Mark: Something I’ve been noticing lately is that the perjorative “centrist” has been getting applied with increasing regularity to an entirely new group of people by both left and right. Historically, it’s been a term that referred to establishment elites who, while having any number of letters after their name (D, R, Ind.) ultimately have a fairly unified ideology. I’m thinking here of people like David Broder, Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, and Ben Nelson. Beyond that, to the extent this group practices journalism, it is most often criticized for instituting a sort of faux-neutrality under the guise of objectivity. Recently, though, the term has been flying fast and furious at people – often dissident conservatives and libertarians – who have next to nothing in common with this group beyond an equal distaste for the most vocal elements of movement conservatism and movement liberalism. Indeed, on the political map, this group of so-called “centrists” is almost the polar opposite of the Broderites: where Broderites tend to be in favor of restrictions on any number of social issues (e.g., the War on Drugs, smoking bans, video game ratings, etc.), the other “centrists” are mostly radical libertarians on these issues; where Broderites tend to be hawkish advocates of American exceptionalism, the other “centrists” are largely non-interventionists. On the welfare state, the Broderites are incrementalists – always willing to support “reforms,” but only as long as the reforms are small and unambitious; by contrast these other “centrists” (at least to the minimal extent you and I are representative) are willing to support reforms, but only if those reforms are significant and structural, while also fiscally responsible.
If the “centrist” perjorative is going to be thrown this way, it seems worth asking whether (and how) this new group of so-called centrists can claim the mantle of “makers of conventional wisdom” from the Broders and Liebermans of the world and eventually create a new conventional wisdom.
Erik:That’s an interesting thought – “a new conventional wisdom.” I wouldn’t have thought of it that way because that’s often not how a political fight is viewed, but it’s a very good way to frame this issue nonetheless.
I have noticed that more and more positions that are not in line with either the conservative or liberal movement are derided as “centrist.” But even beyond the movement this can be the case. You have non-movement conservatives who are very socially conservative who will use that label against more liberal conservatives like myself. The same thing goes on in the left.
I think part of the problem here is that people latch on to an ideology and then don’t allow their thinking to run its course to the natural implications of that ideology. So you want more than just limited government, you want almost every shred of the state removed from our daily lives – fine, but how will that actually play out beyond the theoretical system? So-called centrists are labeled as such because they admit that there is no viable means to achieving the sort of minimalist state envisioned by many on the right, and also because they quite fairly observe that leadership on the right has never made much of an effort to actually implement small-government reforms to begin with.
When you actually look at the system we have, and then try to draw a policy roadmap toward the system you want, you start to realize that it’s much more complicated than simply calling for less statism. Especially in matters such as healthcare, where I find many of the free market arguments lacking in terms of practicality. They are very theoretically sensible, but when it all comes down to it, a better way in my opinion is implementing as many market-friendly reforms as possible (competition, interstate sale of insurance, possibly health-status insurance, etc.) while still having the state involved in one form or another, either as a reinsurer or as a provider of a strong safety net for the less fortunate.
But even mentioning that the private market and the government can actually work together to provide a good system for Americans is a surefire way to be labeled a centrist and written off. It either has to be all free market all the time or something approaching single-payer.
Mark: Or at least in the direction of single-payer.
I think a lot of this problem stems from the fact that we continue to insist on viewing the political spectrum as necessarily linear, with Broderism defining the center, Limbaugh-ism defining the right, and Michael Moore-ism defining the Left. The result of this warped view is that anyone who isn’t easily pegged as Left or Right is immediately decried as a Broderite centrist. Of course, in terms of national politicians, this linear view tends to have quite a bit going for it, as Paul Krugman pointed out
a few months back.
But in terms of how individual Americans outside of the beltway act, I’m not at all certain that things are so linear. Sure, there are no doubt a fair share of Broder-types outside the beltway (someone’s electing Joe Lieberman, after all), but in a nation of more than 300 million people, it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t a very significant contingent of people who don’t fit particularly well in either political coalition, but who also aren’t terribly big fans of what passes for centrism in the linear view of politics. This contingent is virtually ignored in large-scale politics, and winds up with little to no representation. But it’s a significant contingent nonetheless, and every so often, a third party candidate seems to emerge who tries to mobilize it: John Anderson, Ross Perot, and this year in New Jersey, my candidate of choice, Chris Daggett. These candidates, when they emerge, typically peak around 15-20 percent in the polls, although their final vote tallies often dwindle on election day (thanks in part, I suspect, to their lack of the infrastructure necessary for a good “ground game” on election day). So while this group of voters is not remotely large enough to win elections on its own, it is probably almost as large (if not as large) as centrists of the Broder variety.
