all. Hillary and Bernie don't even pretend to want a system that isn't rigged. The other side isn't as clear on this point.

  39. MJ:

    I think that by and large most observers are correct to refer to the Trump and Sanders campaigns as efforts to tap into voters anger. The problem is that in politics anger is rarely channeled in productive ways. What I see are voters who are not just rejecting some abstract "establishment" but who really believe in these two candidates as offering salvation from a "broken" system. This is the troubling part.

    I think Trump's supporters are starting to manifest beliefs similar to "Great Man" theories of politics -- that is, what is really needed is a strong, confident leader to take control of "the system" and bend it to his will. The troubling aspect of this belief system is that it is a hallmark of societies that range from authoritarian (Putin's Russia or Chavez's Venezuela) to outright totalitarian (e.g. Kim Jong Un's North Korea), and it seems to be more prevalent among third-world countries. You can see bits of it when Trump talks about trade, and how he will force China to accept tariffs and inflate its currency, or how he talks about building a wall on the Mexican border financed by.....Mexico?(!).

    The supporters of Sanders are qualitatively different but no less scary. The same cult of personality seems to be there, but in this case the concept of the Great Man is combined with more traditional (though no less rancid) beliefs in technocratic management and the ability to 'engineer' a better society a la FDR and his "Top Men" or LBJ's Great Society. Similar to FDR, Sanders is seen as pure of spirit and noble in intent, an uncorruptable warrior in a quixotic struggle against Wall Street.

    The problem is that this folk Marxist perspective is combined with a belief in the infallibility of either the Great Man or his ideas. Anyone who dares disagree with his ideas are part of some corporate, media and/or government conspiracy to repress the revolution. I noticed this recently when several economists who were former presidential advisers reviewed and criticized the economic proposal for Sanders formalized by Gerald Friedman. When this was reprinted in my local paper I viewed the comments section to see how his supporters would respond to being chastened by a group of eminently reputable economists. The supporters were unfazed. Not only did several of them insist that Friedman's analysis was not only plausible but correct, several of them tried to discredit the authors as pawns of "Wall Street fat cats", part of an organized ploy to support Hillary Clinton, or part of a broad media conspiracy to suppress Sanders and his followers.

    This level of credulity among supporters is what worries me. When the truth is inadmissable as evidence, you've got nowhere to turn.

  40. Jeffrey Deutsch:

    Ann, speaking as one who basically sees eye to eye with you politically:

    The American variant, the New Left, is indeed emotivist. The original Marxists and Marxist-Leninists were cold-blooded rationalists.

    Check out Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon and Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind...both by Communist veterans.

  41. Jeffrey Deutsch:

    As the saying goes, a slave with a bad master wants a good master. A slave with a good master wants to be free.

  42. markm:

    The Pournelle chart that I remember did not have a emotion/reason axis, but a "social engineering" vertical axis. I would swap the axes:

    Left-right: Social engineering vs conservatism. On the left, belief that society and even human nature can be easily remolded - at the far left, the isms that resort to mass executions when people just aren't good enough to live in their utopia. On the far right,fear of changing _anything_ - often coupled with an unrealistic view of the world they are trying to protect, and willingness to impose extreme punishments on those that don't fit into their idealized picture of the world.

    Bottom-top: Individual freedom vs collectivism and authority.

    Now, this is still oversimplified. Both of these axes are actually sums of several tendencies.

    Libertarians are spread out in a line near the bottom axis - there are both conservative and social-engineering strains in libertarian theory, but when you give up imposing your preferences by force these questions become less important. Classical liberals are somewhat above them, and moderately to the left. Communists are in the far upper left, socialists and modern"liberals" a bit inwards and lower. Anarchists think they are below even the libertarians, and mostly in the bottom left corner, but actually many of them just want to re-create an authoritarian government under a new name, placing them at the far left and not much below Communists. Torquemada was in the far upper right. Singapore's government is in the upper right quarter, but not near the extremes. Survivalists are mostly in the bottom right.

    Fascists and Nazis are definitely near the top of the vertical (collectivist+totalitarian) scale, but they don't fit neatly into one area on the horizontal scale. They believed in social engineering, but espoused values and goals that were in many ways inverted from the stated goals of Marxists, leftists, and liberals. It can make them look conservative - but actually they were practicing social engineering quite as much as a Marxist revolutionary, only with militarism, violent authoritarianism, group politics, some degree of racism, and individual unfreedom as express goals. (As compared to leftism, where these effects happen only by "accident" - even when they occur every time socialism is really tried!). Someone with the leftist misunderstanding of conservatism might therefore place fascism in the upper right, but that ignores that fascists are trying to remake the world, not keep it as it was - and it also ignores all the ways conservatives valued freedom and justice. I'd place fascists in the upper left with the communists, with a * to note that their rhetoric and express goals are quite different from the leftists.

    The mass media view of American politics is to compress this chart to one dimension, following a broad U-curve from Communism in the upper left to the far upper right, where they misplace fascism. But the center of this curve never drops below the mid-line of the freedom/authoritarian axis, so they cannot understand libertarianism, classical liberalism, or anyone who truly values individual freedom.

  43. markm:

    I doubt he ever had an agenda beyond getting elected and making his daddy proud. He wasn't the dolt the left portrayed him as, but he was a guy who, as much as possible, avoided studying an issue or thinking deeply.