The rise of Trump has resurfaced much discussion about the right-wing authoritarian personality. This initially gained prominence after World War II as social psychologists attempted to find an explanation for why so many millions of Germans and Italians became enthralled with their fascist leaders. According to the theory as developed by people such as Theodor Adorno and Bob Altemeyer and later also popularized by philosophers like Hannah Arendt, a certain psychological profile which prioritized obedience to authority, adherence to traditional social norms and hierarchies, and punitive views towards criminal justice, as well as a general aggressiveness towards outsiders. These attitudes resulted in these personalities being particularly susceptible to far-right populist leaders, however anti-democratic and illiberal they may be.
Nailing down a left-wing authoritarian personality, however, has proven difficult. Altemeyer himself has stated that he has failed to find any evidence of it despite decades of study. Others have seen left-wing authoritarians as being mostly similar to their right-wing counterparts, except that the latter’s deference toa authority is replaced by an obsessive desire to overthrow it, as well as a willingness to engage in politically-motivated violence. Still, this is questionable. Even looking at many of the left-wing authoritarian regimes of the 20th century (the USSR, North Korea), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the support by their populations was more a product of state intimidation and propaganda rather than personalities.
What about centrists?
The discussion of right- and left-authoritarian personalities still leaves out a huge share of the electorate: centrists. Because the term centrist can mean so much (and so little), perhaps it is easier to identify by the appeal of most of the following statement:
“I am a politically and social liberal who believes in individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Economically, I am broadly in favor of free markets although the government should intervene to some extent, though not enough that it creates market distortions and perverse incentives. I believe that society should be meritocratic and be based on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. Although there may be injustice, I feel we must take a gradualist approach to solving the country’s problems because radicalism is dangerous and usually backfires in the end. Especially socialism which, although well-intentioned, will not work out in practice. I believe that the international order must be rules-based and grounded on liberal principles, but stronger liberal countries must often impose these values on illiberal regimes for the benefit of peace and security. I am bothered by dogmatic, irrational political attitudes which is why we need to re-embrace reason, science, and secularism so people don’t vote for fascists. Yes, some corporations and billionaires are bad but not all of them, and we can’t tax them too much or we’ll lose competitiveness and they’ll move overseas. Climate change is an existential threat but we cannot afford to wreck the economy with pie in the sky proposals like the Green New Deal.”
Perhaps more importantly, do you hark back to the good old days of Third Way Clintonian and Blairite policies? Do you think the emergence of politicians like Trump and BoJo are aberrations but so were Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn? Do you think the world will return to normal once Biden becomes president? If so, you’re probably a centrist.
It should be noted that centrism is also quite lucrative. There is an very well-funded policy ecosystem that centrists can make a career out of, of which nothing remotely similar exists for progressives. Even the most “liberal” billionaire is a centrist at best (most are openly conservative or libertarian) and they will not be giving million-dollar grants to the think-tanks calling for 90% marginal taxes and breaking up of tech giants. Socialist economics professors will not be called for economic advisory roles in government. Writing think-pieces for the McKinsey Institute pays more than writing academic journal articles. And headhunters will more likely be looking for people with centrist-friendly LinkedIn profiles that ramble endlessly about sustainable public-private fintech partnerships to help female entrepreneurs in emerging markets. But I’ll leave the opportunists out of this discussion and focus on those who are centrists out of conviction rather than self-interest, including those that may be afraid to show more leftist sympathies out of fear of professional ostracism.
The questions then becomes, why do centrists think the way they do? The common denominator, it seems to me, is a persistent fear of appearing irrational. After all, the selling point of centrism is that you refuse to let your passions dictate your policies, the exemption being a passion at objecting to the over-emotional, irrational mindset of socialists and fascists. I know this mindset very well: it is literally the exact same mindset that has been instilled on any economics graduate over the past half century ever since the profession became hijacked by free market dogmatism. Since then, economists have had an answer to everything that doesn’t involve affecting status quo interests, and with a smugness that comes from thinking that the fancy mathematical models and regressions that underpin our arguments are the final word on things (that worked out really well for us in 2008-09, didn’t it?). Homo economicus, the belief in the perfectly rational individual unspoiled by their passions seems to be what centrists aspire to be.
