Is Centrism A Viable Political Strategy? It Sure Doesn’t Look Like It

The 'No Labels' movement is back, and it's as irrelevant to contemporary politics as ever.

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At the end of a column about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s appearance at a New York City event sponsored by the No Labels movement, The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker writes this:

But, I asked, can centrism really become a movement? Does it need a party?

Said Lieberman: “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we have to have a two-party system. We can do whatever we want.”

Indeed, we can.

In some sense, Senator Lieberman is correct when he says that there are no Constitutional limitations on the existence of a multi-party system in the United States. Indeed, there have been times where a third party of some kind has risen up and been at least somewhat competitive with the two dominant parties.  The elections of 1856 and 1860, for example, had candidates representing several political parties on the ballot, although they were largely regional phenomenon and relied upon the political divisions over slavery and its expansion for their existence, and they failed to survive the upheaval of the Civil War. Additionally, it’s worth noting that both these elections marked a political turning point in that the Whig Party was being replaced as a major party by the Republican Party. The election of 1892 saw the Populist Party field a candidate that had some success in an election that saw former President Grover Cleveland beat incumbent Benjamin Harrison in a rematch of the race from four years earlier, but this part didn’t last very long and eventually merged into the Democratic Party. We saw similar phenomenon is the elections of 1912, 1924, 1948, 1968. 1980, 1992, and 1996. In each case, though, the parties that arose were a one-off phenomenon that largely failed to have much of an impact on the outcome. More recently, the 2016 election saw Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, Green Party nominee Jill Stein, and independent EvanMcMullin get a combined total of roughly 6,000,000 votes, an amount larger than the difference in the popular vote between the two major party candidates, which was better than we’ve seen from alternative party candidates in quite some time.

While this relative handful of election results does support the contention that there’s no reason we can’t have a viable third-party, the fact that none of these movements lasted much beyond a single election, and that most of them were built around a single issue or individual, does demonstrate the institutional barriers that exist in our political system that make the rise of any third-party, much less a “centrist” one, highly unlikely. There’ very little history, for example, of a viable third-party movement at the state level, and only a handful of times that we’ve seen members of Congress who represent a true third party rather than being nominal independents who end up voting predominantly with one party or the other. In no small part, of course, this is because Congress itself is structured in such a way that encourages the existence of just two major parties. The rules of both the House and the Senate basically presume the existence of a majority party and a single minority party, for example, meaning that anyone who is elected to Congress as an independent or a member of a third-party has to choose between caucusing with either Republicans or Democrats if they’re going to get access to things such as committee assignments that would actually allow them to get anything done. Finally, as OTB’s own Steven Taylor has noted on several occasions over the years, the structure of our political system, which includes everything from the Electoral College to our first past the post voting system, encourages the existence of only two major parties. Unless that changes, we’re unlikely to see the rise of a truly viable third party of any kind.

Beyond the structural issues, though, there’s the question of whether or not the kind of “centrism” that the No Labels movement is championing could really form the basis of a viable national political movement in today’s environment. The sad conclusion I must reach is that, notwithstanding polling that continues to show that Americans want more centrist results from their government, the answer to this question is a pretty firm “no.” For better or worse, both major parties have moved further away from the center in recent years, and that trend shows no signs of abating in the near future. To be sure, the phenomenon has been far more prevalent in the Republican Party, which has moved considerably far to the right thanks to its embrace of the Tea Party movement, the influence of politically active social conservatives and evangelicals, both of which paved the road for Donald Trump’s ability to essentially coast to the Republican nomination last year. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon happen in the Democratic Party, which has lost much of its conservative and moderate element with the loss of an electoral base in the south outside of the African-American community and the death of the Blue Dog Democrats. This has led to the ongoing battle inside the party between a progressive wing allied with politicians such as Bernie Sanders (who is nominally an Independent but clearly a strong player inside the Democratic Party) and Elizabeth Warren that is attempting to pull and the more or less center-left establishment of the party, which doesn’t seem at the moment to be presenting much of a viable alternative to the progressives. Additionally, as several of us here at OTB have noted over the years, the fracturing of the news media has meant that people are getting information mostly from sources that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs rather than taking in information from a wide variety of sources. All of this, it seems to me, makes it unlikely that “centrism” of any kind can succeed in taking back the political momentum in the United States anytime soon.

