The United States has lost its center through destructive centrifugal politics. America seems spinning out of control. It has become a non-populist, dollar-driven, elitist democracy. Centrism can be a powerful metaphor and tool for national renewal, if it is also populist.
In the world of politics, language is used to deceive, distract and divide. Some words become so abused that they lose meaning. In recent years, enormous numbers of liberals and Democrats decided to hide under the label of “progressive.” Many politicians want to be seen as “moderates.” A newer subterfuge is “centrist.”
Someone wrote this on a blog discussion: “Centrism is an empty, contentless label that by its very nature is without substance or ideology. What is the centrist position on healthcare reform, half way between the left and right? What is its position on defense spending, ditto? Someone, please, tell me what centrism is?” It was a good point and question.
Centrism sounds reasonable. But it has been abused. Many people see centrism as some middle ground between the liberal-Democratic and conservative-Republican ends of the political spectrum, some way to achieve balance and avoid extremes. By shunning these polarizing positions it is hoped that a moderate, middle of the road or “third way” stance is created. But centrism may be nothing more than empty compromises of positions from each of the two major parties. It too easily becomes a diffuse, ambiguous mishmash of positions that say little about where someone stands in terms of absolute principles. Indeed, many find centrism attractive because it is malleable and flexible, allowing whatever seems pragmatic at the time. This makes centrism vulnerable to abuse by those seeking a popular political brand that is not burdened by adherence to clear principles. For the most part, centrism has been empty political rhetoric, but it can be re-powered.
After the 2004 election Kevin Cassell made noted: “Centrism is not a clear-cut ideology (or belief system); many encyclopedias don't even include it as a category unto itself.” And David Sirota wrote the hard-hitting article “Debunking Centrism.” He said the Democratic Leadership Council “is funded by huge contributions from multinationals like Philip Morris, Texaco, Enron and Merck, which have all, at one point or another, slathered the DLC with cash. Those resources have been used to push a nakedly corporate agenda under the guise of ‘centrism’ while allowing the DLC to parrot GOP criticism of populist Democrats as far-left extremists . . . [C]entrist groups argue that the party must court moderates and find a way to compete in the Midwest and South.’” Later, in Hostile Takeover he pointed out how ultra-conservative right-wingers hijacked the terms "centrist" and "mainstream," misleading the public.
Like other terms, centrist has become another linguistic weapon of mass deception when used by mainstream politicians. Is Joe Lieberman a genuine centrist or just a conservative Democrat? Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a centrist, or just clever enough to abandon some of his principles? Does calling Hillary Clinton a centrist make her more appealing?
Commenting on what appeared to be the winning Democratic strategy before this year’s midterm elections, Sally Kohn said: “Centrism not only alienates the Democratic base but also plays into the Right wing's ultimate agenda . . . Centrism is not a ‘third way,’ it's their way -- taking Right wing ideas and trying to pass them off as enlightened Democratic compromise.”
There is a lot of expedient and faux centrism. Vermont’s Senator-elect Bernie Sanders, officially an Independent, said: “There is one point I want to make clear because all too often I see this discussion of progressivism vs centrism as merely one of gaining tactical advantage in an election. I am a progressive because that is what I believe at my core. It is not some position of convenience to be shed the next time some Washington wonk decides it's more advantageous to be a centrist.”
Unlike Sanders, Bill Clinton used centrism as a campaign tactic. In Dead Center James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson made the point: “Clinton’s major failure was his inability . . . to frame a coordinated policy program that would make of his centrism not just an electoral strategy but a vital center of change . . .” Other authors embrace centrism, mostly on the basis that it is an alternative to divisive and extreme political positions. Yet the nagging question remains: What exactly and uniquely defines real, trustworthy centrism?
In sum, “partisan centrism,” viewed as the center region along an axis of left-right, blue-red partisan issues, supports the two-party status quo. It is defeatist. It protects the elitist political, economic and bipartisan ruling class. The center should not be a statistical mean, but an ideological imperative. Phony partisan centrism does not merit public support.
Listen to Sirota: “Centrism” as defined in the political dialogue today means “being in the middle of elite opinion in Washington, D.C.” But if you plot this “center” on the continuum that is American public opinion, you will find that it is nowhere near the actual center of the country at large. The center of elite Washington opinion is ardently free trade, against national health care, opposed to market regulation, for continuing the Iraq War, and supportive of the flattest tax structure we’ve had in contemporary American history. That center is on the extreme fringe of the center of American public opinion, which is ardently skeptical of free trade, for universal health care, supportive of strong market regulations, insistent that the war end soon, and in favor of making the tax system more progressive.
Centrism At Its Best
Unity through centripetal politics is a necessary alternative to destructive and divisive centrifugal politics. Centrism can pull Americans together to fill the currently empty national spiritual and political center.
In searching for real centrism worthy of broad public support it helps to distinguish between divisive political “issues” versus structural or systemic problems and their solutions.
From a marketing perspective, to differentiate themselves, at least during campaigns, Democrats and Republicans use social, economic and government issues for which they can stake out seemingly different positions. Abortion, illegal immigration, the Iraq war, globalization, taxes, health care costs, and same sex marriage are divisive issues. Issues are usually framed so that people can say they are for or against something. Issues are meant to elicit quick, emotional responses that get people lined up with one party or candidate and antagonistic toward the other. Issues produce polarizing partisan politics. They divide by design.
Alternatively, we can start with the evidence that our political-government-economic system is broken. A key symptom is an epidemic of existential emptiness. There is little holding America and Americans together other than materialistic consumption.
