Alexandra Ocasio-Cortéz’s congressional primary victory in New York and the rise of other democratic socialist candidates has scrambled the political landscape. Demands that just a couple years ago seemed unthinkable in mainstream US politics — Medicare for All, a universal jobs guarantee, free college — are now the centerpiece of viable political campaigns.
But the centrists aren’t giving up. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni rushed to moderation’s defense a few weeks back, pronouncing it “sexier than you think.” Former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman followed up a column in March touting the win of a centrist Democrat in Illinois with a column last month pillorying Ocasio-Cortéz
The centrist think tank Third Way is still all in with a “Social Contract for the Digital Age,” released earlier this year. Its headlining measures: an “Innovation Trust Fund,” a “Boomer Corps,” and something called a “College Value Guarantee.”
Its supporters concede that these are dull ideas — but for American centrism, so proud of its pragmatism, dullness has become a mark of virtue. Moderation is as much emotional as it is political; never shouting is a test of statesmanship.
But with Donald Trump in the White House and the planet burning, just how pragmatic is centrism?
A Short History of Centrism
Like “left” and “right,” the “center” as a political position dates to the French Revolution. In the 1789 French National Assembly, the nobility and high clergy sat to the right of the chair, while the third estate and lower-status clergy sat on the left. The benches in the middle became associated with political moderation.
Over the next century-plus, some European parties embraced the “center” designation (for example, Germany’s old Catholic Centrist or Centre Party, which the Nazis broke up in the 1930s). But Third Way will likely be distressed to learn that the first recorded appearance of the word “centrist,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an 1872 insult from London’s Daily News correspondent in France, who assailed “that weak-kneed congregation who sit in the middle of the House, and call themselves ‘Centrists.’”
“Centrism,” Leon Trotsky wrote in 1934, in a different political moment, “dislikes being called centrism.” And indeed for most of the twentieth century, the center was not sexy. It was more like the porno room in the back of an old video store — a popular place to be, but an embarrassing place to be found.
Nonetheless, it had its more forthright defenders. At the dawn of the Cold War, liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger celebrated political moderation as a vigorous “Third Force” in his 1949 book The Vital Center. Rather than left or right, he wrote, the real conflict was “freedom vs. totalitarianism.” The United States’ goal should be “to make sure that the Center does hold.”
For a time, it did. Consensus and centrism dominated the 1950s. But the sixties convulsed the country’s politics, and in the aftermath of the 1972 presidential election — which saw the resounding defeat of George McGovern — Democratic elites moved to retake control of the party.
That election remains a kind of Year Zero event for centrists today. After Richard Nixon’s big win, a coalition of moderate labor unions, Democratic-aligned intellectuals, and liberals hostile to the New Left formed an organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). The CDM disavowed “the Georges” — the liberal-left McGovern, on the one hand, the segregationist Dixiecrat George Wallace on the other.
The CDM was also one of the earliest institutional homes of what became known as neoconservatism. Defined by a deep hostility to communism — and allied with those in the mainstream labor movement that shared this view — the CDM opposed itself, in an early manifesto, to those in the New Left that “sneered at the greatness of America.” By the late 1980s, chastened by Reaganism — and goaded by the newly created Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) — Democrats had fully embraced “centrism” as a way of moving the party away from organized labor and social movements.
The DLC could claim victory with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. By then, centrism was in control, and the “era of big government” was over. The center, it seemed, had held, and we had all dodged whatever grisly fate was foretold in that one Yeats stanza about passionate intensity that every centrist pundit seems to have memorized.
What Is Centrism?
The perhaps obvious point of this history, which is nonetheless lost on confessed American centrists, is that “the center” is defined only by what it’s in the center of.
Bill Clinton cut his political teeth in the McGovern campaign, but by the time he became president in 1992, Democratic centrists defined themselves in terms of Reagan rather than the antiwar left. The centrists of Arthur Schlesinger’s day defended state programs that the centrists of the 1990s would gut. And if the center is, as we are often told, where “most voters are,” then Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who both earned many votes in a close election, are in the center too. Centrism is thus a political ideology built on a tautology — the center is wherever the center is.
This basic problem makes it hard for centrists to define themselves in anything but negative terms. Many centrists deal with this conundrum by framing bipartisanship as “new” and “digital,” rather than “right” or “left.” “We’re not trying to move the Democratic party to the center,” explained the editors of the DLC’s house organ, the New Democrat, in 1991. “We want to move it forward.” “Our ideas must be bold, but they must also fit the age we are in,” said Third Way president Jon Cowan last month at his group’s Opportunity 2020 conference. “Big isn’t enough. If it’s bold and old — it’s simply old.” It was a declaration of fresh thinking tailor-made for 1991.
Others address the problem by turning to a language of feelings and values. Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman and chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, warned members of his party at Opportunity 2020 against surrendering to “emotion and anger.” Moderation thus becomes as much an emotional state as a legislative position. Where their opponents are “wild-eyed” and motivated by “ideologies,” centrists use “common sense”; where their enemies offer pie-in-the-sky fixes, centrists favor “pragmatic solutions.”
“Reason and logic and common sense” are at the heart of centrism, says Nick Troiano, executive director of the centrist PAC Unite America. One scholar, Bo Winegard, writes in a “centrist manifesto” that “one should not seek a ‘conservative’ answer to poverty or a ‘liberal’ answer to immigration. One should seek the best answer” (as if deciding what’s “best” is somehow not a political question).
Centrists love compromise as much as they appear to loathe passion. Charles Wheelan, author of his own “Centrist Manifesto” — why are centrists so unironically committed to that most immoderate genre of political writing, the manifesto? — asks a question as a sort of test: “are you empathetic to other people’s views, are you willing to compromise?”
Compromise here means a lot: it’s a tactic, a strategy, and a baseline emotional state. But again, the whole business is tautological: compromise is one of the values centrists seek, and it’s also the way they seek it. Are you a pragmatist who almost never raises your voice, except in defense of “norms”? Will you compromise on most things except compromise? Then Unite America’s “Declaration of Independents” might be the five-point program you’ve been patiently, quietly waiting for.
A Dying Ideology
Third Way defines “the age we’re in” in terms of technology: our age is a “digital” one, full of promise and innovation.
Yet if you define “the age we’re in” in terms of generational indebtedness, joblessness, police violence, and wage theft, “centrism” has very little to say. And in the face of something like climate change — an existential threat that demands radical action and a constancy of vision — to opt for a political orientation built around moderation and the perception of short-term electoral workability is to opt for disaster.
Or take Trump. In response to Trump’s bombast and rhetorical weirdness, centrists are offering a return to “normalcy” and national prestige. But “norms” are as vague a descriptor as “the center,” and just as volatile. To do anything worthwhile in politics necessarily means changing the norms and moving the center. The centrist’s grasping defense of emotional moderation and “norms” offers a kind of politics in which the only things left to argue about are the tone and volume with which we argue.
American centrism is a strange political ideology that does not ask, much less answer, the old and urgent political question, What is to be done? Instead, it announces in a carefully modulated tone of voice: whatever should be done should be done.
That’s weak-kneed stuff for a perilous time like ours.