Between Scylla and Charybdis: A Radical Centrism

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series exploring individuals’ political journeys.  Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Third Factor—though it’s safe to say we think they’re at least worth considering.  You can read more about the goal of the series here.


I grew up in a milieu with no Republicans or conservatives in sight. New Deal liberalism was the default political faith, with FDR its secular saint. Then, in 1964, at age sixteen, I discovered Barry Goldwater. He advocated more limited government, more personal freedom, and tougher anti-Communism. Sounded good to me! A convert, I became active in the Young Republican movement as well as the regular party organization. I moved to Albany, New York, where I became a party official and a candidate for the party I saw as the reformers, battling an entrenched Democratic machine.

Much has changed since.

Values or Policy Preferences? Explaining My Politics

My conservatism has always been intellectual. Most people, however, don’t choose their political identities based on an intellectual analysis of party platforms. It’s often more about a person’s psychology.

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind differentiates the psychological profiles and motivating values typical of liberals and conservatives. Haidt posited that we ground our moral thinking in six basic foundations: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, respect for authority vs. subversion, sanctity vs. degradation, and liberty vs. oppression. Liberals tend to focus mainly on the first two, while conservatives generally utilize all six of these foundations.

I actually fit more with the liberal profile, so I’ve always found liberals more congenial as human beings. The stereotypical Bible-thumping WASP conservative politician, dark-suited with a flag pin and well-coiffed hair, has always repelled me. My intellectual conservatism is really closer to libertarianism, which Haidt puts in a separate psychological category altogether.

Nevertheless, to function politically, individuals must join groups, and it was the Republican Party that best reflected my principles. Beginning in the 1980s, however, two phenomena that I believe are discordant with what the Republican Party stood for began to take hold of it.

I actually fit more with the liberal psychological profile. Nevertheless, to function politically, individuals must join groups, and it was the Republican Party that best reflected my principles.

One of these intruders was the Religious Right, focusing especially on abortion. To me, abortion is a complex moral issue—and certainly not one so consequential as to trump everything else. Moreover, evangelicals more broadly seek to demolish the wall of separation between church and state. This is anathema to me as a secularist atheist. At the time, however, I felt that we could combat that tendency within the GOP even as we pragmatically tolerated the evangelicals in order to achieve other political ends.

The second intruder was racism. The Republican voting base has been on a long slide into know-nothing nativism. Party leaders tried to exploit this while keeping a lid on it. Then came Trump, who did not just exploit this tendency, but celebrated it. No longer able to rein in the yahoos, formerly sane Republicans stampeded to join them. White nationalism has now effectively become the party’s raison d’être.

Rethinking Labels for Anti-Authoritarian Politics

Another factor repelling me from the Republican party is a concern about authoritarianism. Republicans have made a mantra of limited government and personal liberty. Yet one of the moral foundations Haidt found to be salient in conservatives was respect for authority, and this does engender some affinity for authoritarianism on the Right. The Economist recently described venture capitalist Peter Thiel as incongruously having a “strong libertarian bent with an authoritarian streak”! The Right tends to throw libertarian principles under the bus when it suits them, as when they are imposing religious morality.

Thus language of “right” versus “left” and “liberal” versus “conservative,” with communism on the left end and fascism on the right end, is of little use. A spectrum more usefully descriptive for today’s political landscape is between open and closed. An open political orientation would include openness toward human differences, debate, trade, immigration, change, and so forth. Karl Popper foreshadowed this in his 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Indeed, the book starts with Plato — a quintessential advocate of a closed society, mainly with the aim of social stasis, viewing any change as degradation.

The Closed Left

Language of “right” versus “left” is of little use. A spectrum more usefully descriptive for today’s political landscape is between open and closed.

The open/closed dichotomy cuts across our political divisions. One issue on which this is especially relevant today is that of freedom of expression. The Left has fetishized “dissent;” there’s even a magazine so named. But this doesn’t seem to apply to dissent from its own orthodoxies—a closed society mindset. In his 2019 book The Tyranny of Virtue, English professor Robert Boyers describes the Left’s persecution of divergent opinion on college campuses. And the New York Times recently forced the resignation of an editor for daring to publish a U.S. senator’s op-ed the Left disliked.

Then there’s the infatuation with socialism. The Left idealizes government no matter how often it betrays values they hold dear, like battered spouses sticking with their abusers. Socialism entails a huge concentration of power; hence, “democratic socialism” tends to be an oxymoron. Even non-socialist government in a modern society is plenty powerful. At least a largely free economy disperses some of this power. That’s an open society. A socialist one is closed.

The Closed Right

Conservatism, meanwhile, used to reflect an open society attitude: limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, support for free trade, and strong global engagement opposing enemies of freedom—especially Russia. Having an ethos of humility and carefulness, of respect for institutions, traditions, reality, and human beings.

Conservatism used to reflect an open society attitude. Today’s Republican Party savages these ideas in every particular.

