Centrism is a political philosophy of emptiness. It takes no definitive stance on any issue, and relies solely on linear theoretical models to conceptualize political landscapes.
The most popular of these linear models is what is known as the Overton Window theory (named after its progenitor, Joseph Overton), which attempts to define a sort of intellectual “habitable zone” for liberal democracy while also defining the fringe extremist ends on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum.
The meat and potatoes of the Overton Window theory, however, rests in its attempt to explore how what is “popular” or “acceptable” ultimately varies over time as a society’s political landscape changes. If the Overton Window in a society were, for example, to move farther to the left, then ideas that were once seen as center-right would then be newly designated as far-right, while ideas previously considered far-left now suddenly being closer to the center. The same would happen to the left, should the Overton Window move farther to the right. And so, the Overton Window theory grapples with the understanding of political polarization in societies, and how that contributes to ever-changing political landscapes that often change the rules of the game.
Even with my gripes toward the theory of the Overton Window, my main critique here is ultimately levied toward a sort of Overton fetishism that predominates modern centrism. This fetishism makes itself most apparent when the Overton Window is used to indict conservatives, accusing them of being “far-right” and attempting to connote modern Western conservatism as something akin to white nationalism or other typically “far-right,” hateful ideologies.
With that, we can see almost immediately that centrism is not a philosophy that claims a sort of objective middleground to “balance” out the left and the right. Rather, centrism appears to be solely reliant upon the theory of the Overton Window to define what is politically acceptable and what isn’t. And considering that a majority of centrists seem convinced of an Overton Window shifting ever rightward, it is certainly probable that the majority of self-proclaimed centrists are actually significantly to the left politically and are simply convinced that their political stances are in line with what the general public believes, while also viewing conservative thought as far-right and dangerously inline with extremism.
The problem that inevitably predominates centrism, however, is its inability to mount legitimate intellectual critiques of the philosophies or ideologies that it places outside the Overton Window beyond simply placing it outside said Overton Window. It seeks not to legitimately critique conservatism or leftism or any other political philosophy, but rather only to position those philosophies on what are often criminally reductive, linear theoretical models. If said philosophy falls outside the Overton Window, it is simply disregarded solely by virtue of its failure to qualify for this abstract theoretical boundary of “moderation.” But surely politics is more complex than that, it certainly isn’t a purely linear phenomenon.
For example, it would certainly be safe to say that most people wouldn’t disagree with the notion that Nazism is a hateful ideology. It would even be okay to say in a Western country that Nazism is objectively bad because it calls for objectively bad things, such as racial discrimination and the genocide of certain undesirables.
There are, however, points of contention around what fascism is and whether or not it is solely right-wing. Similarly, there has been debate around whether Nazism (National Socialism) as a political ideology was left or right wing. But regardless as to whether Nazism is far-right in its entirety or a blend of other ideologies from across the political spectrum, such a debate doesn’t change the fact that Nazism is, in fact, an incredibly dangerous and hateful ideology.
Nevertheless, the centrists use Nazism as a default reference point for the far-right. Nazism, according to the Overton fetishists, is about as far-right as you can go, and claiming that Nazism isn’t wholly far-right, even while maintaining that it is horrific nevertheless, is sacrilegious wrong speak to the centrists.
By using Nazism as a default reference point for the right, centrists are able to erroneously claim, often without objection, that an Overton Window shifting rightward makes conservatives more akin to right-wing extremism, while objectively leftist ideological movements such as transgenderism, or the pseudo-bipartisan conversation of “how critical race theory can help us unlearn racism and save Our Democracy™” is now suddenly toward the political center, well within the Overton Window.
There is no actual critique of conservatism beyond this vague charge. The centrist’s only mode of attack, rather than actually stating why conservatism is supposedly akin to right-wing extremism, is to immediately default to the trivial theoretical exercises he learned from his professor in his Introduction to American Government class, because as a centrist, he cannot actually take a definitive political position. He relies solely upon the Overton Window to do the thinking for him, and anything outside said theoretical boundary is a threat to Our Democracy™.
Centrism, therefore, especially in purely online spaces, is often used to gaslight conservatives, alluding to a sort of left-wing political center that doesn’t actually exist. The centrists, while purporting to warn people about a shifting Overton Window that distorts the political perspectives of the polity and therefore propelling them into extremist fringes, ultimately fall victim to their own delusions about shifting political landscapes.
I do believe the Overton Window theory itself was a well-intentioned attempt to understand how societies might struggle due to political polarization, and can to a certain extent be used as a legitimate form of political analysis. Relying on purely linear theoretical models to automatically determine the exact merits of political beliefs, however, as modern centrists often do, is a wholly fallacious way to conceptualize politics. If we’re going to have an intellectually honest debate about what political thought is acceptable in a healthy society, and which lines of thought ought to be avoided and discouraged, then we ought to actually critique said lines of thought for what they actually are.
Nazism isn’t bad merely because it was designated as “far-right” on a political spectrum diagram downloaded from Reddit. Rather, Nazism is bad because of its actual content, as well as the horrific atrocities that said content led to throughout World War II. Whether or not it can be classified as “far-right” in accordance with linear political theoretical models is ultimately irrelevant in the face of the actual real-world consequences of Nazism. When this reality is acknowledged, it is also easy to see that attempting to place modern Western conservatism in the same vein as Nazism or white nationalism is wholly intellectually dishonest.
In addition, leftists who use the Overton Window as a way to brand conservatives and everyone else on the right to be far-right are either doing so because they are ignorant of what the far-right actually is, or they know that lumping everyone in the right together as Nazis is politically beneficial.
Whichever of the two, the consequence of this conflation indicates that if politics were to be shifting any such way it would be further to the left. This conflation also enflames and bolsters the real far-right when they are able to hijack conservative protests and ideas as their own, making their ideology seem more popular than it actually is. In the worst case, by labeling everyone on the right a Nazi, some might think that it does not matter what they actually believe in—they will be vilified by the left, center, media, and political class who parrot this narrative anyway; what occurs thereafter is that sometimes someone might actually consider himself to be “far-right,” but hold no far-right beliefs, meaning he is not a white nationalist and certainly not a racist. But because of the constant vilification that comes with the prepubescent and ignorant understanding of what the far-right is and what it stands for, these groups are offered an opportunity to recruit young men and radicalize them to be against the “system” that is “stacked against them.”
The Overton Window as a political tool to supposedly measure the direction of political ideologies should be used cautiously and with context. Yes, if society is moving ever leftward, then those on the right may be seen as far-right, but that does not mean they are Nazis, anymore than if society moved rightward the left would be Stalinists.
The so-called “centrists” who designate conservatives as such, while then proceeding to align with most left-wing initiatives aren’t really centrists at all. They merely rely on the Overton Window to designate themselves as such. But if this is all it really takes to be a centrist, then does centrism, in any real political environment, actually exist?