 

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    As much as I like the idea of a third party (and, to be honest, I’m really jealous of multiparty parliamentary systems, but we’ll never get that here), I realize the only way it would happen is if a third party replaces one of the existing parties. Given how entrenched the GoP and Dems are, that’s unlikely to happen.

    The only recourse, then is to hope both parties return to their “big tent” roots but the trend still seems to be the opposite.

  2. Kylopod says:

    One of the problems is that “centrism” is not a policy agenda. When figures like Joe Lieberman or Kathleen Parker talk about “centrism,” what they have in mind is some form of fiscal conservatism married to social liberalism, which they falsely believe represents the views of the majority of the public. In reality the exact reverse is far more popular, and economic AND social liberalism are the most popular of all, once you move past vague bromides and get into specific policy positions.

    Of course, as you mention the problem is also structural. As long as we have an Electoral College and rigid winner-take-all Congressional elections, third parties of any kind have little chance of gaining a foothold. And even if we did reform the system to make it more open to third parties (which is unlikely to happen because the two major parties have tremendous incentives not to let this happen), our whole political culture is so centered around Republicans and Democrats, and so deeply embedded in the institutions, that I’m not sure most Americans would be interested.

    This whole “The public is fed up with the two party duopoly” is usually little more than a ritual masturbatory exercise by elites who make a habit of projecting their views on the public without any real evidence that the public truly finds those views compelling.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    I think distinction needs to be made between nonpartisan (someone who has a clear policy agenda that doesn’t really fit nicely into either party) and moderate (someone who has no clear policy agenda and wants centrism purely for centrism’s sake).

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Good post, which inspires a few comments:
    1. Anything Joe Lieberman is associated with is suspect.
    2. You mention the third party effort of 1912, which was TR running as a Bull Moose. He ran on the Progressive Party platform which included a national health insurance plank. When we say progressives have been trying to get national health care for a hundred years, we’re not kidding.
    3. There is indeed no legal bar to a new major party. But, as you note, our winner take all system guarantees a return to only two. The last time it happened was when the Republicans replaced the Whigs. Now the Republicans may be ripe for a split and replacement.
    4. This sounds like mostly an escape hatch for Republicans who realize their party has gone nuts.
    5. “Argument to moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam)—also known as [argument from] middle ground, false compromise, gray fallacy, and the golden mean fallacy[1]—is an informal fallacy which asserts that the truth must be found as a compromise between two opposite positions. This fallacy’s opposite is the false dilemma.”

  5. Pete S says:

    I would like the people who favour a “centrist” party to explain which particular positions they prefer. For instance, Republican Members of Congress want to take away health care from about 30 million people, Democrats don’t. Is the centrist position to take it away from 15 million? The Republican base wants to deport 800,000 people who were brought here as children. The Democrats do not. Is the centrist position to deport 400,000?

    Or is the centrist position to decimate health care but allow DACA folks to stay?

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Pete S: Republican congress critters wish to ignore AGW because the Koch Bros., Exxon, et al fear it may hurt profits The Democrats wish to try to deal with it. Republicans believe tax cuts for the wealthy will cut the deficit. Democrats, economists, others who are numerate, and persons familiar with economic history believe otherwise.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    There is indeed no legal bar to a new major party.

    Since USCon is silent on political parties, I would say that there is no Federal Constitutional bar to any political party.

    States have all kinds of legal hurdles that favor Democratic and Republican
    candidates and prevent other political groups from attaining ballot access.

