The Case for Honest Centrists

“Both sides have problems,” doesn’t mean, “both sides are equal.”

If you spend much time talking about politics, you might have noticed the popular debate tactic of using the term “centrist” as an insult, while simultaneously claiming that your own views are closer to the center than your opponent’s. This makes it awfully hard to discern what the term actually means.

The only terms in our modern political lexicon that are almost as meaningless as “centrism” are perhaps “capitalism” and “socialism.” These labels get thrown around so liberally that they can reliably subtract value from an otherwise constructive debate. Personally, I would prefer to spend hours discussing the merits of policies X, Y, and Z before getting bogged down arguing what it really means to be a socialist, and why being one is good or bad.

Unfortunately, these vague and frequently misused labels aren’t going anywhere. In an age of tribalism, labels give us a sense of identity. They provide a quick and easy way to communicate our general values to other people without much effort.

I certainly understand this impulse. I could tell you that I’m a person with cosmopolitan, pluralistic sensibilities, who believes that civil liberties and a well-crafted mixed economy are the keys to maximizing human flourishing, or I could just tell you that I’m a liberal. The latter leaves out some nuance, but it still paints a fairly accurate picture of my overall worldview.

The difficulty with self-described centrists or moderates is that they are not even aligning with any kind of vague ideology. They are simply placing themselves in-between other nebulous ideologies on a spectrum that is also highly relative and hard to define in any concrete way.

While some have tried to define the moderate worldview in a way that makes coherent sense, this proves incredibly hard to do.

This also leads to some confusion within the Democratic Party. Just what kind of party is it, anyway? Is it a moderate party? A liberal party? A social democratic party? A big-tent party with all of the above?

The party’s left flank likes to pontificate about how nominating a centrist candidate for president will ensure another defeat (although the candidates they label “centrists” are often quite progressive), while more moderate Democrats (and some on the left) will insist that the exact opposite is true, and nominating a candidate who can easily be labeled a “socialist” is far too risky (although conservative pundits are just as happy to call a moderate Democrat a socialist, as they did to Obama for eight years). Both of these claims may contain some truth and some misconceptions. Nominating a pragmatist always risks alienating idealists, and vice versa. The question is, who are more likely to jump ship and vote for a third party (or not at all) if they end up with their less-than-ideal candidate on the ballot? What about centrist independents and swing voters?

Some journalists have noted that the “moderate middle” is something of a myth in the American electorate. Many voters who the polls record as “moderates” are actually people with fringe views from across the spectrum (people who are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” or more commonly, socially conservative economic populists). Nonetheless, a significant portion of Americans still choose to identify as moderate.

As many left-of-center pundits like to point out, centrism means something different depending on where you are. A European centrist would likely be considered center-left in the US, while a European-style center-leftist would sound quite radical to many people here (think Bernie Sanders or AOC). Furthermore, US conservatives lambast even some fairly mainstream ideas that would not be controversial in other countries.

The US is, after all, a country that has (and has always had) a significantly larger and more powerful right-wing than left-wing. This is not only true of the extreme/militant right vs. left, but also quite visible in mainstream politics, where the average Democrat says they favor a more moderate party, and the average Republican is favors a more conservative one. This is true in Congress as well, where relatively moderate Democrats are still the norm, and moderate Republicans have become the exception. The moderate New Democrat Coalition still has more members in Congress than the center-left Progressive Caucus. Meanwhile, moderate Republican caucuses have dwindled or dissolved. All this was true even before we had a Republican president who flirted with ultranationalism.

Granted, if you spend too much time on that cesspool we call Twitter, you’re bound to come across some delusional left-wing views that are on par with whatever nonsense the president just tweeted. However, polling data consistently shows that left-Twitter is not the real world.

And as commentators like Jonathan Chait have rightfully pointed out, when it comes to corruption, usurping checks and balances, delegitimizing democratic institutions, and enflaming followers, our sitting president has more in common with communist dictators (past and present) than anyone in the Democratic Party today. Chait observes:

Trump himself repurposes Stalinist lingo like “enemy of the people.” He routinely heaps praise on the most brutal dictators on the planet — not despite their brutality but precisely because of it. Republicans have selected Venezuela as their campaign theme in large part because it is one of the few dictatorships Trump does not admire. It is strange that Republicans are excitedly sharing 30-year-old clips of Bernie Sanders lauding aspects of the Soviet economy when Donald Trump is praising the North Korean economic model right now.

Despite attempts by professional centrist pundits to paint both parties as equally far off the deep end, these claims tend to fall apart upon closer examination.

