The Bimodal Centrist

In a world where political beliefs seem to tend towards extremism, like magnets to a pole, any point of bipartisan agreement ought to be an occasion for celebration. It comes as something of a disappointment, then, to note that one of the deepest veins of cross-aisle accord is that both sides agree: they don’t like centrists.

For many people, a centrist is someone who is unwilling to pick a side—whether because she hasn’t made up her mind, or because she is just too apathetic to do so. The defining characteristic of this version of centrism is inaction. Partisans imagine centrists just sort of loitering there in the middle, hands in their pockets, pretending not to notice what’s going on while everyone else is out there taking a stand. If well-behaved women seldom make history, then centrists, never overstepping the bounds of moderation and propriety, make history on even less frequent basis.

But this account of centrism is based on a common misconception: that the political beliefs of centrists actually occupy the middle ground. But centrists need not be in the center at all. As anyone who has taken a statistics class knows, remaining always in the middle of a distribution is only one way to find yourself in the center on average. Most people assume that centrists label themselves as such because they never leave their comfort zone of political neutrality. However, such a middle-of-the-bell-curve, unimodal characterization of a centrist isn’t necessarily an accurate description of their beliefs. Alternatively, their beliefs could be distributed bimodally.

We learn in any introductory statistics course about the three different kinds of averages: means, medians and modes. The mean is our archetype of the average, arrived at by gathering up all the numbers and dividing their sum by however many there are. The median is whichever number stands in the middle when you line them up from smallest to largest. The mode is whichever number is most common (for example, the majority of recipes may call for a cake to be in the oven for exactly one hour). In the course of normal life, we discard the nuances separating these distinct middles, because the vast majority of what we come across in the world is normally distributed, and the average—whether expressed as mean, median or mode—refers to a single number.

But not all distributions are normal. In some cases, you can be in the middle without setting foot in the center at all. What, for example, is the average (mean) of 1 and 9? Five, a centrist if ever there was one, begotten only by the extremes.

So it is with the bimodal centrist.

The bimodal centrist distributes her beliefs over the full range of political positions. She is a centrist because the mean of her beliefs is somewhere closer to the middle than it is for strict liberals or conservatives. But her distribution is bimodal, because her beliefs come in two clumps—one on the left and one on the right. She is a centrist not because she declines to take a stand, but because in some cases she agrees with one side, while still recognizing good points when the other side makes them.

At its core, bimodal centrism is an acknowledgment that the world is complicated. It’s not possible to follow an easy heuristic, such as alignment with one side, and always come up with the right answer. The bimodal centrist understands that either side may make important points on one stance, while falling short of the truth in another. Centrism, then, is not the result of indecision in the face of any specific belief or position. Rather, it is the consequence of living in a complex society and attempting to consider each aspect of it on its own merits.

Bimodal centrism offers an antidote to three problems hindering political engagement in America: apathy, extremism and warring tribes.

The Problem of Apathy

The partisan characterization of the loitering centrist isn’t necessarily wrong. There is a strong correlation between political moderation and commitment to doing nothing. If you’re really unsure that a program will work, how much of your life are you going to sacrifice to see it enacted? The person whose beliefs are uncomplicated by subtlety isn’t going to just sit there and deliberate. She’s going to go out into the field and get something done. The biggest problem with centrism as generally conceived—and the reason why it garners bipartisan disdain—is that centrists are in the center because they’re apathetic.

This seemingly apathetic centrism is motivated by uncertainty. The unimodal centrist weighs both sides, then concludes that it’s complicated. And, because it’s complicated, she’s not sure what to do. And, because she’s not sure what to do, she’s not going to get all hot and bothered about getting up and doing something. Whatever action she takes could very well be the wrong one.

But the bimodal centrist has a stronger sense of purpose. She does not arrive at certainty by presupposing that one side’s gospel must be correct. Rather, her extensive deliberation process leads her to conclude that it’s complicated, but here’s what we should do. The point of bimodal centrism is to reach a comparable level of certainty as that of the partisan, but through a different epistemology. How the conclusion is reached is important. The bimodal centrist reaches it by thorough consideration of all the options. But she nonetheless reaches her conclusion and supports it just as strongly as the partisan does hers.

The Problem of Extremism

If you believe that your party has a monopoly on the truth, and you surround yourself with people who agree, then you’ll gradually come to adopt a more extreme version of your beliefs. The echo chamber, though a much celebrated metaphor, is perhaps not an apt one. The effect is more like the reverse of an echo chamber: the message starts off faint, then crescendos into a blaring chant after many repetitions. Sequestered in such chambers, we get all the downsides of the existence of differing perspectives, without any of the upsides. Heterogeneity of opinion only makes our democracy stronger when conflicting points of view sharpen, refine and readjust one another.

The bimodal centrist circumvents the problem of extremism by not writing off one side’s arguments from the get-go. She engages regardless of where she may stand initially. People, even when wrong, don’t believe something for no reason. Seeking an understanding of what that reason might be allows you to be sympathetic to a person’s position, even if you maintain that it’s incorrect. It also encourages intellectual humility. If, by an accident of fate, you had found yourself arguing from a different set of premises—say, that God exists or that Alabama would be an agreeable place to live in—then you might well have come to a different conclusion. This consideration need not make you forfeit your position, but it should make you less extreme in the manner in which you hold it.

