The political discord at Duke and in America’s body politic more broadly is plagued by Radical ‘Randys’. These political extremists dominate the conversation both on campus and on the airwaves of cable TV, whether it be Fox News or MSNBC, as they appeal to only their own tribe of ideological followers who share their respective world views. These radicals have little to no interest in cooperating with their opponents on the other side of the aisle, much less arguments and facts that run contrary to their own.
Instead, such activists are more interested in chastising those with differing points of view in order to signal their own virtue and ideological purity. Examples of this abound, but two notable cases include the recent trend within the Republican party of maligning its more moderate members as “RINOS” (Republicans in Name Only) for not holding hardline positions. The embrace of extremism can also be seen within the Democratic party as current 2020 candidates who do not endorse “Medicare for All” (a policy position that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago) are targeted by their more radical primary opponents. Meanwhile, the political center of American politics—moderate Democrats and Republicans inclined to compromise - has steadily eroded. Far from a “trendy” ideology, centrism is increasingly rare.
Unfortunately, a recent column by our friend David Min only exacerbated this phenomenon. Min’s misguided understanding of centrism is not unique, as various columnists, Twitter pundits, and even a popular sub-Reddit all perpetuate a strawman-like caricature of Centrist “Chads.” Yet centrism is not for the politically apathetic, and it certainly is not limited to those of privilege. Moreover, true centrism does not extol moderation as a virtue worth pursuing for its own sake (which, as Min correctly points out, would be fallacious). Instead, centrism recognizes that one ideology does not hold a monopoly on “the truth;” that equally-qualified scholars and rational policymakers often reach opposing conclusions.
This distinction is best demonstrated through application. For example, Min insinuates that it is ideologically inconsistent to both believe in the tangible legacy of racism and oppose government reparations. These two things are not mutually exclusive, and he ignores the well-studied challenges associated with creating effective reparations programs that create long-term, cross-generational changes in racial economic disparities. Perhaps calls “to study the issue further” aren’t a “soft-left” cop out and are instead an honest recognition that the research is too inconclusive to propose a sweeping policy change.
Likewise, Min argues that the middle ground on climate change is “incoherent.” However, he fails to consider the fact that it is possible to simultaneously recognize the harsh consequences of climate change without supporting radical policies like the Green New Deal. Perhaps the steep costs of such programs don’t return commensurate benefits, and we can ameliorate most of the damage of climate change with more moderate and less disruptive solutions (such as carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade system). On issues ranging from reparations to climate change to Israel, Min consistently fails to recognize other legitimate viewpoints, prioritizes ideological purity, and assumes that his side has all of the “correct” answers.
In contrast, it is centrism, political moderation and compromise that hold the promise of both affecting the most change and improving the quality of our political discourse. Our federal government was designed (with its separate legislative chambers, presidential vetoes, and judicial review) to facilitate slow, steady, and well-reasoned legislative development rather than sweeping knee-jerk changes. It should be clear that the calls of the Radical ‘Randys’ are not only flawed on their own merits but that they are also antithetical to our very form of government.
While politicians are rewarded at the ballot box for their demagoguery and impractical promises, our actual institutions of governance reward policymakers who compromise and pursue moderate stances. For instance, GovTrack grades Senator Bernie Sanders as one of the most ideologically pure and the furthest left of all sitting senators. Yet Sanders’ leadership score (a proxy metric for legislative effectiveness) is one of the lowest. By contrast, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Susan Collins, whose ideologies align with the center-left and center-right respectively, have two of the highest leadership scores. Examples like this are abundant and raise an important question: outside of some illusory moral high ground, what is the virtue in ideological purity if it fails to yield tangible policy results? Perhaps President Clinton captured this reality best when he remarked that “Politics is the art of the possible,” not the ideal.
Although Radical ‘Randys’ dominate discussions with talk of “big structural change” or wholesale “swamp draining,” their rhetoric and actions are typically impractical, counterproductive and alienate others. In contrast, centrism and compromise, by design, work well within our political system and typically result in tangible progress. Centrism has the additional benefit of remedying some of the tribal hostility currently in place. Indeed, common sense, open-mindedness, and cheerful stoicism are the foundations of centrism and result in not only good policy decisions but ample allowance for the views of others.
Mitchell Murphy is a Trinity senior. His column, "prose and cons," runs on alternate Wednesdays. Matthew Noles is a Trinity senior.
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