Root problems have cascading impacts throughout society. A majority of Americans believe our national system has been seriously degraded over time and is stuck on the wrong track. Besides consistent results from polls and surveys, there is the unsettling fact that, even in this year of heightened political events and talk, 60 percent of eligible voters chose not to vote. This negative reality defines a remarkable opportunity to build widespread public agreement about solutions to core problems -- to create an incentive to vote by giving people more political choice. We need a political party to help Americans fill our empty national center with meaning.
For convenience, let’s call real, trustworthy centrism “populist centrism.” It is defined by what is central to and in the center of public consciousness -- our broken system. It offers a true, sorely needed paradigm change. Consider that when asked whether life for the next generation would be better, worse or about the same as life today, 40 percent of Americans said "worse," while just 30 percent answered "better." The fraction of Americans that believe the country is heading in the wrong direction is a disturbing 60 percent! A nation that has lost its center creates widespread despair, pessimism and ennui that even compulsive consumption cannot remedy, though it certainly distracts from distasteful realities. And that’s what plutocrats prefer -- a voracious consumer economy, people hooked on borrowing and spending rather than being politically engaged.
Authentic, populist centrism has the capacity to unite Americans, despite differences on issues, in a battle to make politics, government and the economy serve working- and middle-class people. All but the upper class can see the prime root problem: Politics, government and the economy now primarily serve the greed, demands, and selfishness of a class of rich and powerful elites, often acting through corporate powers, PACs and sanctimonious think tanks. Elitist interests have turned American democracy into a plutocracy. Private and corporate wealth has been turned into political power, government control and economic inequality. We have an aristocratic ruling class.
Ordinary people retain many personal freedoms, but our representative government no longer represents them. The minority that own most of America control it, while the majority drive the economy through their spending. Millions of wealthy Americans vote. But much less than a majority of working- and middle-class people take placebo voting seriously. The USA has become a non-populist democracy.
The Political Solution
How do we politicize the public’s negative feelings? How do we get more Americans engaged politically, enough to take voting for third parties seriously and reject lesser-evil voting for major party candidates -- to take back the sovereign power that is theirs?
To fix our nation we must remove control of OUR political system by the two major parties. Many rightfully see the Republican and Democratic parties as just two sides of the same coin or two heads of the same beast. Howard Dean was correct when he wrote in 2004: “After nearly a decade of widening income inequalities, campaign-finance scandals, noxious inside-the-Beltway compromises, and political catfights . . . the American people felt equally disenfranchised by Democrats and Republicans.” A 2006 national poll found that 53 percent of Americans supported a third major party. A remarkable 73 percent agree that “it would be a good idea for this country to have more choices in the 2008 election than just Republican and Democratic candidates.”
A majority of people want more political competition. Yet history’s lesson is that third parties have done very poorly in challenging the two-party duopoly. That is not their fault. The two-party mafia has rigged the political system to bury opposition. Despite historic levels of public dissatisfaction with both major parties, in the 2006 midterm elections there was no mass embrace of third party candidates, which largely remained unknown to the public. Considering the staying power of the two-party duopoly, would deceptive-partisan or honest-populist centrism best challenge it?
Clearly, populist centrism is a truer, bolder alternative. It can bring us back to a populist democracy. Fixing the republic is a nobler, more necessary and better unifying goal than reaching compromises on a host of issues framed by the major parties. With populist centrism, the public can rally behind a patriotic movement to fix our democracy, political system and economy. Just as individuals think in terms of centering themselves to become healthier psychologically, with honest centrism so too can our country center itself, connect to its roots, unite itself, and harness people power to repair and renovate itself. United, Americans can challenge the power of political, economic and corporate elites.
With honesty we can reach consensus on how to fix the broken system, return power to the people, make representative democracy work, and remove the corrupting influence of big money on the whole political-government-economic system. The goal is systemic change and national renewal through revolutionary reform that includes overturning the two-party status quo.
The two major parties cannot admit that the whole political-government-economic system is seriously broken. Why? Over decades they each contributed to breaking the system. In their own ways, each major party has been permanently corrupted by big money from corporate and other special interests. Each has contributed to a culture of corruption and dishonesty. They enable each other. The only competition they want is from each other. They have sold out Americans.
After the 2004 election Sirota warned about “bankrolled politicians who have hijacked ‘centrism’ to sell out America's middle class.” Caution is needed about this year’s big Democratic win. As to Democratic candidates, pragmatism ruled the day; they said whatever was necessary to win. As to voters, hatred of President Bush, his policies and the Iraq war prevailed. The Democrats won a majority of just 40 percent of the voting electorate, perhaps 25 percent of the total. That is not much of a public mandate.
A third political party can emerge to steer public debate on the exact reforms and solutions needed to fix our broken country. It can define itself in a principled way to attract the majority of Americans -- not stuck on extreme positions -- that want profound national improvement. It can set out a strategy to get the nation on a new track to a better future, using a new dimension, not the tired and corrupt left and right parallel tracks of Democrats and Republicans. It can make centrism a trusted political philosophy as well as the defining character of a competitive political party.
With honesty, a third party can overcome the damage done to worthy concepts of centrism, progressivism, and populism by many groups and people practicing semantic chicanery. We desperately need candidates that are not shills for elites, but who will unflinchingly serve the interests of working- and middle-class Americans. We must imagine success: A third party that leads a rebooting of American democracy. Strong public thirst for historic change is real. A majority of Americans agree that our system is broken. They await a competitive third party with a fix-our-democracy message. Democrats and Republicans should NOT be allowed to keep their stranglehold on OUR political system when they no longer have the consent of most of the governed.
The majority of Americans have decided. A democracy with too little political competition provides too little incentive to vote. It is a delusional, centerless, non-populist democracy. Let’s fix it by joining together at the center.
Joel S. Hirschhorn is author of the new book, Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government.
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