The obsession with rationality also means that centrists tend to avoid strong views against the institutions that underpin the liberal world order, regardless of how dysfunctional they are. The IMF and World Bank may have made mistakes in the past but they did not deliberately impoverish the third-world countries they were designed to save. Corporations don’t always do the right thing, but look at all the corporate social responsibility and philanthropy that they invest in. By and large, centrists tend to balk at the idea that power relations exist in most forms of human social interaction, which makes them immune to structural criticism. In the economistic mindset of centrists, incentives are for individuals, not for organizations, and bad behavior from said organizations is the work of a few bad apples (Enron, Lehman) rather than the perverse incentives of capitalism.
Now, there is one thing centrists are quite passionate about: symbolic acts of wokeness that do not threaten the status quo. Womens’ rights and race are two cases in point. Centrists are vocal supporters of policies such as women on company boards and of racial de-biasing but when it comes to actual substantive policies, anything that even remotely appears to impact company bottom lines is a no-no. Where have the US centrists been in dismantling the country’s prison-industrial complex or ending the war on drugs? Where are the centrists promoting mass unionization or workplace democracy so that women can have their voices heard in their places of work, rather than just a handful of C-suite executives (who might well be just as sociopathic as their male counterparts) aspiring for board membership? Where were the centrists when Joe Biden was (very credibly) accused of sexual abuse just a few months ago?
No other institution symbolizes liberal centrism better than US cable news and its liberal newspapers. Watching channels like CNN and MSNBC since 2016 treats the viewer to a non-stop barrage of outrage over every horrible thing that Trump did the day before, yet no analysis of the structural conditions of American society that explain why he won and why over 40% of the population still plans to vote for him despite his disaster of a presidency. Their constant smears of Bernie Sanders and refusal to have real progressive-left or socialist voices on their show is also particularly glaring, not least because they have no problem having some rather extreme conservative pundits on their shows or writing op-eds, all for the sake of appearing unbiased. Their horror at appearing biased is quite in contrast with right-wing media like Fox News which makes no qualms over its unconditional support for the Republican Party. The problem with US liberal media is not new: back in 2003 MSNBC sacked Phil Donahue for his overt anti-war stance. The New York Times’ tasteless op-ed from Tom Cotton calling for a military crackdown on BLM protesters is the latest example, and something that no editorial team of any newspaper calling itself “liberal” should have published. This fetish for appearing as the middle-ground only allows the goalposts to shift further right.
The good thing about the world that we live in is that it is increasingly hostile to centrists. Were they as rational and dispassionate as they think they are, they would realize that their continued support of a Third Way universe that no longer exists is only enabling the far-right. Centrists, quite simply put, do not have any answer to modern society’s problems, whether it be climate change, inequality, minority issues, labor issues, and so on. A rational centrist would realize that the world that they want is far closer to the one that socialists aspire to, rather than to the ethno-nationalist libertarian utopias that the modern far-right dreams about. Instead, centrists have derailed every effort to have socialist candidates dominate the left ticket in the US (the DNC rigging the 2016 primary, or the Obama phone calls before 2020’s Super Tuesday) and UK (the Labour Leaks) and the result, unsurprisingly, has been fascists winning elections. Had the coronavirus not reared its ugly head this year, it seems almost impossible to imagine the Biden-Harris ticket winning in November – and even despite the exceptional circumstances still seems far from guaranteed.
And yet amid the rise of socialism and fascism in the 21st century, centrism becomes more passionate about its dispassion. The Economist proudly proclaims itself “radically centrist”, an oxymoron equivalent to saying you’re a militant agnostic. The magazine, along with its liberal centrist counterpart, the Financial Times, both endorsed David Cameron in 2015 only to later lament getting Brexit wrong, exactly the same way in which they later endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders just to see Trump win. Liberal centrists, for all their love of rational, fact-based analysis don’t get that they don’t get it. Being enraged by Bernie Bros being mean on Twitter or Corbyn having friends in Hamas and the IRA while paying lip service to the immiseration of the working classes and minorities they ostensibly support is not the epitome of reason. It’s an excuse to not support them all the while they are happy to forgive the much more egregious faults in their centrist counterparts. Unfortunately, insofar as this phobia is not outgrown and they start becoming more passionate about what they support rather than what they oppose, their complicity in the rise of fascism will be something they will not easily brush off.