The New Political Spectrum: Performative Extremists Versus the Rational Middle


For a long time now many of us have located ourselves politically in terms of a liberal/conservative binary. Are you a liberal or are you a conservative? Blue or Red? Left or Right?

What’s happened in the last 20 years has rendered this way of construing reality useless. Extremes on both sides of the spectrum have pushed so far beyond those terms as to be no longer identifiable with either one.

Liberalism has morphed into an illiberal ideology which is being termed “woke,” for want of a better shorthand designation. It is more accurate to term it, “identity politics,” or a framework that divides the world neatly into “oppressors” and “oppressed.”

Meanwhile, conservatism has morphed into something that is no longer recognizable as a coherent conservative world view but has hardened into the MAGA’s aggrieved populism and its pseudo-religious expression, “Christian nationalism.”

Andrew Sullivan made the point about the illiberalism of the left in writing about the CEO of National Public Radio, Katherine Maher. As Maher’s tweet and social media post trail have come to light, she has been routinely described as possibly “too liberal.” The implication is that all “good liberals” should jump to her defense in the face of now “former NPR” journalist Uri Berliner’s critique of NPR bias. Here’s Sullivan on Maher and what’s at stake:

“The point I have been trying to make for years now is that wokeness is not some racier version of liberalism, merely seeking to be kinder and more inclusive. It is, in fact, directly hostile to liberal values; it subordinates truth to ideology; it judges people not by their ability but by their identity; and it regards ideological diversity as a mere dog-whistle for bigotry. Maher has publicly and repeatedly avowed support for this very illiberalism. If people with these views run liberal institutions, the institutions will not — cannot — remain liberal for very long. And they haven’t. Elite universities are turning into madrassas, and media is turning into propaganda.”

As a case in point on the last bit here’s Columbia professor John McWhorter on the current “protests” on that campus:

“McWhorter encountered a problem while teaching a music humanities course: His students were unable to sit in silence as the class required because of ‘infuriated chanting from protestors outside the building.’

“In the New York Times, McWhorter wrote that ‘lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of ‘From the river to the sea.’ Two students in my class are Israeli; three others to my knowledge are American Jews. I couldn’t see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music.

“I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans, or even something like ‘D.E.I. has got to die’… Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I’d wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza War would view them that way, in fact. Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?” (italics added to this excerpt from “The Dispatch” newsletter)

Meanwhile, William Buckley or George Will would, I’ll wager, have a hard time recognizing Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, or Matt Gaetz (all Republican Congress members and their “Freedom Caucus” colleagues) as “conservative” in any reasonable sense of the term. They are populist demagogues, committed to destroying the institutions in which they serve. The same can of course be said for their leader, Donald Trump. If “conservative” is marked by respect for tradition and for the institutions that serve as guard rails for the excesses of individuals and groups, the current right isn’t by any stretch of the imagination “conservative.”

The point though is that the illiberal and un-conservative extremes are in the media driver’s seat, garnering way more clout and airtime than the actual numbers merit. Most U.S. citizens are neither the wokish/identitarian left nor MAGA/Christian Nationalist right. Most Americans are “normies,” people who don’t see politics as a Manichaean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil, but who see politics as a realm for compromise and proximate solutions to our various and complex societal problems.

MAGA and Christian Nationalism are cults of celebrity, willing to sacrifice the rule of law and the wisdom of tradition to a strongman/authoritarian who will break the rules to restore America to an imagined golden age.

Meanwhile, wokism’s ideology has eclipsed viewing people as individuals (to be judged by “content of their character, not the color of their skin”) in favor of seeing everyone through the prism of a group identity. Add in the idea that some groups are wholly virtuous, e.g. Palestinians, and others wholly evil, e.g. Jews, and you get a program that is, in its own way, totalitarian.

Bottom line: to continue to frame reality in a liberal/conservative binary is to be disastrously out of touch with reality and the threats to U.S. society and democracy that we actually face. The reality is a world of the performative extremists exploiting the public and political arena versus a rational middle who want a non-absolutist, problem-solving politics pursued by people humbly aware of their own limits as well as the limits of politics.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and accurate analysis, Tony. There is indeed a “rational middle” but it’s often intimidated into silence or simply turns away from the nasty fray. The media, as you note, tend to spotlight and publicize the loudest extremists. Can the center hold? Who knows?

