Searching for the Political Center

The Political ‘Center’ Isn’t Gone — Just Disputed

By Beverly Gage

  • New York Times, Feb. 7, 2019

In politics, the visuals matter. We imagine the electorate in red and blue, solid colors representing a divided country. This fails to capture how Americans actually vote; even in the reddest states, hundreds of thousands of people mark their ballots for Democrats, and vice versa. But our collective imagination puts us in one place or the other: Trump country or Obamaland, home turf or hostile territory.

A more subtle metaphor is the “political spectrum,” a straight line with opinionated Americans distributed along its length. This, too, has its distorting qualities. It still presupposes there are only two fundamental worldviews, left and right, and that people’s preferences and temperaments will align, neatly and self-evidently, somewhere between them. In this formulation, there is supposed to be a perfect center, the halfway point where opposing traditions meet — and somebody is supposed to be standing there, looking reasonable, seeing merit on both sides.

But what happens if that center ceases to exist — or if few people want to stand on it? This, supposedly, is our current situation, in which polarization and ideological diffusion have turned the center into no man’s land. “Susan Collins is trying to stay in the political center,” a headline in Time magazine lamented last month, of the Maine Republican senator, “but that may not exist anymore.” A few weeks later, The Wall Street Journal noted “the shrinking of the political middle” around the world and predicted dire consequences: “As the far right and far left gain strength, countries find it increasingly difficult to get things done.”

This development has inspired a profusion of strategies for reviving the center as a viable political space. Some focus (already!) on the 2020 electoral cycle, as Democrats debate whether a “centrist” or “progressive” candidate seems more likely to defeat Donald Trump. (Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks, has floated the ill-conceived idea of running as a “centrist independent.”) Others are looking to policy debates. In 2018, the nonpartisan Niskanen Center published a report titled “The Center Can Hold,” arguing for “a modest, empirical, comparative approach to political economy and policy analysis” — thus making Niskanen the ultimate in centrist politics, a “center center.”

Behind much of this is a longing for a more orderly and sober political sphere, in which the answers to questions like “Do refugees deserve human dignity?” and “Should the government be allowed to function?” can be taken for granted. To yearn for the center is to imagine a politics without conflict, in which people of good will mostly agree on basic principles and deliberate calmly about everything else. In an age of partisan vitriol, it’s easy to see the appeal of this adults-in-the-room vision.

The very things that can make the center so appealing, however, are also its great weaknesses. As worried centrists have long noted, it can be hard to rally the people behind a message of pragmatism, compromise and limits. It can also be challenging to know exactly what a “centrist” is supposed to believe, especially in an age of multiple clashing agendas. Centrism is more about process than ideology, a faith in practical politics over moral absolutes. Its range of available ideas is mostly determined by what other people think. If we really are lined up along a spectrum, then the location of the center depends mostly on what happens at the extremes. The center cannot hold, or stay in the same place, because it was, by definition, never meant to.

The poet laureate of the center has long been Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., whose 1949 book, “The Vital Center,” aimed to transform the word from a signifier of compromise into the proud label of a “fighting faith.” Schlesinger worried that Americans had not learned an essential lesson from World War II: that democracy had to be defended against totalitarianism with vigor and determination, always and forever. For him, that meant rejecting the temptations of both the left and the right, where communism and fascism lay in wait. Instead, he urged Americans to rally around the essential democratic values of “compromise, persuasion and consent in politics,” along with “tolerance and diversity in society.”

Schlesinger readily admitted that this could be difficult — that pluralism and compromise lacked some of the “passion” of more self-confident ideologies. His book was nothing if not defensive; the title itself presupposed that the center was generally seen as not so vital at all, a place you landed for lack of better options. He saw, around the globe, “philosophies of blood and violence” that could make democracy feel “pale and feeble” in comparison. He was also wary of domestic extremes: The right’s profit-seeking created social misery and class conflict, while progressives embraced utopian policies without asking whether they would work, and without contending with the limits of human perfectibility.

Schlesinger saw the center as a place in between, where policy could be made with one eye on social order and the other on modest self-improvement. His goal was to claim the moral authority of that space for his own political vision — a renewed form of New Deal liberalism. If appeals to centrism lack a certain oomph, they compensate with an air of legitimacy, the ability to posit that your own view is the only reasonable option.

In one interpretation, Schlesinger got at least some of what he wanted. The decade that followed — the 1950s — has often been described as an age of “liberal consensus,” in which Americans from all walks of life shared key values. But historians have long chipped away at this interpretation. This was also the era when the modern conservative movement got its start, and the decade’s reputation for “consensus” holds only if you ignore countless marginalized voices and a whole lot of labor conflicts. Even if you concede the existence of a midcentury consensus, it’s not at all clear that this was a good thing. Like the “center,” it carries a whiff of closed-circle elitism, one that produced bipartisan dinner parties more readily than civil rights legislation.

By the end of the 1960s, in any case, whatever consensus once existed was unraveling. Within 20 years of “The Vital Center,” Americans were denouncing one another as “pigs,” hypocrites and moral monsters with a vehemence that rivals anything now trending on Twitter. Back then, of course, the two major parties still overlapped; there were self-avowed conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Today the parties are firmly divided by ideology. In that sense, the crisis of the center may have less to do with what ordinary Americans think and more with our political institutions — which now often worsen, rather than mediate, our conflicts.

Today’s centrists remain plagued by the anxieties and contradictions that worried Schlesinger, calling for “bold moderation” while acknowledging that the two words fit uneasily together. Still, they have their own version of swaggering populism — the conviction that a vast, hidden swath of Americans agrees with them. Candidates who move toward the center assume a deep pool of voters will be waiting there, eager to be rescued from vitriol and nonsense. Once in office, moderates often claim to speak for the masses, seeking to make government work better for everyone. Bill Clinton was a master of this approach, the rare charismatic politician who could make triangulation seem like a crusade on behalf of the people.

For all its populist trappings, though, the center — like any other political identity — is about exclusion as much as inclusion. This may be one reason it seems so difficult to occupy that space right now. Centrist compromise might seem like common sense when it comes to tax policy or the ideal blend of state and market forces. It’s more controversial when fundamental matters of justice are at stake.

Despite these challenges, the center may not yet be an entirely lost cause. In most activist traditions, a key goal is to move an idea from the fringe to the center, transforming the impossible into the inevitable, the unthinkable into conventional wisdom. If we can’t find our national center right now, it may be because that center is shifting, just as it’s supposed to. Schlesinger himself acknowledged that the center could never occupy a fixed location, and that it would continue to adapt to new challenges; “all important problems are insoluble,” he wrote. “The good,” he concluded, “comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them,” and from keeping in mind “the spirit of human decency.” These were meant to be values of the center, but they can seem nothing short of radical today.

Beverly Gage is a history professor at Yale University, where she directs the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. She last wrote on the usefulness of political strategy.