It’s worth pointing out that bimodal centrism does not imply that one draws equally from both sides. A bimodal distribution does not suggest that both modes are comparably sized—just that they are both present. The bimodal centrist is able to avoid the problem of extremism because, even if she finds herself mostly in agreement with one side, drawing even a little bit from the other prevents her from descending into extreme positions.

The Problem of Warring Tribes

Tribalism itself is not necessarily a problem (it’s okay to have a special fondness for friends and family). The problems arise when two tribes go to war. That some people should hold liberal beliefs and some should hold conservative ones need not be an issue. The issue arises when liberals think the conservatives reached their conclusions through an irredeemable disposition for malice and ignorance, while conservatives make symmetrical deductions about liberals. It’s much easier—inevitable almost—to go to war against a tribe that is purely evil.

How much more difficult is it to go to war against a tribe when you have a vested interest in their well-being—whether through a friend, an ideological sympathy, or even the old school approach of an intertribal marriage? The bimodal centrist doesn’t view one side as good and the other as evil. Neither side, no matter how wrongheaded they may be, got to where they are by asking, how can I best screw with the other side today? (The same does not necessarily hold for politicians, for whom publicly signaling their antagonism towards the other side allows them to demonstrate to their constituents that they have their backs.) But, for the most part, people just want what they think is right. Understanding their views in terms of the mental path that led them to those conclusions—rather than in terms of a fundamental desire for goodness or tendency towards evil—allows the bimodal centrist to address the argument, rather than the person.

History is written by the victors, and they tend to catalogue only the sensational. Behind every Alexander the Great, there is an equally talented, though less flashy, administrative assistant about whom history notes comparatively little. Well-behaved women, likewise, do not make history just because they are women—though it has been something of a tradition to ensure that that’s enough—but because they are well-behaved. Well-behaved men seldom make history, either. The centrist, as traditionally conceived, has positioned herself with the other do-gooders at the unfortunate nexus of upstanding behavior and the run of the mill. Yet, by retaining the partisan’s confidence and candor, while discarding her apathy, extremism and inclination towards war, the bimodal centrist can—possibly, hopefully—liberate herself from the safe but infertile middle ground.

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7 comments

  1. A thoughtful person can have various views that are independent from any particular ideology. For example, one might favor helping the poor but not believe that a min wage hike actually helps them.
    The problem is that political beliefs tend to form around some big ideas. For the Left today that idea is “Justice”. In this big idea, it is unjust that minorities are not rich like all whites are (yes, sarcasm) therefore it is necessary to redistribute wealth. This then leads to a demand for more government. The problem is made worse by constant enforcement of ideological purity by online mobs.

  2. As you might guess from my nom de Areo above (actually my Twitter handle and the name of a Facebook group I moderate), I found this article interesting. A while back I wrote a short piece for an online magazine making many of the same points made by the writer above, if much less elegantly. I described a centrism suspicious of ideologies and partisan affiliations and unified theories, and one in which a centrist applies his or her own unique personal values (and the data that they’ve harvested) to issues on a case by case basis. This means that a centrist can be all over the map politically on individual issues –- from left to right and everywhere in between -– but ultimately averages out at or near the middle. This kind of political engagement involves more “heavy lifting” than other kinds because you’re not falling back on a tribal partisan identity or a prepackaged program –- it’s the opposite of “passive” or “apathetic”. And it’s not for everyone. Part of it requires a kind of discipline in which you try to become aware of your biases and their associated cognitive distortions, even if you cannot fully overcome them.

    In my own case, I’m pretty “far-left” on some issues (I’m more radical when it comes to removing money from politics than Bernie Sanders) and “far-right” on others (such as those which relate to group differences). But even though I’m passionate about a lot of issues –- I certainly don’t see myself as the stereotypical “bland moderate” centrist -– it’s probably true that I’m closer to the middle than the extremes on most of them.

    I wish I could say that I see an important role for centrists in elective politics in the current climate, but if I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that I don’t. Most of the data I’ve looked at suggests continued (if not increasing) political polarization in the US. Centrists like to believe that we have the coolest and calmest heads (and of course the best graphs and spreadsheets), but there’s really not much for us to do in the partisan political arena at this moment but watch the storm around us and hope that it eventually subsides.

    1. As I was just saying to the boss over there on facebook:

      Yup. One can be an extreme centrist. A fanatical pragmatist. Uncompromising in the search for
      middle ground. A person who’s knee-jerk reaction is always to stop and think.

  3. if and when a side emerges that does not get off on punishing people (be they the innocent, the guilty, their chosen enemies, or heretics within their ranks), I’ll pick that side.

  4. Instructive. I believe in your bimodal centrist and that she can contribute to solving those three key problems in public discourse. Perhaps we could go more radical. Event the bimodal centrist discussion presupposes a single-axis political spectrum (that spreads out left to right). Perhaps we could replace that model with a scattergraph model, or at least wean the partisan public in that direction. Using the standard left-to-right axis as a model, most of my views, which I’d associate with 1960s radicalism, are equidistant from today’s left, right, and middle. (I realize that most people today identify themselves per the left-right axis, which means it has descriptive power, but maybe that’s because we haven’t offered them a viable model that renders the single-axis model obsolete. One can wish 🙂 )

    1. Yup, there is more than one axis. The big/little government is only one of them. The freedom/safety axis is another. The idealism/reality axis is perhaps the one causing us the most trouble right now. The Correct believe what their idealism wishes were true, the realist says that we should face facts no matter how unpleasant they are.

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