One of the worst parts of the 2020 presidential race is how easy it is for “moderates” to take up the perceived better “center” position. The worst example is for universal healthcare. The center is put between what we currently have and what Bernie is proposing. However, even this center position is hard to follow through with since relative to the planet we are the extreme, even the moderate’s center position. Bernie has a normal plan actually. However, it is still somewhat interesting to see where this method of taking the center comes from and why the “enlightened centrism” jokes accurately depict what has gone wrong
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wanted to define what being virtuous is. He saw that for many virtues, there were two extreme ends and one “middle” part. For example, too much courage is just being rash and too little courage is being a coward. Courage is somewhere in the middle, but he does not say that it is exactly the middle. For courage, he says that it is closer to being rash than it is to cowardice. This is due to the fact that most people are cowards so the courageous person cannot be close to the cowardice end. Similarly, most people look at the courageous person like they are rash when in reality they are just being virtuous.
This virtuous mean only works for certain things though. He says that there is no mean for murder. This makes sense because there is no extreme ends for murder, it is not like between no murder and some other extreme there is a virtuous mean to be found. Someone who murders another immediately shows that they are not virtuous. So even Aristotle posited that there are things that there is no mean to be found in.
Rosseau thought that the solution to the problems of civil society meant participatory democracy. For a state, the only way to counter the unruly social emotions of amour propre, jealousy, and back-door party politics, everyone needs to get in a room and talk about the problems at hand. Additionally, people cannot talk about politics outside of it. Everyone is supposed to lay out their arguments and their facts for their case and everyone’s case. If people talk about things outside of this room, then it makes it possible for people to be convinced in private and not in public, defeating the purpose of the general will.
The general will works like this. Say there is a town that needs to build a road. The town can only afford to build a certain number of miles of road at this point. They figure out that the best way to do it now is to have a main road that fits the most people. One citizen objects and says that they are going to have to pay the same amount of taxes for the road despite them not being able to use it since they live far away. The people see his complaint and they give him so options to accomade his valid concern. They can make it such that the people who benefit off the road are going to be be the ones who pay the larger share of taxes and/or they can put in a plan to make sure that once they pay off that road they will then move out to the homes that are farther away.
This method stops people from being angry and feel like they have been not treated equally. This can still go wrong in a sense though. The person who lives far away may refuse to be swayed by reason. It is in the power of the general will to move forward without this person if they do not want to find some sort of solution.
America has its own political history with this as well. There seemed to be an issue with the fact that certain states that have more people would have an unequal power in the US congress. One side, the Virginia plan, proposed that the number of representatives in the legislative branch would be proportional to the state’s popualtion. The other side, the Connecticut plan, proposed an equal amount for each state regardless of population. The compromise came to be why we have two chambers of the legislative branch. The House is what came to be of the Virginia plan and the Senate the Connecticut plan.
The virtuous mean, the general will, and the great compromise show us that solving disagreements takes more nuance than just finding the center. This nuance is what is missing in a lot of political issues in the United States. These cheap arguments keep working over and over and have infected our political minds because people think most of the problems in this country are on some 1-dimensional scalar of left to right. We can raise taxes or lower them. We can increase funding for gov programs or lower them. We can find a middle ground for abortion. We can find a middle ground for climate change that accomodates the businesses and the planet. The more you hash out these arguments, you just realize that the middle ground sometimes does not exist or is incoherent, or even worse it defeats the purpose of solving the problem entirely.