“Both Sides Are Horrible"?: The vacated vital centre
By Daniel M. Ryan
The ghastly fustercluck in Charlottesville revealed something very eye-opening about the state of liberalism. So did the subsequent “deplatforming"? lash-out. Although the deplatforming ostensibly shows strength, so much so that some conservatives have called for government regulation of social-media platforms, that supposed strength shows inner weakness: it evinces decay. What made liberal dominance stable was not liberal predominance in the academy, media and entertainment. It was an enabling ideology, one that’s clearly cracked.
Hegemonic ideologies don’t work unless they’re crafted to credibly speak for the entire group. This component, in addition to some noblesse oblige, is crucial for it to become dominant. The price of being a Big Man is not only magnanimity but also an even-tempered head.
In the Cold War days, the enabling hegemonic ideology was “The Vital Center."? Its crafter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was a Roosevelt court historian who sometimes yielded to the temptation to add hagiography to his New-Deal history. But he did have a talent for sizing up America as an essentially Aristotelian nation: one which prized moderation, whose everyman were prone to believe that there was truth (and falsity) on both sides.
Simply put, the Vital Centre positioned New Deal liberalism as the great moderation that opposed extremes on both sides. Naturally, Prof. Schlesinger lambasted the “right wing."? (In the ‘50s and early-mid ‘60s, he detested Bill Buckley.) But he also lambasted the left wing, in words and volume that were much stronger than mere boilerplate. He held up the New Deal consensus as the higher moderation, the political golden mean that trumped both sides.
If the Charlottesville disaster had inflicted itself on the nation during President Kennedy’s time, it is true that President Kennedy’s response would have been different from President Trump’s. Kennedy would have been more eloquent and more solemn. He would have worked in Weimar Germany, adducing it as a dark illustration of what unfolds when political differences elicit violence. But the point to keep in mind is that the core substance would have been the same. President Kennedy would have strongly and unhesitatingly condemned both sides – both the alt-right and antifa – as dangerous extremists.
And the entire mainstream media of his time would have applauded him for it. Instead of him having to bat them down to make the point, as President Trump did last Tuesday, he would have been cheered. That’s what the mainstream media was like, back in that part of the ‘60s that hasn’t been ballyhooed.
The “Vital Centre"? hegemony was so pervasive, so fit for the America of the time, that moderate Republicans used it too. In 1964, in a speech calculated to smear Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller gave a speech condemning “extremism."? In it, he unhesitatingly slammed both the Communist party and the Ku Klux Klan.
Imagine a time machine that transported a Trump-bashing journalist of Today back to then. He stands up and asks Gov. Rockefeller: “By condemning the Communist Party, aren’t you implicitly siding with the Klan? I mean, there’s only one side, isn’t there?"?
Every high-powered journalist of the time would have looked at the fellow as if he had just expelled gas. He would have been pegged as a clown, as a pro-Communist extremist himself, or as someone who was just too boneheaded for the big time.
That’s because Big Media themselves had internalized the Vital-Centre doctrine. They also used it. Back in those days, they responded to accusations of bias by presenting conservative criticism and pairing it with leftie criticism. “The far right says we favour the left; the far left says we favour the right. So as far as I’m concerned, we’re with the reasonable moderate middle."?
Never mind that this blow-off contained a subtle non sequitur. Rooted in the Vital-Centre doctrine, it appealed to the Aristotelian character of America. The guy who thinks that both sides have some truth, and both sides have some falsehood, would conclude that the media wasn’t biased – and that any critic of the media was a no-’count extremist grinding an axe.
True, Cold War liberalism foundered - but it did not scrape the iceberg because of its Vital-Centre doctrine. It sunk because of the content of its centrism. Cold War liberals made too many navigational errors. Their fondness for big-scale chock-a-block urban renewal, their insistence on prosecuting the Vietnam war using McNamara’s Flexible Response, their blindness to the unintended consequences of their favourite entitlement programs, and of course their reliance on Keynesian economics: all of these had a hand in doing them in. The high point of Cold War liberal economics was the smug assurance that the problem of recessions was solved. It was the 1960s answer to the 1920s “New Era."?
