Give Centrism a Chance
NEW YORK – Europe’s progressive intelligentsia have come to scorn political “centrism.” A misguided focus on the middle ground, critics argue, precludes the formulation of political alternatives, leading to the rise of extremist parties on the left and right. Seen through this lens, the corollaries of centrism are populism, polarization, and ultimately growing distrust of democratic principles.
This analysis is not without merit. Democracy requires candid and controversial conversations about the best way forward. Closing the door to political alternatives by blindly embracing the status quo is a recipe for disaster. “Debate is never finished,” wrote the late Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. “It can’t be, lest democracy be no longer democratic.”
But this does not mean that left-of-center political parties should turn their backs on pragmatism and moderation. In fact, evidence from some of the world’s current electoral hotspots suggests they should do the opposite. Despite increasing political polarization in many countries, large numbers of voters seem considerably more comfortable with centrist positions than is often assumed.
Left-wing political parties keen on sharpening their ideological profile therefore face a dilemma. Whereas party activists frequently demand greater ideological clarity, voters are increasingly favoring pragmatism over purity. So, the most promising course of action for progressive leaders is probably to combine a long-term ideological vision with the reality of incremental change.
Consider Joe Biden, the US Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Although Biden’s agenda clearly is more progressive than those of recent Democratic nominees, it appears significantly more centrist than those of two of his main challengers for the Democratic nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Biden’s platform is notable not only for what it endorses but also for what it does not. On immigration, the former vice-president advocates humanitarian generosity but has not called for decriminalizing illegal border crossings. On climate change, while he champions carbon-neutral housing and is calling for the US power sector to be carbon-free by 2035, he has steered clear of fully embracing the Green New Deal favored by his party’s left wing. Likewise, Biden is shying away from calls to ban fracking, defund the police, and introduce universal single-payer health care.
Biden’s centrism is shared by his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, who has faced criticism from within her own party for her allegedly weak progressive credentials. But Biden’s commanding lead over US President Donald Trump in opinion polls suggests that the Democrats may have found a winning formula.
A similar story is unfolding in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won convincingly in the country’s October 17 general election. In progressive circles, Ardern is widely heralded as a global icon. She is only the second prime minister in modern times to have given birth while in office, is known for her open and honest communication, and most recently was a serious contender for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
But, in contrast to her global image, Ardern’s domestic success has resulted from centrist flexibility rather than transformative ambition. Heading a three-party coalition in her first term, Ardern was unable to implement her most far-reaching policy proposals – in particular, solving New Zealand’s housing crisis. But she benefited from her effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her compassionate and determined response to the March 2019 Christchurch massacre in which 51 Muslim worshippers were killed.
In its recent election campaign, Ardern’s Labour Party focused on moderate reform proposals that appealed to centrist voters. These included limited increases in the minimum wage and slightly higher taxes for the wealthy as part of a responsible economic recovery, as well as law-and-order policies such as increasing, not reducing, the number of police officers serving their communities.
The United Kingdom’s Labour Party, meanwhile, is currently in the process of reinventing itself as a more centrist political force following its disastrous defeat in the December 2019 general election, which forced far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn to step down.
Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, used Labour’s (virtual) annual conference in September to announce a comprehensive break with Corbyn’s legacy. Starmer’s “new leadership” entails redirecting Labour toward family values, with a focus on security and economic prudence.
In his conference speech, Starmer declared to disgruntled blue-collar voters that, “We love this country as you do.” His repositioning thus includes a notion of left-wing patriotism – anathema to his staunchly internationalist predecessor and a clear break with previous Labour parlance.
Starmer’s stated objective is to regain the confidence of working-class voters who abandoned the party under Corbyn. So far, the plan seems to be working. Although the UK’s next general election is not scheduled to be held until 2024, recent opinion polls put Labour neck and neck with the ruling Conservative Party.
The current momentum enjoyed by political progressives who are consciously addressing the political center holds important lessons for struggling counterparts elsewhere.
Progressives certainly should never be satisfied with the status quo. Offering political alternatives and a path toward a better future remains crucial – not least during a pandemic. But with voters increasingly exhausted by years of polarization, progressive parties that are serious about gaining and retaining power would be well advised to reconsider their opposition to centrism.
Michael Bröning is Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in New York and serves on the basic value commission of the German Social Democratic Party.
Contributed by Michael Bröning