What is so strange to me is that the Broder-type centrists have had ample representation in one or (usually) both of the major political parties for quite some time, while these other so-called centrists wind up having to rely on third party candidates who could no longer get the time of day in either major party. Joe Lieberman gets to stay in the Democratic Party; Arlen Specter got to stay in the GOP for decades, and then had no qualms putting a (D) next to his name; but folks like Anderson, Daggett, and for that matter Bob Barr felt compelled to abandon both major parties before engaging in their respective runs.
Stranger still is that I suspect partisans on both sides would much rather have people like Anderson, Perot, and Daggett in their coalition than people like Lieberman, Specter, and Snowe. Yet it’s the former group that feels least comfortable in coalition politics, while the latter group always has a sizable representation in one or both parties and, as the swing votes on any given issue, effectively dictates the way the country is run.
It seems that a big chunk of the problem in American politics isn’t, as partisans seem to think, that the American center needs to be moved left or right, East or West, but instead that the center needs to be moved North. By focusing on the East-West battle, however, partisans simply assure that the all-too-critical center of American politics stays in the (figurative) South.
Erik: So do you think that this is all a matter of misunderstanding? That partisans on the left and the right both make accusations of centrism for the wrong reasons? It seems to me that when someone on the left criticizes someone on the right of centrism they tend to tack on a perjorative like “cowardly.” This despite the fact that they probably hold more in common with those people than with hardcore right-wingers. This accusation of cowardice seems misguided if what you’re saying is true.
Mark: I don’t know that it’s necessarily a misunderstanding. The cowardice line of attack (and the related “the only thing in the middle of the road are….” line of attack) is usually lazy, but it’s also easy to see where it comes from. Certainly, from the perspective of the partisan true believer who sincerely thinks that the purported philosophy underlying his movement is perfectly consistent with every position his movement advocates, anyone who finds themselves on a different side of the issue from both movements would look like a squishy centrist without any ideological mooring. And let’s be honest, the establishment centrists (as opposed to the group of outsider centrists) don’t often seem to have any kind of principled mooring beyond “let’s split the difference between the two movements.” Still, at some point, the centrism that now defines the political establishment probably had some clearly principled moorings, or at least consisted of pundits and politicians who individually had some clearly principled moorings.
Mike at the Big Stick
has made the point on a number of occasions that he hates the word “centrist” because it’s usually inaccurate, and that he’d prefer people say that Person A is “conservative on Issue X and liberal on Issue Y.” I have some objections to this formulation, but I think it also makes an important point about the nature of the unrepresented centrists. Where the Broderite centrists are centrists in the sense that on almost every issue, they will agree 50% with the movement liberals and 50% with the movement conservatives, the unrepresented centrists are centrists only in the sense that they will agree with liberal on about 1/3 of the issues, with conservatives on about another 1/3, and on the remaining 1/3 will agree with neither. Neither our discourse nor our political representation recognizes this distinction.
Erik: Very true. How much of this is also simply about wars within the parties themselves? I just wrote a post about coalitions which got me thinking that the centrist claim is, often as not, a way to simply undermine an opposing coalition within the larger party. Of course other terms like “RINO” are used even more often, but in the same context.
Mark: Quite a bit of it, I’m sure. But it’s pretty easy to sympathize with the movement-types in those battles, given that, as the Krugman piece I linked to previously notes, the way in which these factions line up in our current politics turns out to be very linear. So a Collins or a Snowe really is virtually indistinguishable from a Lieberman or a Baucus; in some cases, the (D) may even be more conservative than the (R) on just about all issues….at that point, the term RINO seems quite appropriate. The trouble is that there is this whole group of untapped so-called centrists who are virtually unrepresented in politics, and who don’t fit on that linear view of American politics. Perhaps they are ill-suited for coalition politics, whereas Broderite centrists, with their flexibility across issues, can form a necessary but untrustworthy element of any given political coalition. A few weeks ago, the RNC proposed a sort of litmus test for its candidates requiring that they abide by 7 out of 10 vague principles; it’s not difficult to see the DNC doing something similar. Because of the vagaries of these principles, it would not be difficult for a given Broderite to fit within 70% of each parties hypothetical litmus tests. It would, however, be impossible for many of these other so-called “centrists” to fit within 70% of either party’s principles, no matter how vague.
Erik: Then I think the question becomes, where do these unrepresented centrists/independents turn?
Mark: I’m not sure there’s many places for them to turn. This group is too disorganized to ever mount any kind of sustained third party effort, although you will continue to get the occasional politician who can make a decent independent showing on the strength of their ability to appeal to this group. Certainly, it would help if more members of this group could rise to influential positions within the beltway media, although I have no idea how they might succeed in doing that. I suspect the real answer is that the best that can be done is to get involved in grassroots and direct lobbying efforts on single issues or limited sets of issues. This may in fact be this group’s biggest advantage over the establishment centrists, in that the establishment centrists are ill-equipped for activism, while the outsider “centrists,” with their support for maximalist or near-maximalist positions on any given issue, are quite well-suited for activism on multiple fronts.