A Shot Over the Bow of Centrism
An article from Jack Mirkinson at Salon makes several complaints about Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. While I am not inclined to defend Emanuel, given that most of the charges leveled at him seem to be accurate, I did find one complaint to be more subjective. Mirkinson writes:
He exemplifies a particularly loathsome breed of Democratic politician—the constantly triangulating, plutocrat-courting, privatizing so-called “centrist,” that so dominated the Bill Clinton years.
This criticism seems timely in the sense that we are just a few months away from that time when our two nominees for the American presidency will begin to moderate their positions in a bid for the majority of our electorate, It’s also interesting in that Mirkinson seems to make a distinction between “centrism” and “triangulation.” I’m guessing that by this he means that the former is, in theory, a more principled ideological position while the latter is the product of politics in the worse way.
My friend Dennis Sanders and I have both, at times, struggled to define what a moderate/progressive/center-right position looks like for ourselves. It’s a complicated proposition in a society that encourages our citizens to pick teams, whether it be in sports, your favorite soda or your political party. Once you have made that choice, if you feel a pull towards a position that is closer to the other side than some of your same team members, it can be an uncomfortable place.
It is believed by many that Centrism is the ideology of people who feel a compulsion towards compromise. That’s where the criticism of triangulation comes in. You define the two extremes of an issue and then champion a solution somewhere in-between. No one is really very satisfied with the result but it feels like the ball was moved forward a little bit. The question then becomes, if we have to water down our positions just to meet the other side in the middle, would it have been better to do nothing?
For someone like Emanuel, the reason why criticism is leveled is because it is assumed that he doesn’t hold very strongly to any particular principles. He just wants to reach agreements, promote them as achievements and stay in office. This assumes the worst of Emanuel, and I can only speculate whether or not this is true. What I can say though is that Centrism, true ideological Centrism, is a rare thing. It’s almost impossible to find anyone who holds enough positions smack in the middle of American politics that they can accurately define themselves as Centrists. More accurately, there are people on the Left and Right, fairly called moderates, that like to see progress. They don’t triangulate, but they are willing to at least have a conversation.
Jon Acuff said it best when he wrote, “Discourse in our country died the day we decided that if I disagree with you it means I hate you.” If there is one thing I can promise about this election year, it’s that we are going to forget the truth of that many times. We will stake out our corners of the conversation, circle the wagons with those on our team and assume much about the other side. It’s easier than looking for answers or trying to understand a position that seems incomprehensible to us. We don’t have to race to the middle. We don’t have to triangulate. We simply have to talk, try to understand the other side, and see where we end up.