Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

‘Reactionary Centrism,’ the Left’s Hot New Insult for Liberals

New jargon just dropped.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

The long history of factional warfare between the left and center-left has produced an array of epithets, usually directed by the former against the latter: social fascist (the Comintern’s insult for social democrats who opposed communism), Cold War liberal, corporate liberal, and neoliberal (a term embraced by a handful of moderate liberals and used as an insult against a great many more), to name a few.

As the sting of an insult wears off, new ones must come along to replace them. Recently, a new bit of jargon has taken hold: “reactionary centrist.”

The term originates from a 2018 essay by progressive activist and former Democratic House aide Aaron Huertas. It has been picked up and circulated by left-wing commentators like Jeet Heer, Michael Hobbes, and Thomas Zimmer.

Huertas defined a reactionary centrist as “someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Zimmer, in a recent podcast, said, “The term refers to people who claim to be moderate, in the middle, while always punching left.”

This definition applies, at least loosely, to some of the “reactionary centrists” they criticize. But while some “reactionary centrists” (David Brooks, Bari Weiss, Shadi Hamid*) reside on the center-right, many more reside on the center-left (the New York Times editorial page, Matthew Yglesias, me, among others). Very few of these “reactionary centrists” always or even usually criticize the left. The actual standard, and the term’s most commonly applied usage, is an insult for liberals who sometimes criticize the left.

The left-wing condemnations of “reactionary centrism” have both a minimalist and a maximalist version. The minimalist version argues that, since the right poses the greatest danger to liberal democratic values, it distorts reality to focus on the left as if its flaws are greater. I happen to agree with this version of the argument, and my work product (the overwhelming majority of which is directed against the right) reflects this belief.

But the left’s critique frequently slips into a maximalist version, which holds that, since the right poses the greatest danger to liberal democratic values, one should never criticize the left. Leftists who believe this don’t usually say it quite this bluntly. But their arguments leave no room for forceful criticism of the left, at least not in any terms that might be used by conservatives. Internal criticism from the left — scolding an ally for their lack of fervor — or criticism on purely personal or tactical grounds is exempt. But any “punching left,” or “scolding activists” as the sin is sometimes described, is forbidden on grounds of aiding the enemy.

A related version of this argument demands that liberals restrain their criticism of the left rather than engage in “left-bashing that empowers actual enemies of free speech.” None of these critics accept any such limits on their criticism of the liberals. It is a one-sided demand: The liberals must abstain from criticizing the left — or criticize only in the most respectful terms — because uninhibited attacks on the left help the right. The left, on the other hand, is free to attack liberals without inhibition. One cannot help but suspect the point of these rules is winning intra-left factional conflicts, not national elections.

So what are the liberals supposed to do if we believe the left is wrong about something? Having read or listened to several expositions on the evils of reactionary centrism, I have yet to find any usable guidance for such an instance. All the arguments I have seen assume away any such possibility.

Huertas, in his foundational essay on the phenomenon, comes close at one point to acknowledging the possibility that a liberal critic may be correct, before veering away.

“If progressive groups are doing something you can describe as distasteful or beneath you, or ineffective,” he writes, “that’s an excuse to avoid the hard work of participating in the progressive political movements that are actually trying to make our politics better.” You might believe progressive groups are misguided, but rather than saying so, you should simply work harder, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

To illustrate how his principle would operate in practice, Huertas turns to a specific issue: climate change. He cites criticism of the climate movement, Huertas’s area of speciality, by Steven Pinker: “Pinker’s book admonishes the left to change its stances on climate policy. But why not tell the right to change their stances instead?” Huertas’s point is not that Pinker’s specific criticisms of the left are wrong. (I have not read Pinker’s book, and can’t judge them.) It’s that it is reactionary centrism, and therefore wrong, to criticize the left at all.

Rather than take issue with progressive activists, he proposes, the correct response is to support them:

“So what does an alternative path look like on an issue like climate change? In short, trying to win. The climate mobilization last year showed how interconnected groups can work together to build political power around a platform of climate, jobs and justice. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the People’s Climate March, for instance, are doing more work to protect voting rights in marginalized communities — the same predominately black and Latinx communities that are the most likely to suffer from environmental injustice and the most reliable voters for environmental champions.”

This is a revealing example, though not in the way Huertas thinks. The climate-justice movement coalesced around a strategy of blocking fossil-fuel pipelines and infrastructure and empowering local activists to prevent new construction. Many critics have argued, persuasively in my view, that these policies have driven up gasoline prices in the short term — contributing enormously to Biden’s unpopularity — and made it impossible to build out the green-energy infrastructure required to fulfill the ambitions in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Obviously, arguments in favor of this strategy exist. The point is that the merit of the progressive-activist line is precisely the question that needs to be determined. Huertas’s argument is that questioning the progressive line — say, by arguing that empowering local activists to block new construction makes climate change worse — is reactionary centrism.

Another recent contretemps pinpoints the issue even more clearly. Not long ago, I wrote a column arguing that, contrary to the position maintained by progressive activists, there is a legitimate debate over how (and how quickly) to transition children who question their gender identity. I drew upon extensive reporting in the Atlantic, Reuters, and the New York Times. Zimmer used my column as a textbook example of his concept of reactionary centrism. Note that while the putative definition of the term is a writer who always or usually criticizes the left, here he is applying it to a single instance of criticizing the left — revealing, once again, that the term’s practical usage has quickly evolved into an all-purpose epithet against any dissent from the progressive line.

Gabriel Rosenberg, a Duke professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, laid out the reasoning in even more stark terms. “I see no evidence that any of the journalism Chait mentions provides any added value to the debate for the parties most directly affected by it,” he wrote. Of course, while I find the reporting amassed by those journalists to be quite impressive, it’s entirely possible they have all gotten the story wrong, and Rosenberg is free to question their findings. But his point is not that their conclusions are wrong in the specifics. His point is that they have no right to make inquiries into the subject at all:

The broader point I’m trying to make here is that while journalists have a particular view of their profession that they believe empowers them to unilaterally decide what qualifies as a matter of public interest and what are credible debates in the various communities they cover, there’s no reason why other people have to defer to their judgments. And they don’t. To the contrary, there are many people who disagree that what Chait calls the “medical debate” about GAC is even appropriately public in the same way that tax policy and electoral politics are matters of general public concern. They question why there needs to be a large public debate about it at all, whether on Twitter or in the pages of New York Magazine, especially if it is to be organized by people who lack any scientific expertise or material interest in the issue. [Emphasis added.]

Here is the unvarnished belief system that the attacks on “reactionary centrism” are being used to defend. Whatever line is being taken by progressive activists is held to be the authentic stance of affected communities, and any dissent from that line is, ipso facto, an attack on those communities. Even the question of what those communities actually believe — and all the stories I cite indeed show real disagreement within the trans community — is not subject to inquiry. Shut up, he explained.

The deeper dispute at work here is the epistemology of the progressive movement. Large segments of the left believe that any position taken by progressive activists is the authentic representation of subaltern communities, and any questioning of that position is by definition an expression of bigotry. “Reactionary centrism” is the latest cudgel for people whose ideology is organized around preventing thought.

*For the record, even though his domestic commentary mostly consists of criticizing liberals and Democrats from the right, Hamid self-identifies as left-of-center.

‘Reactionary Centrism,’ the Left’s New Insult for Liberals