In recent years, several if not dozens of moderate or centrist groups have popped up. Their appearance is an understandable response to reflexive partisanship and political dysfunction. However, the call for centrism — the centrist temptation — as a solution to partisan gridlock reveals a misunderstanding of the underlying problem, and therefore, of the proper solution for how to reinvigorate America’s stagnant and unrepresentative political process.
First off, there are two interrelated causes of partisanship. One cause is the simple fact that people, on the basis of their personal convictions, disagree about first principles. They disagree over how to define or what constitutes “freedom,” “fairness,” “justice,” “the good,” and so forth.
Secondly, and relatedly, people with similar sets of beliefs and first principles realize that the best way for them to effect change is to organize politically. Because of our first-past-the-post (or “plurality”) electoral model and “tactical voting,” our institutional design produces a two-party system. Therefore, those who want to effect change organize around two political parties, and this is what causes partisanship.
While our Founders certainly warned of the perils of political parties, they also quickly found them to be necessary.
For instance, because a certain subset of the population — particularly northerners — were connected to manufacturing and commerce, they supported John Adams and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which advocated a “nationalist” big-government platform that included a national bank and protective tariffs.
Southerners, led by figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, formed an oppositional Democratic-Republican Party that favored policies rooted in limited government, states’ rights, and agrarianism.
In short, partisanship is a fact of political life, and its underlying basis is conflicting values, beliefs, and interests.
Andy Smith, a field manager for the Centrist Project and a contributor to IVN, writes: “the political middle has existed in a vacuum between the two parties,” and, while remarking on the stances of centrists, adds:
Broad national issues such as fiscal responsibility and social inclusiveness are prominently featured on their websites. Government reforms are highlighted as a means to fix partisanship, and buzzwords like “common sense,” “pragmatic,” and “problem solver” reoccur frequently.
However, these buzzwords announce nothing about the content of centrist positions, as terms such as “fiscal responsibility,” “social inclusiveness,” and “common sense” are quite ambiguous.
The problem with centrism and moderation is that — in their most basic meanings — they are relative rather than substantive terms. They refer to a relationship between two poles and display no inherent values. Or, as one scholar described Friedrich Nietzsche’s take on this political orientation:
…a tepid philosophy for tepid souls devoid of any deep-rooted, personal convictions, ever ready to compromise, to swim with the prevailing current, to dilute whatever remained of their [own] beliefs in a bouillon of tasteless “moderation.”
Centrists and moderates mark what they are against rather than what they are for, and what they are against, in a word, is “extremism.”
Perhaps the greatest refutation of “moderation” comes from Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
At the time, his activism in favor of desegregation and civil equality was characterized as extremism, not only by white racists, but also by white “do-nothing” moderates, including President Kennedy, who agreed with his goals but not with his politically controversial “rabble-rousing” methods.
In response to the accusation of extremism, King wrote:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. […] [T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
Let us not forget that, throughout history, it was weak-kneed moderates who initially opposed the demands of abolitionists, labor organizers, suffragettes, and civil rights leaders on the grounds that they were “extreme.”
When reading about centrism, I question how it would figure in contemporary debates. For instance, what are the centrist or moderate positions on gay marriage, health care, drone strikes in Pakistan, or the death penalty? Should there be — can there be — a moderate position on them?
If centrism does have one enduring value, it is consensus. However, consensus itself is also value-neutral: there can be constructive consensus or destructive consensus.
Andy Smith cites the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) as a praiseworthy centrist organization, of which former president Bill Clinton is an ornament, but Clinton’s presidency — marked particularly by his rightward shift (a policy called “triangulation“) following the 1994 Republican Revolution — showcases the possible detriments of consensus and compromise.
For instance, it was President Clinton who adopted the moderate yet still discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. His 1996 Republican-led welfare reform pushed millions of needy families and children into greater insecurity, and his bipartisan repeal of the Glass-Steagall firewall between commercial and investment banking precipitated the 2008 financial crisis.
Forced consensus and the melding of alternative approaches can also be a recipe for awkward and confusing policies that complicate the problems they attempt to fix. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), a hybrid policy that fused conservative, free-market ideas and progressive, big-government ideas, is one such example.
In short, the call for centrism and moderation naively attempts to paper over and overcome the very real, perhaps ineradicable ideological differences that separate Americans who organize on the basis of their own convictions. It is this ideological division — in combination with a political system that favors a political duopoly — that explains the persistence, and inevitability, of partisan behavior.
Moderates are tragically dismissive of this ideological diversity. The rise and success of the TEA Party and the initial popularity of the Occupy movement are testaments to the breadth — not the professed moderation — of the electorate’s political views.
Rather than decrying partisanship and — in a stampede to the middle — attempt to inspire ideological conformity to eradicate it, we instead should be celebrating our ideological diversity and finding ways to better represent it politically.
Independents therefore need to focus their energies instead on developing and advocating strategies that will replace the two-party duopoly and allow for the flourishing of not just third parties, but also of fourth, fifth, and sixth parties (as is the case in many multi-party parliamentary democracies).
Only then will Americans begin to feel more represented in the political process again and will our republic become the vibrant and inclusive country it was envisioned to become.