Interestingly, the dissolution of Vital-Centre New Deal liberalism has not led to the Vital Centre being staked out by a new dominant ideology. Instead, moderates have resembled effete heirs of a dynamic founder. They’re slowly fading away into dithering irrelevance, apparently unaware that the Vital-Centre hegemony that gave them their strength is gone. They resemble a clan of bloodless heirs who seem unaware that their trust funds have been depleted to the point where they’re back to shirtsleeves.
This poignant decadence has not given way to a new hegemony. Ever since the former “extremist"? Ronald Reagan became a highly-successful two-term President, America has been increasingly partisanized: so much so that Angelo Codevilla famously discoursed on the Ruling Class versus the Country Class.
This partisanizing has had one exception - and it’s a big one. One that was breached last week.
The exception comes from Silicon Valley. For lack of a better term, their revision-revival of the Vital Centre has been speech neutrality. More Voltarean than Schlesinger’s Vital Centre, the Valley bigwigs have stoutly promised to favour free speech even if odious. Until last week’s de-platforming typhoon, they actually have done a lot to protect free speech. Until last week, they were on track for reformulating the Vital Centre on a free-speech foundation. Silicon-Valley liberalism, which sees the government as an investor in citizens and a facilitator/protector of them as they pursue their own destinies: this ideology was on track to build the new Vital Centre.
Until the bigwigs buckled. Like all-too-many professors and deans who buckled when faced with New-Left aggressiveness, the Silicon Valley bigwigs have buckled to SJW aggressiveness and implemented de-platforming. At the expense of not only the alt-right but also of some Conservatives. Already, they’re being lambasted in the legitimate Right for their double standard.
Silicon Valley tried to reconstruct the Vital Centre, but they couldn’t pull it off. This means the commanding heights of the Vital Centre are still up for grabs.
Which leads to an intriguing question: can Conservatives boldly claim these commanding heights?
So far, no Conservatives – particularly, the Conservatives who like living in the shadow of Ronald Reagan - have shown much desire to do so. Republicans enjoy an electoral dominance not seen since the 1920s. But, they apparently prefer to concede ideological dominance to liberals. So much so that a lot of Pubbies blasted Donald Trump for condemning the extremism of both sides!
It’s a head-scratching passivity, given that it’s less difficult than it looks. As discussed above, America is at heart an Aristotelian nation that always has a liking for the Golden Mean. As also indicated, the way to march on the commanding heights is to full-chestedly condemn extremism on both sides Like:
“The SJW left and the alt-right judge you on what you are. We conservatives judge you by what you do. Like good-hearted Americans everywhere, we judge you not by your biology but by the sum of your deeds."?
“The SJW left hates your freedom of speech; the alt-right hates your freedom to marry. One calls your free speech ‘hate speech,’ the other calls your freedom to marry ‘race-mixing.’"?
“I condemn both the Big Government of the far left and the Big Government of the far right."?
If it can be templated as above, it’s not that hard in theory.
What makes it hard is that it takes guts. Crucially, it takes a certain kind of guts: the kind that otherwise-gutsy Pubbies lack. The weakening hang-up of all-too-many Conservative intellectuals is the fact that too many of them are other-directed. They lack the inner-directed steadfastedness that can peg an SJW onslaught as a mob of guttersnipes. Fatally, they do not have the guts to see mob hysteria for what it is and gamely refuse to yield. In a very real way, they’re like those ‘60s-liberal professors – and deans - who yielded and later pandered to the New Left.
The purpose of the opinion-journalist and think-tank world is to subsidize a cadre which can be brave when the ordinary Pubbie can’t. An ordinary conservative can’t stare down the SJW hysterics because he has good reason to fear for his job. A professional intellectual is supposed to be immune to that fear: it’s part of his job.
The fact that he isn’t bespeaks weakness at the top. The think-tank and opinion-journo bosses are too other-directed. They lack the inner-directed fibre to recognize a mob movement for what it is and hold fast accordingly. Unlike President Trump last Tuesday, they wilt when they should stand tall. This weakness suffices to explain why beltway Pubbies are such squishes.
Will this change? Yes it can, and it just might. President Trump’s muscular Republicanism is beginning to trickle down. It’s not hard to see a Generation-Trump future wherein a new breed of intellectuals are tough in the right way. Tough enough to ford upwards to the commanding heights and claim the Vital Centre for Conservatism.
Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.