Can the centre hold any meaning?

By what criteria can centrists to be judged? This question has become urgent not only in the US but also in France

By Jan-Werner Mueller

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Published: Tue 30 Nov 2021, 11:58 PM

US President Joe Biden’s ambitious “Build Back Better” plan has been stalled and pared by two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who are regularly described as “centrists”. Plenty of observers have wondered what this label actually means in 2021. It is not only cynics who suspect that these figures are not so much centrist as self-centered, guided only by the imperative of getting re-elected.

By what criteria are centrists to be judged? That question has become urgent not only in the United States but also in France, where President Emmanuel Macron, having promised to build a new centre in French politics, will seek re-election next spring. As with the two US senators, critics see Macron’s centrism as a smokescreen for a politician who effectively does the bidding of the right, warranting the label “the president of the rich”.

The question, then, is no longer whether the centre can hold; it is whether centrism holds any meaning in today’s politics. The term made much sense in the 12th century, which many understood to be an age of ideological extremes. Being in the centre entailed a commitment to the fight against anti-democratic parties and movements. But even then, self-described centrists were often accused of bad faith. With characteristic irony, Isaiah Berlin, a liberal par excellence, counted himself among “the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates, the crypto-reactionary skeptical intellectuals”.

Whereas these earlier self-described centrists could live off the credit amassed in the fight against fascism and Stalinism, the legacy of self-consciously moderate politics has since worn thin. In many countries today, there is a kind of zombie centrism — a leftover of the Cold War that no longer provides a genuine political orientation to its adherents.

German Christian Democrats recently learned this the hard way. In September’s federal election, they failed spectacularly in their effort to claim the centre against a potential coalition between the Social Democrats and the post-communist Left Party. The party’s anti-communist campaign, seemingly lifted straight out of the 1950s, obviously did not address 21st century challenges. The notion that Olaf Scholz, the outgoing government’s studiously responsible finance minister (and now chancellor-to-be), would be waving red flags in the Reichstag appeared positively bizarre.

Still, there remain two forms of centrism that are not reducible to zombie Cold War liberalism. One is procedural: in systems with separated powers, such as the US, politicians are compelled to engage in the art of compromise; this is even more true in an age when clear majorities in legislative chambers have become rare.

A similar imperative applies in increasingly fragmented European party systems. The Dutch parliament currently features no less than 17 parties (or even more, depending on how one counts). And, after weeks of negotiations, Germany will soon have a government in which the left-wing Social Democrats and Greens are in a “traffic-light coalition” with the business-friendly Free Democrats.

Fragmentation — be it institutional or political — forces politicians to adopt what the Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit called “principled unprincipledness” for the sake of making democracy work. After all, most people are not keen on compromise for its own sake, because nobody thinks second-best is ever the best.

The exceptions are those who subscribe to the second plausible form of centrism: the positional kind. Seeing equidistance between political poles as proof of their pragmatism and “nonideological” credentials, positional centrists often try to cash in on the premium that still attaches to bipartisanship (especially in the US). They benefit from seeming reasonable when the left and right are dominated by firebrands. In his first election campaign, Macron routinely emphasized the radicalism of his opponents, the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to show that he alone represented a responsible position.

Appealing to the “horseshoe theory” — highly popular among anti-communists during the Cold War — centrists also often insinuate that left and right-wing populism eventually converge on the same antiliberal endpoint. But, like “Third Way” theorists of the 1990s, Macron’s acolytes have also suggested that “left” and “right” are outdated labels, because this allows them to invite former socialists and Gaullists into their movement.

But centrism is not automatically democratic. Macron, who has been dubbed a “liberal strongman”, is a case in point. His “neither left nor right” posture implies a baldly technocratic form of government. The assumption is that there is always some uniquely rational response to any policy challenge. By definition, critics can be dismissed as irrational. As Macron discovered with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) revolt in 2018, the denial of democratic pluralism implied by this approach can provoke an intense backlash.

Both procedural and positional centrism are premised on there being a properly functioning democracy in place, and they can actually become dangerous when a country suffers from asymmetrical political polarisation. This is the situation in the US today, where the Republican Party no longer recognises basic features of democracy. Today’s Republicans are engaged in a vast project of extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, election subversion, and legislative obstruction, showing no interest in compromise. Now that Biden is in the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump’s grudging but reliable enabler, is following the same playbook that he perfected during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Procedural centrism makes no sense when one’s political adversaries no longer respect procedures, as is now the case with the Republicans. But the situation is even worse for positional centrism. If one party rejects democracy, equidistance is complicity. If Sinema and Manchin have nothing to say for themselves beyond zombie centrism, procedural centrism, or positional centrism, even their own voters might eventually punish them for obstructing policy initiatives that are in fact highly popular.

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is a fellow at The New Institute, Hamburg. His most recent book is Democracy Rules.

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