The launch of this blog was inspired by a discussion of the current state of punditry. I’d slammed the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page for being overly conservative; a friend emailed me a link to this list of centrist commentators; and I realized I had a problem: many of the “centrists” in that list weren’t much better than the conservatives I’d just slammed. I realized my actual criticism of WSJ’s editorial page is not that it’s too conservative–I read plenty of conservatives. My problem is that the commentary is bad. It’s stuck in a world where politics is a two-team game of left versus right, where commentators’ use policy arguments to score points for their team, rather than evaluating policies and arguments on their merits. This is a world wherein epistemic closure can take hold, where no one actually engages intellectual opponents. Policy arguments are presented in isolation, making it difficult for the public to evaluate the quality of individual policies.
To justify my distaste both for the WSJ editorial page and the above list of centrists, I created the diagram below:
The bottom third of the diagram, containing Party-Line Liberals, Centrists, and Party-Line Conservatives, is the conventional political spectrum. Dashed lines represent open lines of engaged communication. Note that liberals and conservatives don’t talk to each other; they need a centrist to moderate their conversation. Centrists maintain credibility with both sides by never taking controversial policy positions; either they take no position, or they take middle positions that are offensive to neither side. When liberals decry waterboarding as torture and conservatives deny that waterboarding is torture, centrists stop using the term torture altogether. The resulting conversation involves arguments being presented, but never evaluated honestly. So long as liberals and conservatives are committed to their cause, they won’t criticize arguments that support their side, and will always criticize arguments that support the other side, regardless of the arguemnts’ substantive merit. Meanwhile, centrists, in order to maintain their credibility, refuse to criticize anything.
The top two thirds of the diagram contains Thinking Liberals, Thinking Conservatives, Thinking Moderates, Contrarian Liberals and Contrarian Conservatives.* These groups are willing to engage across the political spectrum. Once thinkers grant that their side can be wrong, they see value in engaging with intellectually honest thinkers who disagree with them about policy. The discourse shifts from left vs. right to good policy vs. bad policy. The result is a weeding out of bad ideas, a stronger push for new and better ideas, and, eventually, a more informed public. Contrarian thinkers are those more likely to criticize their own side than support it. They’re often labeled moderates, since they’re hard to place on the spectrum, but deserve their own categories. Thinking moderates are those who hold strong views, but whose overall policy positions don’t fit neatly into conventional groupings of liberal and conservative–libertarians, for one, generally fit into this camp. The function of thinking moderates is completely different from that of centrists, who primarily facilitate communication between liberals and conservatives. Thinking moderates aren’t needed in this function, since thinking and contrarian liberals and conservatives engage each other. Thinking moderates instead contribute to the conversation freely, making whichever arguments they deem strong.
Returning to my initial criticism of the WSJ editorial page, my problem isn’t that it’s on the right side of the diagram; it’s that it’s at the bottom, whereas I’m interested in the conversation taking place at the top of the diagram. My friend’s list of centrists, meanwhile, is problematic for two reasons. First, it contains centrists like David Broder, who are at the bottom of the chart and not part of any interesting conversation. Second, it contains people who are part of an interesting conversation, but aren’t centrists, such as Jon Stewart (thinking liberal), Andrew Sullivan and David Frum (contrarian conservatives).
*: The final category, and the name of this blog, Contrarian Moderate, is a joke, and doesn’t actually mean anything.