Blogs > Cliopatria > Middle of the Road ideologues?

Feb 23, 2005 3:58 pm

Middle of the Road ideologues?

Or, “A Rant of the Middle Way.”

Come on baby,
Get in the road.
Come on now,
In the middle of the road, yeah (The Pretenders).
I was just looking at a proposal for a senior capstone paper on the Wisconsin Idea. The student notes that Progressives saw themselves as mediating between two ideological extremes. That’s certainly the view of Charles McCarthy, who wrote the book The Wisconsin Idea. which the student is focusing on right now.

But why isn’t the middle ground an ideology? Most of the time we don’t speak of it that way. Ideologues are people who hold rigidly to a core set of beliefs. The people in the middle are not considered rigid. Certainly they don’t think of themselves that way.

Sometimes they see themselves as pragmatists: People who conclude (with apologies to Alexander Pope):

And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever works, is right.
Others almost ritually assume that the “truth is somewhere in between.” Isn’t that ideological—or certainly epistemological. We find the truth by looking between the extremes. Ideologues do evil at the extremes but we know better.

“The view’s better from here.” Another example from the Progressives. They believed that because they were in the Middle Class that they could see the flaws and the virtues of both labor and management, both the immigrant and the native born. Their vista was the truer one.

Given that they were thoroughly connected to the industrial order, this had more than a touch of the Puritan: they were in the capitalist world but not of it. We have no trouble speaking of Puritans as ideologues, so why not their distant descendants? And why didn’t they speak of themselves in that way?

So where are the ideologues of the middle way? Why don’t we have battle cries of “Down with the Extremists!” Why is there no graffiti threatening to line both sides up against the wall and shoot them?

Why do we leave it to the Pretenders to put a kick in the message?
In the middle of the road you see the darndest things
Like fakirs driving ’round in jeeps through the city
Wearing big diamond rings and silk suits
Past corrugated tin shacks full up with kids
Oh man I don’t mean a hampstead nursery
When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world
The babies just come with the scenery
Or is there a middle at all?
- - - -
PS. Jon’s post just below on “Pipe’s Privateers” is a marvel.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2005

I've been calling myself an "enraged moderate" for some time now. Kotsko's sniping aside, there's substantial political and epistemological power in pragmatic moderation and opposition to actions/solutions/policies that are theory-driven instead of fact-driven.

Sometimes moderates must take stands and take action: moderation is not passivity or agnosticism or majoritarianism, but an active engagement with events and ideas to find consensus consistent with the values of the community. It is not conservative or liberal in any meaningful sense of those words: moderates believe that progress is possible, but not inevitable; that the past is useful but not proscriptive; that the nation/community is valuable but not supreme; that rights are essential but in tension.... I could go on. But I've said enough for now.

Adam Kotsko - 2/23/2005

Wouldn't a true moderate sometimes be willing to have recourse to extremist solutions -- but in moderation? This knee-jerk rejection of all radicalism is dangerously radical!

Jon Christensen - 2/23/2005

There are "ideologues of the middle way" who cry “Down with the Extremists!”

These days they call themseves "the radical center." Google that phrase and you will find some of them, most notably in Ted Halstead and Michael Lind's book, The Radical Center: The Future of American Poilitics (2001) and out West at the Quivira Coalition which has issued an "invitation to the radical center" here (, for those ready to abandon the polarized extremes of the historic public lands debates.

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