Opinion The Center Can Hold Top Story

Center-Left and Center-Right Need to Team Up Against Extremists

We have more in common with each other than we do with the woke left or the reactionary right.

White House Washington
View of the White House in Washington DC from a helicopter, January 15, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

John F. Harris argues in Politico that the center-right anti-Trump movement could outlive the president and make common cause with the center-left.

Both oppose efforts to stifle free thinking and the bullying of those who dissent from ideological or racial orthodoxy, he writes.

James Bennet was recently fired as opinion editor of The New York Times for publishing an incendiary op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton. A Boeing spokesman resigned over an article he wrote 33 years ago, as a young Navy lieutenant, in which he argued against women in combat. There are countless other examples of Americans losing their jobs for holding the “wrong” opinion or for merely giving a platform to the wrong opinion.

“If we lived under some fickle absolutist king, who arbitrarily decided what was offensive, outrageous or even criminal, we’d all recognize the illiberalism of it,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his newsletter. “But when a mob arbitrarily rules the same way, we call it social justice.”

The pro-Trump right loves to hate on left-wing cancel culture, yet they have purged many Trump critics from conservative media, organizations and think tanks. Under the guise of free speech, Trump wants the federal government, not social-media companies, to decide what the likes of Facebook and Twitter can publish. So much for free enterprise. (And have Republicans considered what a Democratic administration might do with such power?)

Traditional conservatives and liberals also share an interest in propping up institutions, which the Bernie Sanders left and the Trump right agree are beyond repair. The far left wants to abolish the Electoral College, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and in some cases the police. The far right wants to uproot the media, universities and the Washington “deep state”. The center-left and center-right argue for reform.

Harris wonders if the alliance will endure beyond the election:

Once Trump leaves, so too will the incentives that drove liberals and conservatives together in opposition.

But defeating Trump in November will not necessarily defeat the authoritarian right.

Common defense

Yascha Mounk, a political scientist, puts it well in the announcement of his own newsletter, Persuasion.

Liberal democracy is threatened by the populist right:

From Brasília to Warsaw and from Delhi to Washington, authoritarian populists are attacking free speech, stoking the ugliest passions of bigots and racists and concentrating power in their own hands.

And by the far left:

Companies and cultural institutions fire innocent people for imaginary offenses; prominent voices alternate between defending cancel culture and denying its existence; and an astonishing number of academics and journalists proudly proclaim that it is time to abandon values like due process and free speech.

Mounk has brought together principled center-left thinkers, like Sheri Berman and Thomas Chatterton Williams, as well as Never-Trump conservatives, like Jonathan Haidt, David French and David Frum, in a common defense of liberal democracy.

I argued soon after Trump’s inauguration that those of us on the center-right who prize liberal democracy and the rule of law over party loyalty should do just that.

It’s true for American conservatives, whose party now has more in common with the European far right than Britain’s Conservative Party or Germany’s Christian Democrats.

It’s true for European conservatives and right-wing liberals, some of whom, like the Republicans in France and the People’s Party in Spain, still flirt with far-right nationalists.


There are exceptions:

  • Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator who voted to convict Donald Trump for abusing the power of the presidency.
  • Mark Rutte, the liberal Dutch prime minister who has become a champion of climate-change legislation and walks a fine line on culture-war issues.
  • Angela Merkel, the conservative German chancellor who banned nuclear power, legalized gay marriage and admitted some one million Syrian refugees.

But this short list also suggests the challenge isn’t just convincing the center-right to work with the left; it is convincing the left to accept such alliances.

Especially on the American left, French writes, many place onerous preconditions on their alliances; they “believe you have to join them on everything before they’ll work with you on anything.”

They’re not seeking converts. They’re hunting heretics.

When Romney ran against Barack Obama in 2012, Democrats portrayed him as a heartless plutocrat who was in thrall to the far right. They demonized a decent, center-right former businessman and governor, which helped persuade at least some decent, center-right voters in 2016 to back Trump in the Republican primaries and the general election.

As one voter told The Atlantic that year:

Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?

Rutte is criticized abroad for taking a hard line on crisis aid to Southern Europe and not being woke enough on culture-war issues. He resisted legislation to end the Netherlands’ blackface “Black Pete” tradition, arguing change needed to come from the bottom up. And it has. Support for Black Pete is falling. Rutte has so far refused to issue a formal apology for the Dutch slave trade, but he has moved to the left on racism and is staking out a new middle ground between the woke left and the reactionary right; or, as he puts it, those who insist every white person is racist and those who deny racism exists.

Merkel is now praised for her liberal tendencies, but not so long ago she was accused of not being “bold” enough on an array of issues. Like Rutte, she is an incrementalist. Both leaders need to be careful not to move too far to the center or they will create a space for the far right.

Not helping

Calling moderate Republicans “fascists” or Rutte a “racist” doesn’t help convince center-right voters they must throw in their lot with the center-left. Nor does toppling statues of American Civil War general Ulysses Grant or Dutch East Indies governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

In Europe, moderate leftists and liberals understand and are speaking out against the excesses of the far left. Few of their counterparts in the United States do, which could give swing voters (who do exist and who like Joe Biden) the impression that fanatics have taken over the Democratic Party.

Especially when right-wing media, like Fox News, can be counted on to amplify and exaggerate every example of woke overkill.

Haidt warned in 2016 that what he called “status-quo conservatives” can be drawn into an alliance with the authoritarian right if they believe progressives have “subverted the nation’s identity and traditions so badly that only dramatic political action can stop them anymore.”

The American left didn’t listen to him in 2016 and unwittingly radicalized Trumpland. It should heed his advice in 2020 — or we might suffer four more years of Trump’s madness.