Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Centrism: Another Word for Useless

Kevin Drum recently directed his readers to a Ronald Brownstein article which argues that there exists a real opportunity for a centrist political party to seize control of the White House in 2008. Kevin quickly dispatches the notion that the Internet could somehow be the engine for such a movement, a point I completely agree with. But, I'm willing to go further and suggest that the notion of a popular centrist movement outperforming the existing political establishment is sheer fantasy. And, I'm willing to back that up.

First of all, let's think about what a so-called "centrist" voter really is. A large percentage of those who so identify are actually individuals who simply have no vested interest in the political issues of the day. In other words, they are utterly apathetic. Those who are not completely disconnected from politics are unified only by their distaste for the system. They reject the partisanship displayed by politicians in general and therefore view both sides of the spectrum as equally problematic. Now, these people may represent a large portion of the electorate, but I don't really see them as the basis some sort of centrist revolution. The combination of apathy and aversion isn't exactly a recipe for the type of radical political change we are discussing. These people are more likely to see politics as the problem itself, rather than an avenue for innovative solutions. Therefore, no one is going to be riding their backs to victory.

Of course, there are other self-identified centrists out there. These individuals have opinions, but these opinions fail to overlap neatly with either major party. Could these be the basis of a centrist political movement? My opinion: no. Here's why.

When people talk about centrist politicians, they often refer to their ability to behave in a bipartisan fashion. Lieberman and McCain are often cited as examples of individuals who are willing to buck the party line in support of their personal principles. Here's the thing though: on individual issues, are these centrist politicians taking centrist positions or are they really taking a position in opposition to that of their party? You see, on many issues, there really is no center. You either support the issue or you don't.

Take abortion. You can talk all you want about how it's a personal issue, how you view it to be a sin, etc. But, in the end that's just talk. The issue is whether or not the government should be able to regulate it. If you take the pro-choice position (i.e. little or no government regulation), no one on the pro-life side is going to care that you wouldn't get an abortion yourself. If you subdivide the issue and began talking about parental consent or partial-birth abortion, you are in the same boat. You either like parental consent or you don't. Same with partial-birth abortion.

Now, you might argue that, because you take differing positions on the various subissues (i.e. pro partial-birth ban, anti-parental consent), your conglomerate abortion stance is centrist. Maybe. But the question isn't really whether or not you achieve political centrism by taking alternating positions within the overarching question. The question is what can you do, politically speaking, by holding these positions.

Centrism, as it plays out in practice, is sort of a cafeteria ideology. You take a little from the left on issue A, B, and C while taking a little from the right on issue D, E, and F. It's a regular smorgasbord. However, every centrist is going to serve himself something different. Every plate will be unique. Therefore, you aren't going to end up with any unifying themes upon which to base a political movement. Instead, you are going to have a million centrists who can't agree with each other. Again, not exactly what he would call a recipe for political dominance.

The real reason that people like McCain win elections is that they are perceived to have integrity and/or charisma. You might disagree with McCain on many issues, but because you feel that he is an honest broker who will always do what he feels is correct, you're willing to support him over a candidate who blindly toes the party line. Or, if you are not a particularly issue driven voter, you can be charmed by someone like Clinton. Either way, though, you aren't pulling the lever because of a shared centrist ideology. Such a thing simply does not exist.

This is not to say that playing to swing voters has no strategic merit. Of course it does. But when such a strategy works, it does so only when personal integrity and/or charisma overcome the apathy or ideological difference within each captured voter. The middle has no ideological consistency to court. You can use their votes to pad those supplied by those in your political base on the right or left. If you can sway enough of them to your side, they can definitely turn an election your way. But, they will never be anyone's base simply because there is no there there. Without ideological coherence, they simply cannot be addressed as a group. And without that foundation, nothing can be built upon them.

So, in the end, centrism is a nice idea. It is a sort of utopian ideal, a place where we can all get along. But, like the lost city of Atlantis, it doesn't really exist. And just like I'm not planning on building a house on Atlantis' upper West side, I wouldn't be planning a political campaign based on the fable of a centrist majority.
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