There are no principled centrists
That’s the thesis of this rant: there are none. And the reason for that is that “centrism” is not, and cannot be, a principled position.
But let me unpack that a little.
For the sake of having a defined term to rant about, I’m defining as centrism the explicit or implied goal of maintaining a “moderate” or “electable” position between “two extremes”. You can tell by the scare quotes what epistemic status I think those words hold, but also they are in quotes intentionally. They are a framing that someone I’m calling a centrist might choose. They are things they might say, to describe or defend a position, meaning them sincerely.
I’m here to shit on that framing, not because I don’t think it’s sincere enough to be a principled position, but because it’s not coherent enough.
Good policy is rooted in two things. Humane values, and evidence that the policy will work to further those values.
Bad policy fails in one or both of those criteria. For example, eugenics and white supremacy are founded in inhumane values, whereas trickle-down economics and fiscal austerity fall on their faces pretty hard when it comes to finding evidence that they work as stated.
Reasonable minds can differ, for any given policy, on how well it is aligned to humane values, and certainly how much evidence there is that it will have the intended effect, or what unintended effects to look out for.
But to dispute that a policy needs to be humane or effective is not the work of a reasonable mind. It is either bad faith or poor critical thinking skills. Or both: there’s nothing about arguing in bad faith that inherently elevates someone to the level of intellectual competence you might imagine the devil would look for in a prospective advocate.
So here’s the problem with centrism as centrism. There is no principled middle ground between humane and inhumane values. There is no principled middle ground between desiring safety and efficacy, and not caring what happens. There is no merit to arguing for a middle position between two policies you frame as “extremes” along some imaginary linear axis, solely because it is a “moderate” position, without regard to the concrete details of what those positions are.
The moderate position between liberation and oppression is complicity.
Having said that, a thing a lot of people mistake for centrism, quite unfairly, is gradualism. Yes, I could construct an equivalent rant about gradualism for its own sake that would put it in the same ethical position as centrism. A kind of soft conservatism: yes change things for the better, but not too fast, people are scared of change. Criticism of that kind of gradualism would be fair but redundant so I won’t bother. You get the point.
But the difference is, gradualism can inhabit the space of reasonable discussion about evidence. The vague hand-wringing “don’t change things too fast” becomes the quantifiable constraint “don’t change that thing faster than you can correct for its unintended consequences.” You shouldn’t go around calling yourself a gradualist, but maybe consider how gradual a change will be optimal in a given situation.
So what am I trying to say? Don’t be a centrist. Don’t be a moderate who has no measuring stick for moderation but the arbitrary midpoint of a piece of string whose ends are held by others and moved around at their pleasure. Don’t be political piggy-in-the-middle; you’ll earn all the respect you are due for it.
Have convictions, and have the courage of them. Just drive safe for the road conditions and keep looking where you’re going.