Centrists like to frame themselves as the rational ones: While everyone else squabbles and succumbs to radicalism, they work for unity through compromise. They situate themselves at the center of an illusory left vs. right binary as if they alone can solve the issues confronting us. In reality, the centrist mindset keeps us stuck and doing nothing.
Mitt Romney’s recent, vacuous piece for The Atlantic exemplifies the flaws of the centrist ideology. He diagnoses a series of crises facing America — climate change, illegal immigration, inflation, and the threat to American Democracy. He posits that we would rather engage in wishful and delusional thinking than confront these crises. Biden has been unable to breakthrough America’s denial and stagnation unlike the great leaders of the past such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. This is, seemingly, where Romney would offer a solution to the problems he presents. Instead, he vaguely references leaders waiting in the wings and asks individuals to step into the void in the interim
“What,” I asked myself, “does he think this is accomplishing?” I read it again and again. In the end, the essay seems to be Romney’s attempt to show us how his centrist thinking is the solution to our current moment.
The first clue is in the opening where Romney lays out the issues. He writes, “As the ice caps melt and record temperatures make the evening news, we figure that buying a Prius and recycling the boxes from our daily Amazon deliveries will suffice.” It is an interesting critique from Romney, mainly in that it doesn’t attack the right or the left. It seems to target the status quo and consumer activism. This critique could easily be at home in a left-leaning piece attacking milquetoast liberalism. Progressives have offered potential solutions in the form of the Green New deal. Logically, Romney would go onto present his own solutions.
Except Romney completely sidesteps any solutions and goes on to frame it as a left versus right issue, writing, “The left thinks the right is at fault for ignoring climate change and its attacks on our political system. The right thinks the left is the problem for ignoring illegal immigration and the national debt.” Rather than fully engage with the issues he’s laid out, he limits himself to a catalogue of left v. right issues.
If he had engaged‚ he might have found that the left v. right binary doesn’t really make sense. It is true that the US-Mexico border is experiencing an unprecedented influx of migrants which is creating a crisis. However, it is largely a regional issue that certainly doesn’t rise to the existential threat of something like climate change. Illegal immigrants help the economy (a Google Scholar search link as almost every study supports this). Other studies suggest illegal immigrants commit less crime than U.S. citizens.
On the debt, it doesn’t make any sense for Romney to just call out the government spending of left-wing politicians. If Romney really cared about solving this one he could also call out right-wing tax breaks and mention that corporations are using the pandemic and inflation to reap windfall profits.
Lastly, even if Romney had engaged with the issues he lists, the threat to democracy trumps all of them. If the far right takes control of the US government and undoes democracy, the other issues won’t be addressed in a meaningful way.
So, why frame a left v. right binary as the root of our inaction and then sidestep a meaningful discussion of the issues he’s raised? I would argue it’s because Romney is framing centrism as a vehicle for change. By framing issues in a left versus right binary, he moves the focus away from the issues themselves to disunity. Stability — centrism — becomes the solution. Using this sleight of hand Romney attempts to align centrism with boldness and present it as the solution to the crises of our time.
Except, of course, the leaders he cites belie this notion. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill succeeded with bold, decisive action that bucked the establishment’s centrist thinking. In taking on Jim Crow through protest, King was a radical (In testament to this, his disapproval rating rose as high as 63% in 1966). These leaders stepped outside the status quo because the status quo perpetuated each crisis. Centrists, like the Mitt Romney’s of the world, can never be the leaders times of crisis demand because they are firmly rooted in the status quo. You can see this tension in the article’s contradictions as Romney tries to address the current moment through centrism and arrives absolutely nowhere.
Ultimately, the solutions of centrists usually entail doing absolutely nothing different at all. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, a guest on Bill Maher bemoaned that the center was being lost and urged people to persuade others that abortion was a good idea. This is disingenuous because Americans are persuaded already. 61% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. It is the Supreme Court that is forcing a minority opinion onto the country. The same Supreme Court that is helping the Republican party overthrow democracy. Is this really the time to act like times are normal and trust in our systems? You tell me: Who is really in denial?