Today’s Republican Party savages these ideas in every particular. In place of its former values, Republicanism has mainly become a personality cult. It might be explicable, sort of, if it centered upon some genuinely charismatic and inspirational leader. Trump, however, is thoroughly corrupt and dishonest, an ignoramus who thinks he knows everything, an irresponsible, nasty, vulgar sociopath.

There’s also a macho thing going on. Osama bin Laden said that if people see a strong horse and a weak one, they will prefer the strong horse. Whatever might be said of Trump’s characteristics, they are not dilute. And evil can exert a strange attraction. In any case, loyalty to him has become part of his supporters’ personal identity. I find it sad that so many see this creep as speaking for them.

The Politics of Enlightenment Humanism

I used to mostly blame Democrats for our partisan divisiveness. I considered their picture of heartless Republicans an unfair caricature, insisting that adherents of both parties sincerely wanted what’s best for the country, differing only on the means.

But then Republicans proceeded to actually fulfill the ugly caricature. I can no longer view both parties as sincerely motivated. Republican bad faith is epitomized by phony “ballot fraud” concerns as a pretext for voter suppression—an effort to win elections by keeping Democrats from voting. In this—and many other ways—the party threatens America’s basic character as a democratic society.

Between that Right and the intolerant Left, I often feel like I’m steering between Scylla and Charybdis. To navigate this dangerous passage, I return to the periodic talk of a “third way” between right and left. This would be a true liberalism — not in the modern American sense, but the classical European liberalism exemplified by John Stuart Mill. It’s an open society philosophy. It’s also the philosophy of Enlightenment humanism: recognizing that the only thing that can ultimately matter is the feelings of beings capable of feeling, it valorizes the flourishing of individual humans.

In this philosophy, sometimes called social liberalism or a kind of libertarianism, a core idea is that society should constrain our behavior only where it harms others—”my freedom ends where your nose begins.” As I see it, this should be a foundational concept in a democratic society. Democracy is not just about elections: it’s a culture, a way of life. Its essence is pluralism: acceptance that other people differ from you and have different ideas and interests, but they are equally entitled to respect and participation—and even to having power.

Democracy is not just about elections: it’s a culture, a way of life. Its essence is pluralism: acceptance that other people differ from you and have different ideas and interests, but they are equally entitled to respect and participation—and even to having power.

A key part of human flourishing is finding meaning in one’s life. Most of us want to do that as freely as possible. This doesn’t mean disconnecting from society; indeed, embedding ourselves in social structures is part of how we do find meaning and flourish. What we want is a proper balance between freedom to do our own thing and the societal ties that enable us to gain fulfillment through relating to others.

To create this flourishing, we must give people the material means that allow for real choices. The Left, obsessed with inequality, is fixated upon wealth distribution without much consideration for how wealth is created in the first place. A free market economy does create wealth—while also, of course, avoiding coercion. The past century has seen around a sixfold increase in the real dollar incomes of average people worldwide. It wasn’t thanks to socialism. Free market economics is simply the default way people deal with each other absent artificial constraints. Its inherent logic is win-win — any uncoerced market transaction leaves both parties better off, or else they wouldn’t agree to it. Repeated over and over, that’s how life improves.

We should strive for universal human betterment not because it is (arguably) just, but because it is (unarguably) humane. We are a very rich country and can afford it.

America has indeed achieved tremendous human flourishing through this model. But a 2016 book by Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything, argues that Nordic countries have extended it even further, in ways America might emulate. Those countries are not socialist, as some on the Left believe—they’re more free market, really, than America. That economic openness creates wealth which they use to build societal structures aimed at the best possible lives for everyone. And their people do seem a lot happier.

I see the Left’s “social justice” mantra as the wrong frame. We should strive for universal human betterment not because it is (arguably) just, but because it is (unarguably) humane. It recognizes our common humanity. America does this part-way, but has never come to grips with it as a societal imperative as the Nordics have. We are a very rich country and can afford it.

A Radical Centrism—and a New Political Home

What I have described here is my idea of a radical centrism. I call it centrist because it transgresses shibboleths of both Left and Right; and radical because it would require major rethinking by both sides. Yet I believe it should appeal to reasonable, rational people.

The question remains, however, where I, as someone with these values and policy preferences, should make my political home, given that I live in today’s United States of America. In 2017, considering Republicans irredeemable, I changed my enrollment to Democrat.

This does entail something of a marriage of convenience with the Left, just as my past Republicanism represented a pragmatic alliance with forces I considered otherwise insupportable. I have another concern as well: with the Republican Party having destroyed itself as a responsible actor, and with demographic factors inexorably eroding its base, I fear our two party system becoming a one-and-a-half party system, leaving Democrats dangerously over-powerful.

Nevertheless, this is where it makes sense for me to be now. My choice transcends issues, policies, or even ideology. It’s about basic democratic culture, human decency, and plain sanity. I am hopeful that the center will hold, among Democrats at least. And I want to be in that battle.

Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of NYU Law School, and was an administrative law judge (1977-97) at the New York Public Service Commission. He is the author of eight books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine (1973), Children of the Dragon (a novel), and The Case for Rational Optimism (2009). Robinson is a professional coin dealer; married to the poet Therese Broderick; and was the first man to walk on the moon.