The Middle

A while back on Michael Sean Winters’ blog, I was kindly addressed as a “rising magenta millennial“, which I agree with mostly — I am ‘magenta’ and ‘millennial’ anyway. More recently my ‘political homelessness’ was a feature of my interview with Solidarity Hall. (Part of a great series they’re doing, I might add!)

I’m intrigued by this concept of magenta-ness, which takes its concept from bucking the usual red/blue political binary. Pope Francis has been called politically ‘magenta‘, for instance, for noting that abortion is tied up to a host of social problems, and is not the social problem, but one among many. This is seen as being between the ‘red’ (conservative) position on abortion (e.g. it is the paradigmatic evil of our age) and the ‘blue’ position on abortion (e.g. it is a valid reproductive choice.)

But I’ve got a bone to pick with the way ‘magenta’ is commonly read. I think because magenta tends to read as a nice balance of red and blue, it is imagined as a kind of midway point on a spectrum between far right and far left. This is often read as automatically more sensible than either extreme. But I think this is firstly a bad reading of how one can be ‘magenta’ for a couple of reasons, and secondly a facile take on the de-facto rightness of centrism.

1.) It’s not wise to think of any borrowing from poles as producing centrism.

This is to say, there are two ways to make magenta: you can arrange blue and red on a spectrum and ping the middle, or you can have a pot of red and a pot of blue and scoop out what you want from each and mix them. This will give you really different political results. You can have, for instance, someone who advocates for essentially socialist answers to economic problems and social problems, meaning that while they agree with conservatives on what social problems are (e.g. broken families, abortion, fractured communities, high incarceration) they don’t agree whatsoever on how to address them. Now, there are some who wouldn’t see those things as social problems at all (probably with the exception of high incarceration rates) which means that there are some grounds for saying that recognizing them as such is a ‘red’ tendency. But the actual praxis is ‘blue’ all the way. So such a person would be ‘magenta’, yes — but not remotely centrist.

2.) American ‘blue’ and American ‘red’ are not the only ideological poles out there.

For one, they’re reversed. American ‘red’ is conservative, while American ‘blue’ is understood as progressive — elsewhere in the world, red is associated with socialism, and blue with conservatism. In America, ‘red’ goes with Republican and ‘blue’ with Democrat — but of course, if you find yourself halfway between a Republican and Democrat, you’re a conservative.

I say this because American politics, while ‘polarized’, don’t have the same spread as politics elsewhere in the world. We don’t have, for instance, a communist party that gets an honest hearing, we don’t have a Christian socialist party, we don’t even have an (openly) fascist party — probably fortunate, on that latter count. The point is that there are some very basic political priorities that Republicans and Democrats don’t really dispute whatsoever; you don’t hear either party seriously campaigning for, say, single-payer healthcare, universal basic income, mandatory paid state maternity leave, etc. They tend to agree that most security should come through the market, that there should be recourse for those who ‘fall through the cracks’, and that part of America’s exceptionalism is tied up in that market preference. Say what you will about all that, but it does mean there are some people who don’t actually find an ideological home in either party.

So, yes: you can note that American politics are highly polarized (with a number of people being politically ‘homeless’ in that they’d like a little from each party) while also noting that the poles are actually pretty close together, and that there are a lot of people who are either further to the right than Republicans (libertarians et al) or further to the left than the Democrats (I think they call us emoprogs.) The point being that being magenta shouldn’t position you between Republicans and Democrats necessarily; I don’t think most political climates would recognize such a position as ‘magenta’ as much as a very cool-toned red, in the American language of political colors.

3.) Let’s not get too attached to the center just because it’s moderate.

There’s a kind of Aristotelian tendency in American politics and public discourse to suppose the moderate option is the best. For this reason you have a tradition in American politics of people trying to claim rightness simply by positioning themselves sensibly between what appear to be two extremes.

This is one of the many things that drives me up the wall about Christian political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. Niebuhr often wants to claim he’s neither an idealist who believes the state can solve everything and inculcate all goodness into all people solving all spiritual and material problems; nor a dreary pessimist who believes the state can solve nothing and inculcate no goodness into anyone and never solve any spiritual or material problems ever. This latter pessimistic position he attributes to St. Augustine. His reading of Augustine here is very wrong. (I wrote my master’s thesis on this, and it’s still kinda stuck in my craw.) But you can see in Niebuhr making his case why he wants to appear moderate, and why this leads to a terrible misrepresentation of Augustine.

He wants to appear moderate, in short, because he wants to tap into that American tendency to see the middle way as prima facie sensible. It’s a good strategy to make people huffy and embarrassed about refusing to hear you out. But it’s also sometimes pure rhetoric: many of Niebuhr’s political positions were and remain rather far to the left, regardless of what he may have wanted to do in order to make them seem politically palatable. This desire to depict himself as wholly moderate requires him to paint up a couple of poles to sit between. This means he wound up either intentionally or unintentionally reading Augustine’s political theology incorrectly. And what a shame: if he had been willing to see him as more an ally than the dude standing there with a sign reading “Niebuhr Is Not This Bad” he would’ve actually found an interesting traditional precedent for some of his own politics. So his political pragmatism damages his theological credibility.

And this is equally what’s frustrating about, say, the popularity of Jon Stewartish politics, which simultaneously poxes both their houses and suggests that despite the utter stupidity of both parties, what comes between them must be right. It would seem rather that if you have two horrible options, the mid-way option smack in the center of them stands a decent chance of just being a mixture of two types of horrible. But the really irritating thing about the smugness of the center is that it suggests wherever it locates its poles there must be extremity, when in reality that just isn’t necessarily the case. This has the effect of needlessly narrowing people’s political horizons, and convincing them when they do encounter something that falls outside the poles of the politics they’re used to, they must’ve encountered something extremely extreme and thus extremely nonserious and obviously insane.

So in closing — magenta, yes. Centrist, not at all. Defined by the polarity of American partisan politics? Not even close. I know, I know: go ahead, throw your vote away. You got me, Kodos and Kang.

Note: I know this is a light-hearted post on what is for many a very solemn and somber day. If you or yours are suffering on this very sad anniversary, please know that I hope peace and healing find you wherever you are.