There is much discussion now going on by members of the political class in America that political “centrism” is dead, and that the voters have become polarized to the far left and far right. Polling data is produced as evidence of this, as are recent election results in which so-called “moderates”: have been defeated in their own primaries, “forced” to retire, or are likley to lose in the forthcoming November elections. While I do not dispute the election results, nor even most of the polling, I must rise once again to clarify the difference between “centrist” and “moderate.”
Many in the political class (party activists, political consultants, candidates, poltical journalista and editorialists), I suspect, use the terms interchangeably, and might wonder what I am talking about. I suggest that the confusion about the terms would enable anyone, in the political class or not, to misread the phenomena which are motoring the 2010 mid-term national elections.
The primary cause of misunderstaning about these terms concerns their usage. “Centrism” and “centrists” occupy a demographic place in the political spctrum. “Moderates” occupy a mathematical “middle.” I have long argued that the United States is the quintissential “centrist” nation, that is, its public policy center is where most voters are. Sometimes the “center” leans to the right; sometimes it leans to the left. It is not necessarily where its elected officials are, nor even where the poltiical class is. Short of a revolutinary environment, most voters in the U.S. always remain the political center (since, in effect, they define it).
There are always, simultaneously, “moderates” among elected officials, that is those who try to operate in the political “middle” where compromise attempts to deal with those in actual political power. Some of these “moderates” are centrists, too, much of the time, but their modus operandi is merely to moderate poltical action rather than fulfill the “centrism” of the majority of voters.
A case in point was the recent healthcare legislation in which President Obama and the Democratic congress put forward, relative to govenment policy in the past, radical proposals to change the government’s role in healthcare. Very few in America, Democrat or Republican, left or right, would deny that reform of our healthcare system was in order and needed. But the proposals of the Obama administration went much further, in my opinion, than where the voter in the political center wanted to go. Whether these proposals can be accurately labeled as “socialist,” “social democratic,” “European” or simply “radical” is not the question. The question is whether they occupy the political center or not.
Many Republican legislators, now out of power after years of some power since 1994, tried to exert some influence to moderate the legislation, and in so doing voted for the final bill. These senators and members of the house of representatives acted as “moderates,” not as centrists. They only moderated the radical legislation slightly; they did not make it fit the political center.
A large number of voters, many of them in the Republican Party or self-described as “independents” who belong to neither major party, however objected to this legislation, especially as its details and consequences were revealed after passage and signing. When combined with other Obama administration intitiatives in domestic and foreign policy, these actions or proposed actions provoked many outside the political class, but primarily in the political center, to coalesce as the 2010 mid-term elections approached.
I am not saying that the so-called Tea Party movement is the only part of this centrist reaction, but it is the most visible and active part, I am not saying that all Tea Party members and activists are centrists, but most of them are. It is, of course, in the self interests of the Democrats and the Republican “moderates” to try to portray the Tea Party as “extremists,” “radicals,” and “rascists,” but they are, as a movmement, nothing of the kind.
(I note that the politically smartest members of the Republican Party have welcomed the Tea Party, and are now working with them for the November elections.)
Those elected politicians of both parties who have been acting as “moderates” are in much trouble this year. They have confused their role as centrists with acting solely to moderate. Thus, Arlen Spector, Mike Castle (neither as a senator nor a congressman), Lisa Murkowki, George Voinovich (retiring) et al, will not be returning to office next year; and why Democrats Blanche Lincoln, Byron Dorgan (retiring), Evan Bayh (retiring), Michael Bennett, Bill Nelson, Patty Murray, et al, are in so much trouble or just chose not to run.
The fact that some of those chosen by Tea party voters so far this year are eccentric, and may not win in the end, or that a few Tea Party activists hold more extreme views than the vast majority of Tea Party voters. does not alter the reality that the Tea Party is a genuine grass roots centrist movement.
I therefore caution those who would use interchangeably the terms ‘centrist” and “moderate” to be wary about missing the political boat this year. “Moderates” are indeed in trouble, but they are in trouble because the political centrists, those not in the political class, are upset and angry with what has been happening in Washington, DC.