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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  • I am not going to try and define a full definition of "center," there are too many variations, but in several areas it's forming.

    - On balance we like and want the vast number of programs the government offers. To an extent we support redistribution of income though it is a 2 way street with tax laws sending more to the upper third than goes to lower fifth. Despite easy criticism we are learning our system despite it's muddle has worked adequetly by historical standards.

    Both Republicans and Democrats have been reactionary in defending the status quo while the "center" or one part of the center does believe parts can be rdefined and that some of the expenses are unnecessary be they star wars, the top third of farm subsidies or certain welfare programs. This is one reason for the desire for divided government hoping that it will squeeze some partisan pork.

    The result is liberal in that it contradicts the old right chant that welfare for the poor bankrupted us and that by eliminating it all would be well. Hopefully the majority are learning the actual percentage of this, that it is only a fraction and that the most expensive welfare program medicaid which outspends all the others spends two thirds of it's money on the elderly and disabled.

    I think reinventing government is a goal. Bureaucracies can function better, they can be eliminated, they can be replaced; regulations can be made simpler and more rational; the whole process can be rethought even as general liberal assumptions on the role of government are kept.

    We have seen the Republicans deny the validity of these while actually expanding them to buy votes (remember federal tax money flows from blue states to red) while also making them more inefficient for pork and crony deals.

    Dems may be slightly better, but I think we want reform. Liberal ideals and actual implementation of conservative rhetoric on efficiency.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:23 PM  

  • Excellent comment, Anonymous. I certainly value "liberal ideals," but there's only so much government can do with the limited resources it has, hence the need for "conservative efficiency" to get it right.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 6:41 PM  

  • You seem to have some affinity toward the middle if you call yourself a centrist. Yet I don't see any conservative positions that 'balance out' your liberalism. Is your moderate liberalism simply a way of saying that you don't go to extremes with a solidly liberal reaction to most issues? Because I don't think of that as being a centrist.

    By Blogger cakreiz, at 10:00 PM  

  • I believe I'm a centrist. Take the environment as an example. I'm for expanded nuclear power, drilling in ANWR and for higher gas mileage standards.

    By Blogger cakreiz, at 10:05 PM  

  • "I would say liberalism is centrism." I'd agree- if we're speaking of 1964 LBJ liberalism. But isn't it a bit difficult to take this position as a conservative GOP controls all 3 branches of government? It looks to me like 2005 liberalism hasn't fared particularly well.

    By Blogger cakreiz, at 10:58 PM  

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