Even as more Democrats begin to describe themselves as liberal, and most of the party’s presidential nominees shift towards center-left stances, these views are hardly comparable to the ideological extremism of the modern right. One would be hard pressed to find the mainstream Democratic equivalent of climate change denial, health care nihilism, trade wars, or extreme hostility towards immigrants, all of which have become fairly mainstream qualities in the modern Republican Party. The popularity of conspiracy theories and theorists on the right (many promoted by the president) are also unmatched on the mainstream left.

All this is not to say that the Democratic Party has been flawless. There are plenty of critiques leveled at the Democrats (both from the center and the left) that I would agree with. The Democrats have put up bad candidates, adopted shortsighted ideas, and engaged in partisan shenanigans just like the Republicans have (albeit to a lesser degree). They have often made promises that they failed to keep, or been caught in scandalous situations, and should be held accountable for their mistakes.

But the fact remains that even the most radical ideas being floated by some Democrats today are far less radical, dangerous or harmful than those coming out of the current administration. Even if you don’t agree that single-payer heath care is a great idea, a national health service is not going to kick down your door at night and haul you off for committing a victimless crime, with no guarantee of due process. (For that matter, even if you end up with longer wait times for your medical procedures, at least you won’t be dying due to a lack of coverage, as many Americans do today. Death is probably the longest wait time imaginable.)

But wait, what about the left’s obsession with political correctness? Frankly, I’m a lot more worried about the right’s strange obsessions. If you think 19-year-old sophomores at liberal arts colleges are the greatest threat society is facing, you’re seeing the world through a wildly obscured lens. Democrats ranging from Obama to Sanders have continuously made clear their support for free speech and civil discourse. The same can hardly be said for our current president.

So what’s a centrist to do? If you are someone who genuinely believes that neither party represents your values, that most of your views are somewhere between the standard progressive view and the standard conservative view, I would ask you to consider a few things.

First, I would remind you again that moderate sensibilities like yours are more common amongst Democrats. You will almost certainly feel more at home in a room full of Democrats than a room full of Republicans. It’s much easier to find standard bearers for centrist ideas within the Democratic Party, as opposed to hoping for a successful independent candidate or new party to emerge. Even centrist think tanks like Third Way have conceded that working with Democrats is the best path forward.

Second, I would say that if you disagree with some of what the party’s progressive wing has to say, try engaging them in a good-faith dialogue instead of simply dismissing them as too extreme or ideological. While arguments on the Internet are prone to combative escalation, you will likely find that most real life conversations are far more amicable. Ideally, you might both learn something from each other.

Third, acknowledge that pragmatic ideas matter more than rhetoric. Barack Obama used his fair share of flowery progressive language (triggering many conservatives in the process), but in terms of how he governed, his policies rarely strayed far from the middle of the road. In fact, his incremental, technocratic approach to politics ended up earning him some derision from the left. When centrists opine for a president who represents the “moderate middle,” who is willing to compromise and make concessions in order to get things done, I like to remind them that we had one for eight years.

(To reflect on an earlier point, self-described centrists who considered Obama too far left might in reality be center-right folks who no longer feel represented by the far-right Republicans.)

Finally, Republicans in government have made it abundantly clear that they are not remotely open to any sort of compromise. While trying to reach across the aisle was essentially Obama’s modus operandi, blanket opposition to bipartisanship has been Mitch McConnell’s.

While infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats can be frustrating and counterproductive, it also speaks to one of the key differences between the two major parties. Democrats are far more likely to call out their own. As a Democrat, you can choose to be a pragmatist rather than an ideologue and still have a seat at the table (many seats in fact). The Republican Party as it exists today simply does not allow for that kind of intellectual diversity or dissent from within. If anything, it actively seeks to crush it.

Some issues are complex and require pragmatism (health care reform), others demand unwavering moral clarity (our government’s cruelty towards migrants and asylum seekers has gone from bad to unacceptable). Any functional democracy needs a balance of idealists and pragmatists - bold visionaries who push us forward and cautious skeptics who keep us from running off the rails. In some countries, these two groups may be divided along party lines. In the US today, both are trying to coexist within the Democratic Party (arguably the only party in the country still taking the idea of liberal democracy seriously). Moderates and progressives must continue engaging in a serious dialogue without condemning each other to the point of self-destruction, allowing authoritarians and reactionaries to win. For this to happen, both need to be honest about the fact that they largely share common goals — a more free, fair, and just society — and a common enemy aggressively seeking to undermine those goals.

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