  2. Sure there’s a rational middle?

    3 in 10 Americans reportedly believe the 2020 election was won by fraud. In the 2024 election, a number who understand that’s a lie, will vote for Trump anyway. I’m just skimming the surface of this here.

    There’s always a “middle” in some sense, if you figure there are two sides, but how much rational you see there seems like more of a question of faith.

    There have been people advocating for relatively extreme “left” policy for many generations, I suppose since the term “left” began to mean anything. It hasn’t meant a whole lot, in general, since this faction isn’t useful for anyone with a lot of money (i.e., corporate), the way the right wing faction is.

    They have been able to take hold in some places, I think notably the education establishment, going back to at least the ’70s, where ever since they have been able to provide the right wing with a convenient scarecrow field of foolish policy directions. But outside of that, over the decades, what has happened? Unions have been beaten back, taxes on the wealthy have gone down, pursuit of corporate monopoly has been reduced to a “consumer welfare” standard … American policy over the last half century has been a struggle between a “rational center” and corporate money, represented by the “right.” That’s going to continue.

  3. Thanks for this. Each side will say it’s not fair to compare it to the other, and on that point, each may be ignored.

  4. Although I agree that performative leftism is an issue, so is performative “liberalism”. Seattle is red-lined in terms of real estate. There’s almost no diversity north of South Lake Union and the Montlake cut. Boomers are happy to stay in their gigantic houses, accruing wealth by doing nothing except living there, and refuse to allow multi-family housing in their neighborhoods. They’re more than happy to welcome in Amazon, an awful company that exploits its workers, destroys the environment, and has absolutely ruined small business owners and the middle class in this city. Do all of the old white property owners in Seattle care? No, Amazon is good for them because it increases their property value, and allows them to buy stuff and ship it to their at homes (since all of the grocery stores and businesses on the north end are closing…because of Amazon). All of this at the expense of the middle class, or people in my generation, who have been forced to pay egregiously high rents in a city with no income tax, and no plan for affordable housing (I work in the non-profit sector and have been in Seattle since 2004. It was way better before Amazon showed up).

    Meanwhile, we equate anti-Israeli sentiment with antisemitism, which is sort of like assuming all white people are racist (which is what many uber-leftist people assume).

    There is no nuance to any conversations these days, and this article also lacks necessary nuance. Over 30,000 Gazans have been murdered since October, most of them women and children. Israel is a reactionary state ruled by a militaristic strongman, who is as illiberal and dangerous as Viktor Orban–or Donald Trump. Not sure why people are incapable of recognizing that. On top of which, Israel has no written constitution, has violated UN mandates since it’s inception in 1948, and has created an apartheid state supported by American intransigence. No mention of that?

    More civilians have been killed in Gaza than in the Ukraine War, which began in March 2021. No mention of that?

    No mention of the incredibly high tuition these students are paying? Where does that money go?

    My parents were in higher education. I assumed, when I was a kid, that everyone got a postdoctoral degree, because most of my family members had one.

    I didn’t go to graduate school because the prices are absurd, and student loan debt is a form of indentured servitude.

    My grandfather–who had a doctorate in divinity from Yale, and joined the seminary to do social work–would be appalled by the lack of compassion, generosity, and nuance in this country right now.

    Which applies to you, too, good sir, and you’re “article” (which isn’t really an article at all, it’s more of a half-formed blog post with random quotes from other publications).

  5. QED. That wasn’t “extremist” – likely more piled on a little deeper than usual, but fairly representative of the other side of what you hoped would be that rational center. Alas.

    Meanwhile, do we see the corporations working their way from the right? Not so much – these grievances come from the left side of the aisle, coopted by the real estate development industry’s push for supply sider deregulation on behalf of those oppressed by homeowners. Of course the financial industry can afford to buy both sides.

    The harder we look, the smaller the real rational center gets.


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