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American exceptionalism and reactionary centrists


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Aaron Huertas’s interesting essay on his concept of “reactionary centrists.”  Reactionary centrists are putatively liberal or liberalish public intellectuals who almost invariably punch left, because of a compelling need to locate themselves in the center of an ideological spectrum that, because of radicalization of the Republican party (the election of Trump is both a cause and a symptom of that radicalization), has shifted far to the right.  The result is that, for these people, the supposedly “moderate” position on various issues turns out to be either right-wing or frankly reactionary:

We have a crisis of lopsided political polarization in the United States.

There are fewer moderates than ever in the Republican Congress. Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has thrown out the rule book to undermine healthcare and steal a Supreme Court seat. The United States is the only country with a major political party that denies the scientific reality of climate change. Republican state legislatures are attacking people’s voting rights instead of trying to win their support. And right wing media routinely promotes conspiracy theories, from questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship to suggesting that the Parkland student activists are “crisis actors.”

But despite these developments, a great deal of popular political commentary still approaches our politics with a strange form of unearned evenhandedness. Opinion columnists, influential academics, and think tankers feel a need to occupy a middle ground, even if it’s one that is increasingly a product of their own imaginations. As a result, they wind up giving the right wing a free pass or accepting its worst impulses as a reality we have to live with, while reserving their criticism and armchair quarterbacking for anyone to their left.

I’ve come to call these pundits “reactionary centrists.”

Reactionary centrist (n) — Someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.

Reactionary centrism is an ideological stance that isn’t really centrist at all. It can elevate a speaker in the mainstream media as a liberal-ish critic of liberalism and make someone feel good about being above it all and not taking sides, but it’s increasingly a stance that leads to sloppy thinking, especially as the Republican party continues to lurch rightward and away from democratic rule. We should identify reactionary centrism when we see it, challenge it, and ask what reactionary centrists could be doing instead to more productively contribute to public debates.

A great example of what Huertas is talking about is Bari Weiss’s intellectual dark web article, which came out after his essay was published.

Here’s another example, which also illustrates the general usefulness of the concept.   Peter Beinart argues that both the left and the right have given up on the idea of American exceptionalism, which was so recently defended by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama:

In different ways, Obama and Bush both spoke about America as embodying a set of ideas. Now neither Republicans nor Democrats are as likely to do so. Donald Trump doesn’t care about human rights. For him, America isn’t an idea; it’s a nation. And when it pursues universal ideals—by admitting refugees, eschewing torture, agreeing to environmental norms or aiding other nations—it gets ripped off. For Ocasio-Cortez, human rights matter intensely, but the United States has no special claim to embodying them. It’s hard to imagine her saying, as Obama often did, that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

On this July 4, the American left and right, which disagree on almost everything, are both turning against American exceptionalism. Democrats don’t think America lives up to liberal democratic ideals. Republicans don’t think Americans need to.

In order to place himself in the moderate and reasonable center of the ideological spectrum, Beinart engages in some pretty impressive intellectual gymnastics.

First, he conjures up an imaginary Republican party, that doesn’t continue to assert as a practically axiomatic matter that America is in fact God’s very most special favorite country ever: a proposition that Republican voters are more than twice as likely to agree with than are Democrats.  That sort of data suggest that Trump’s America First rhetoric is nothing but a particularly noxious brand of American exceptionalism, rather than a repudiation of it.

Second, Beinart is wedded to what in fact is an essentially reactionary political belief in the entire concept of American exceptionalism, as illustrated by his disapproving of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s view that “human rights matter intensely, but the United States has no special claim to embodying them.”

Of course the belief that the United States does have some special claim to embodying human rights is what helps fuel the belief that the United States has some special claim to being able to do stuff like invade foreign countries in order to bequeath the wonders of liberal democratic governance on them, in theory anyway (practice turns out to be trickier).

So, in order to position himself somewhere in between Ocasio-Cortez’s rejection of nationalist pretensions, and Trump’s embrace of those pretensions in their most obviously noxious forms, Beinart ends up advocating a characteristically right-wing idea, while criticizing a bright new star in the Democratic party’s firmament.  That’s reactionary centrism in a nutshell.


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