An Extreme Threat to Liberty — Centrism

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On the TV news, I heard Joseph Lieberman described as a "moderate" again. I’ve heard this description used for such politicians as John McCain, Diane Feinstein and anyone else who favors an active government on practically all issues, rather than on the narrower range of issues on which extreme leftists or rightists tend to favor state power.

It is typical to hear denunciations of the so-called extreme right and left in American politics. Politicians and commentators like to pose as moderates, centrists, middle-of-the-roaders who allow a cautious concern for the average American triumph over extremist views from either side of the spectrum. They ensure their target audience that the country needs more bipartisanship and commonsense solutions, not the reactionary theocracy and supposed laissez-faire economics of the right, nor the radical socialism and supposed liberal individualism of the left.

Most politicians battle over the center. They surely cloak themselves in the rhetoric and esthetics of their own base: thus do we see Republican candidates talking about the dignity of life and the rights of the taxpayer, and Democrats stressing personal choice and the needs of the worker. But the actual conflict is not over their core constituents, who will mostly vote for the party that makes them less squeamish, but rather over the swing voter who is less loyal to one side and more likely to vote on the presumed merits of a candidate or program.

Both parties advance legislation to win over the middle and most politicians govern from the center. The actual difference in policy between a Bill Clinton and a George W. Bush is smaller than many might assume, and, in any event, not the ideological chasm between left and right that some suspect it is. Both parties support foreign intervention, war, public education, forced retirement programs, government funding for health care, arts, science, and the needy, gun control, the war on drugs, the Federal Reserve, and so forth. To some degree, the particular nefariousness of the Bush administration can be attributed to his party, but much of it has been a result of the post-9/11 political atmosphere and the warmongering ideologues who have their tentacles on the levers of influence in both parties.

Although both parties govern from the center, there still persists the bizarre perception that what is needed is yet more centrism and less rightwing and leftwing ideology. Unfortunately, it is most often the libertarian inclinations of both extremes that are condemned.

Even supposed extremists move toward the center, in their own way, when attacking the status quo. Michael Savage, a radio talk show host whose politics are often seen as very rightwing, has complained about the supposed Republican affinity to the free market. He particularly takes issue with free trade and the hesitation he sees in conservatives to raise the minimum wage, regulate business and protect the environment. He is openly hostile to free enterprise with an apparent purpose of moving his masses of listeners toward the economic center. Although he is seen as a rightwing extremist by most of the center, his advocacy of increasing intervention in most areas of society is not much different, in principle, from the centrist agenda. Rather, he critiques the establishment from a populist perspective, one that is compatible with the centrism on which the state thrives. His denunciation of both leftwing extremism and conservative orthodoxy usually boils down to an attack on liberty and a call for more state action.

On the left, we see a willingness to compromise that is even more disappointing. It is seen as beyond the pale to oppose the warfare state fundamentally, or, in many circles, to demand immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Very few on the left will even entertain the idea of ending the war on drugs entirely, or doing anything else to decisively protect the civil liberties they claim to cherish.

The Bush administration is indeed a rightwing monstrosity, from a 1960s-Rothbardian point of view, but in the terms often adopted by the media and popular critics, it should not be seen that way. Bush does not suffer from an overzealous devotion to cutting government and taxes, despite what much of the left would like to believe.

Nor does Hillary Clinton or any other top Democratic politician suffer from a rabid, New Left opposition to warfare, despite what much of the right would like to believe. The difference in actual policy we could expect from a Bush administration to a Clinton administration to another Bush administration to a second Clinton administration is hardly enough to excite a libertarian. One administration might mean a few more US-government-funded hospitals in America. The other might mean a few more US-government-funded hospitals in Iraq. Even this distinction is not as large as it might seem, since Clinton and Bush both support foreign and domestic intervention in principle. Bush’s record-breaking expansion of Medicare and Hillary’s haranguing the president for being too soft on Iran are good examples of how their similarities in policy principles are greater than their differences.

Still, many Americans think of extreme conservatism when they think of Bush, and extreme leftism when they think of Clinton. The electoral process has somehow made it so that no matter how much centrist policies devastate the American economy and the freedom of its people, the problems can be blamed on partisanship and the recommended solution is always more compromise.

The danger is ever-increasing despotism and fiscal recklessness in the name of centrism. All it would take for a politician to gain incredible support from the American people is a moderate esthetic to match the centrist agenda: a program to expand military intervention in the name of humanitarian peace and American security, expand the police state under the guise of safer streets and expand the welfare state under the guise of fairness. Extreme socialist or reactionary rhetoric would have to be abandoned for electoral success. The extremists on both left and right would be alienated, as the centrist tyranny of America’s social democracy and empire continued relentlessly.

Most of the worst violations of liberty in American history were not conducted by extremists who grabbed power despite the majority’s more measured inclinations, but rather with the support of the masses. The Democrats were better at the game for the bloodier part of the 20th century. A mass killer like Franklin Roosevelt is currently admired by the entire middle of the spectrum, including by most conservatives. Indeed, FDR was an opportunist, not a leftwing ideologue at all, who courted big business and big labor only insofar as it served his interest. He denounced both radical socialism and extreme conservatism. Under FDR, the United States was saddled with its permanent welfare state and the military-industrial complex — and it was not the far left or right, but rather centrist politics that were responsible. Aside from the libertarians, only on the radical left or Old Right do we hear trenchant criticisms of FDR’s firebombings and corporatism.

In fact, the demonized extremists, knowing that they have little to lose with a regime over which they have no influence, are among the most likely to expose the state’s intractable bureaucracy and acts of grave oppression. This is not to say they do not have horrible, dangerous views, as well. Much of the radical left would destroy the economy with a war on free enterprise. Much of the right would indeed abolish important civil liberties. But neither extremist side has any real chance of gaining power and seeing its agenda implemented. The center, on the other hand, is always where the politics is. And so the extremes, for all their faults, have many of the best criticisms of the present system.

Perhaps times have changed and the American people are more libertarian than they once were. On certain civil liberties and economic issues, this is probably true. On others, however, including the right to bear arms, the war on drugs, the suspension of habeas corpus, and other such crucial matters, it is hard to imagine Americans fifty or a hundred years ago tolerating the absolute power of the state that is now taken for granted by the respectable center. To give an idea of the mainstream understanding of liberty and power, most of today’s American moderates admire and idealize the very worst American butchers and tyrants, even ones comparatively unpopular in their time — Lincoln, Wilson, and Truman.

Left and right are both threats to liberty. But so is the middle. Until the culture becomes more favorable toward liberty and peace, our best short-term hope is more partisanship and adversarial extremism, canceling itself out to some degree, rather than the reasonable, balanced compromises and bipartisanship that have been steadily turning America into a Gulag.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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