Friday, November 11, 2005

Liberalism and centrism in American politics

At the Post, columnist David Ignatius discusses the "Rise of the Center":

With Tuesday's elections, you could sense a small shift in the polarities that have been tugging Republicans and Democrats toward their bases. All of a sudden the center doesn't look quite so lonely or inhospitable. In fact, it may be regaining its status as the commanding heights of American politics.

Here's a prediction: The important political battles of the next several years will be over which party commands this high ground of the center -- and offers solutions to the problems that worry the country. Right now neither Republicans nor Democrats can lay coherent claim to being that party of performance. They are both still captives of the old conventional wisdom that the route to victory passes through the base -- the true believers on the right and left wings who are the activists in both parties. That logic works until the big majority in the middle finally says: Enough!

Ignatius may be onto something, and I certainly hope he's right. But let me say two things:

1) There is still intense polarization in American politics. President Bush, who has spent his presidency pandering to his base, is wildly unpopular at the moment and two gubernatorial races went (as predicted) to the Democrats on Tuesday. (And the moderate Republican Michael Bloomberg won again in New York City -- against a ridiculously inept Democratic opponent.) These may be signs of a shift to the center, but I'm not yet convinced. It's true that two leading contenders for '08, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have played to the center, but can either one win without also pandering to their respective parties' bases? The bases are key to the primaries, after all, but 2000 and 2004 also proved just how important it is to turn out the base for the election itself.

2) I'm on the center-left. I call myself a moderate liberal. I would very much like to see the center assert itself again in American politics. But what exactly is the center? Is the center where the Republicans think it is, well to the right of where it used to be? Or is with, say, Bill Clinton, somewhere on the center-left? The point is, the "center" is open to debate and interpretation. And if centrism for the left means abandoning liberal principles and ideals and embracing certain illiberal aspects of conservatism, then I'm not sure I really want much to do with it. It's fine to be a "moderate" or a "centrist," and I myself am no ideologue, but some things are worth standing up for over and above compromise. (For example: social security, universal health care of some kind, and the environment.)

Regardless, the center is with the Democrats, more to the left of where the Republican spin machine says it is. Indeed, I would say that liberalism is centrism. But it's up to liberals, and their Democratic candidates and representatives, to explain that to the American people, that is, to explain just how liberalism is at the very center of American life, how America's fundamental values are themselves fundamentally liberal.

(For a somewhat different take, see Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. He's one of the true centrists in the blogosphere.)

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