You are here

What is "the middle way", really?

The politics of the last 8 years has, to a large extent, reflected a kind of desperation combined with ideological hubris. The desperation is a natural product of improvident economic policies (resulting in the credit crunch of 2007/2008) and improvident diplomatic/military policies (resulting in destabilizing several areas of the world). The ideological hubris is largely a cultural artifact of desperate times and intellectual and moral drift. A major outgrowth of both is the phenomenon of political correctness, a movement that has, in an Orwellian sense, attempted to purge the language and the culture of undesirable features.

The term "the middle way" is an idiom of politics founded on the idioms "left-wing" and "right-wing", terms that used to refer to "conservatism" and "reform", but that got largely twisted in historical terms, due to the conflation of psycho-social-political tendencies and ideology. In order to recapture the logic of "the middle way", it will be necessary to review the history of the terms "left wing" and "right wing" and recognize how these terms have been abused. It will also be necessary to revisit the abuses of "political correctness" and the tendency to purge the language of important cultural and historical idioms that serve as natural brakes on "reform".

In some measure, the election of Mr. Trump to the Presidency represents a reaction to improvident "reforms" of the culture, the economy and government. In historical terms, it is an act of desperation aimed at self-preservation.

Perhaps the backlash (or, if you prefer, the "whitelash") against purging the language and the culture will assert itself more seriously, and George Orwell's prophesy of doom will not be fulfilled. That will depend, of course, on whether sanity and comity return or whether the battle heats up and the pendulum swings (another idiom) radically in the opposite direction.

The idiom "the middle path" or "the middle way" is used to describe a means of bringing "left" and "right" together. The reality is that "left" and "right" are historically plastic terms which, themselves, radically altered through history. Originally used as a shorthand to refer to political alignments in the French Estates General (according to Wikipedia, see "Left-wing politics" and "Right-wing politics") according to whether representatives sat on "the left" in the chamber or on "the right".

In particular, please note the following from the article on "Right-wing politics" ...

Although the right-wing originated with traditional conservatives, monarchists and reactionaries, the term right-wing has been applied to extreme movements including fascists, Nazis, and racial supremacists.

That association between Nazism, fascism, racial supremacism and "right wing" was, at best, historically naive and arbitrary or, at worst, a political calculation to disparage all right-wing politics. Note the historical disparity between Germany's National Socialist German Worker's Party (Nazi) politics and the original conception of "right wing". Doesn't it strike you as odd that the term associated with conservatism in general should also be applied to a radical socialist movement bent upon transforming society at any cost? Note, too, that Wikipedia's article on fascism exposes the fact that it grew out of a form of socialism (termed "national syndicalism") that was nationalistic and authoritarian - a movement that, again, originated in French socialist "intellectual" circles!

There clearly are important differences between the reformers who (in the extreme) are prepared to tear up root and branch in the culture (according to a cultural exegesis which came to be called the "hermeneutic of suspicion") in order to bring about heaven on earth, and those who merely wish to address an existing abuse (such as ethnic, economic stratum or social marginalization) through the development of national consensus and legislation. The radical reformists, in this sense, are inherently dangerous to a culture and a polity, and are the subject of a number of anti-utopian novels of the 20th century.

In the same way, there are important differences between the ethno-nationalists who (in the extreme) are prepared to purge the nation of ethnic, cultural or social minorities and those who merely wish to reassert boundaries aimed at managing the chaos of immigration or who wish to rebuild military institutions in order to protect economic or diplomatic interests in the face of growing threats. There are also important differences between those who would expend national treasure (both economic and corporal) to reform the world in our national image and those whose ambitions are inherently defensive in nature.

There is an important sense in which conservatism may be regarded as a kind of historical caution, while reformist movements may become incautious. These are sociological and psychological matters which have much to do with politics but little to do with ideology. The historical fact is that ideology, as such, generally drives "radical reform" - reform that can be "reactionary" as well as "visionary". The confusion arising when terms like "right wing" vs. "left wing", originally aimed at distinguishing between conservative and reformist movements, are applied to radical historical ideologies (all of which are, by their own definition, "reformist") seriously undermines the political process.

There is value in adopting a "middle way" in the sense of approaching reform (when it is genuinely needed) in a way that builds consensus and avoids tearing up healthy roots and branches in the culture. Let society allow nature and God's inspiration to take their course, permitting unhealthy cultural outgrowths (including government cultures) to wither and die on their own. If we can understand the value of conservatism (generally speaking) as well as the value of reform movements (generally speaking) perhaps we can avoid the dangers of radicalism and the dangers of ossification.