Is There a Place for Centrism in American Politics?

George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation at the end of his second term as president, warned against the formation of political parties. Within ten years, his warning was only so much sound lost on the wind.

In Utah’s 3rd District, political newcomer John Jacob (Jingleheimer Smith not included), given the official endorsement at the Republican convention earlier this year for the House seat, came in 12 points short of incumbent Chris Cannon in the Republican primary in June. Jacob was given the nod because of his hard-line stance on immigration versus Cannon’s support of a guest-worker program. The difference in the election: the gap between the polar position of the “party faithful” and the feelings of the centrist majority.

On the Democrats’ side, 2000 V.P. candidate Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is facing a backlash from the “party faithful” in his state for his continued support of the war in Iraq and for crossing the isle too many times. There is a movement among Democrats in the state that may deny him the nomination to retain his Senate seat. He has said that if this happens, he will gather the required number of signatures to keep his name on the ballot as an independent. I predict that even if he loses the Democratic nomination, Joe Lieberman will retain the seat in the final election, even as an independent, because his place on the left-to-right spectrum is closer to that of the general electorate—that is to say, centrist.

But if the general population of the U.S. is so centrist, why are the candidates so “extreme” (I use the term not to denote militancy but to describe a perspective far from the center, i.e., the tails of the bell-curve that is the range of American political opinion)? The system that we use in the U.S. to nominate and promote candidates engenders candidacies outside the mainstream. Most of us go about our daily lives watching the political game like we would a bicycle crash. As long as no one gets hurt too badly, we don’t worry about it; but we do want to know if there is blood, and we’ll give a hearty click of the tongue if the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet. If the cyclist were really injured badly, we would step in to help, but. . . .

The only time we get into politics is around election time (general election, not primary election; the primaries are for people with nothing better to do). On the other hand, the few who remain involved in politics throughout the two years between general elections do so because of one or more issues that are very important to them. For the centrist majority these issues are important, but they are not a banner under which we feel the need to march at the exclusion of all other considerations. Where most of us care about the same issues and passively monitor the debate, the hard-liners on both ends of the left-to-right spectrum attach themselves to these issues as one would to a lifeboat.

These are “the deciders,” the people choosing the candidates for the two major parties. The convention delegates are not looking for the same type of candidates the centrist majority would choose. They are looking for someone with a similar ideology to their own and an implied (or inferred) intention of putting the needs of the party first. Most of us don’t have what we would regard as a political ideology; we simply want someone who will do a good job at representing his/her constituents, be honest, not sell his/her soul, and (if we’re honest with ourselves) hopefully bring a little power and money home.

In order to get elected, candidates must pass through a metamorphosis beginning before the convention and ending at the general election. In order to win a nomination, a candidate must be desirable to the extremists who make up the delegations. They must talk the talk of the “party faithful.” Once the nomination is won, they must move half way to the center in order not to alienate the more moderate primary voters. The primary voters are those who strongly affiliate themselves with a party, but don’t have the desire/need to participate in the convention and nomination process. Once the primary is won, the candidate must again move toward the center to appeal to the general electorate. But the general electorate is given a very short menu of some very unappetizing entrées. They are like the wedding guests who have the choice between bologna (spell it “baloney” if you like) and anchovies, when all they really want is chicken or beef. They are also stuck with candidates who are either centrists lying to the convention to get nominated or extremists lying to the general public to get elected. Either way, is it a person you want in office?

This system produces many negative effects. Among them are extremist candidates, beholden to extremist supporters, special interest groups, delegates, and PACs and who gravitate toward extremist mentors and co-workers. Another negative effect is the polarization that takes place among the constituency; candidates will be more prone to listen to and accept people and ideas that share their philosophies. Opposing viewpoints, including (ironically) those from the mainstream, are deemed “extremist” or “unpopular.” In addition, time is wasted in pandering to “the base” by pursuing doomed flag-burning and marriage protection amendments and by officially declaring the congress’ support for the troops, while more pressing issues like a monstrous deficit, a gigantic debt, terminal Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, healthcare availability and costs, etc. go ignored. Yet another undesirable side-effect to the primary election system is that an elected representative can suffer a backlash if s/he crosses the aisle too many times; heaven forbid s/he represent her/his constituency. Few districts in America are as polarized as most representatives’ voting records.

It is time for a centrist party in America. The main plank in its platform should be “we understand that there are two sides to every issue, and both sides are valid to some extent.” This would open a dialogue, something missing in modern American politics (Congress even has separate cafeterias for the two main parties so they never have to talk to each other). It would increase the acceptance and likelihood of compromise, a concept that has taken on a pejorative sense in politics lately. It would recognize that representing a constituency means representing more than the 50.5% that got someone elected. It would reflect America more closely as a centrist community, not as a pair of polarized factions.

But in order for a centrist party to be viable, it has to have a/some big-name leader(s). Names like McCain, Obama, Lieberman, Snowe, Specter, and Chafee (these are Senators who have either consistently been ranked near the middle of the left-to-right spectrum, or who have reputations as “mavericks,” which in pol-speak means “willing to cross the aisle to do what needs do be done”) would certainly bring the issue to the attention of the Sunday morning talk shows, and would bring the reason and obviousness of the need for the party to the minds of the voting public.

3 Comments

Rambling says:

My trackbacks don’t seem to be working properly. I made comments about this article on my site: http://www.ramblingengineer.com/2006/07/13/the-view-from-the-center/

Mike W. says:

Dave,

A centrist party is appealing. However, political parties are founder upon political ideologies. What would be the ideology of the new party? Democrats are theoretically based on liberalism, the idea of fighting for the common man and freedom; most believe in government being involved in your pocketbook and staying out of your bedroom. Republicans (again theoretically) are based on conservativism, commonly maintaining the status quo, small government, staying out of your pocketbook, but telling you what you can do in your bedroom. These are broad generalizations, but that’s what political parties represent.

What would be the ideology of the Centrist Party? Would it be libertarian, the idea that individuals should decide for themselves what each should do? (Most GenXers and Millenial Generations individuals fall into this category, i.e. “I would never have an abortion, but if another person thinks it’s right for them, then it shouldn’t be illegal.”)

How about “constitutionalism?” A belief in a return to the principles of freedom, hard work, virtue taught (if not always lived) by the Founders.

In order for a party to work, there must be an undergirding ideology. I believe that a new party will likely arise in the next 20 years, but it won’t come via national politicians. It will come through grassroots groundswell in a likely libertarian form.

Although there is precedent for a party leader forming a new party (Ariel Sharon in Israel) I think that until the people demand it, the politicos will maintain the machines that allow them to keep power.

Mike W. says:

Dave,

Another point to consider: just because there is a widely different point of view regarding the way in which to address social problems and public policy doesn’t mean that the polarized opposite ends of the spectrum are bad. What is bad is what you point to regarding the vitriolic rhetoric coming out of Washington. This isn’t new (see stories of Congressional behavior during the lead-up to the Civil War), but it seems to be more wide-spread and not just personal disagreements, but two parties who hate each other and are unwilling to have civil discourse about problem-solving. I admire a Senator like Russ Feingold, who may be represented as an extremist, but who is consistent in standing up for his principles, not waffling like many other Democrats on the war and Republican on fiscal issues.

I appreciate the extremes (many times the best ideas come from the fringes). But the tone of interaction must change (and I think we can blame Rush and Hannity for much of that tone).

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