    See Ballotpedia

  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    Additionally, third parties have tended to be formed over splinter group issues rather than a search for consensus which is part of why the seem not to have any “legs.” But the biggest problem, as many have already noted is that “centrism” isn’t actually a policy or a platform, and even if it were, it would not attract a majority of the electorate. Consider the Northern Ireland “Alliance” Party. Except for a couple of recent elections, it polls about 5-7%, and that’s probably about the number of true “centrists,” whatever they might believe in, here, too.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Centrists are people that think that white supremacists deserve a place at the table, even if they find them personally distasteful.

    No thanks.

  10. Scott says:

    Additionally, it’s worth noting that both these elections marked a political turning point in that the Whig Party was being replaced as a major party by the Republican Party.

    Just coincidentally, I am reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In the 1840s and 50s in the runup to the Civil War, the US politics was placed under enormous stress by one issue: slavery. There were two parties, Whig and Democratic. Under the stress, both were breaking up, not just the Whig Party. There were interim parties: Free Soilers, Know Nothings are two examples, that parts were later absorbed. As noted, the Republican Party was formed by remnants of the Whig Party but also anti-slavery Democrats. Democratic Party survived in name but by and large it was a different party.

    The Whig Party died because it tried to be centrist when there was no compromise possible.

    Analogies to present time are not absolute but basically today both the Republican and Democratic parties are under political stress and some realigning is going on. But I don’t see a irreconcilable issue like slavery where a center cannot hold. It’s currently pretty weak and I don’t see how it gets stronger at this time. Probably will take a catastrophe (Nuking North Korea?) to make the conditions for a total shakeup and realignment.

  11. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    One of the problems is that “centrism” is not a policy agenda. When figures like Joe Lieberman or Kathleen Parker talk about “centrism,” what they have in mind is some form of fiscal conservatism married to social liberalism, which they falsely believe represents the views of the majority of the public.

    I think that’s true in America.

    The interesting thing is that in Canada, the Liberal Gov’t basically became the ‘natural ruling party’ of the country by following exactly that: fiscal conservatism married to social liberalism. Of course, having a parliamentary system (and so three and sometimes four major parties helped, but a bigger difference is that the largest block of Canadian voters seem to like the combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.

    I wonder if its because Canada doesn’t have a significant fundamentalist religious community (of any religion), so there’s not much push for social conservatism. Even the last two Conservative prime ministers (Harper and before that Mulroney) were very careful not to allow talk of social conservatism to rise to governing levels.

    And my guess is that centrism tends to do extremely well in Parliamentary systems in Europe, Japan, and Australia as well. Perhaps it just comes with having a Parliamentary system.

    However that might be, in Canada centrism definitely is a policy agenda, one which not just the federal gov’t, but every provincial gov’t as well. Going to an extreme (in either direction) simply loses the next election.

  12. george says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    Centrists are people that think that white supremacists deserve a place at the table, even if they find them personally distasteful.

    No thanks.

    The largest block of Canadians (including the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) are centrists – ie the Liberal Party, which is the center between the right’s Conservative Party and the left’s New Democratic Party. Most first nations (or Indians if you prefer) are centrists as far as voting results go. And most immigrants (a source of constant lament for both the NDP and Conservatives) are centrist as well.

    And I guarantee you neither First Nations, nor the immigrants (by far the majority of which come from parts of the world which aren’t ‘white’) think centrism means what you think it means.

    It means things like having public health care funding, but privatized doctors, you know … taking elements from both left and right and trying to make a working mixture.

    I will admit it seems to work better in Canada than in America.

  13. al-Ameda says:

    These days, I roll my eyes when people self-identify as centrists. They’re usually the same people who claim to see no difference between the two parties, and like the ‘both sides do it’ rationalization or explanation.

    Look at the most recent ‘repeal and replace’ round. A handful of so-called moderate Republicans (arguably ‘centrists’) Collins, Murkowsky, Graham, Flake, Heller, Corker, Cassidy and McCain, referred to the bill as terrible, and yet Cassidy, Corker, Flake and Heller voted for it.

    Maybe it’s just me but, an actual ‘centrist’ would not vote for a ‘terrible’ bill that is so obviously defective and outside the public interest.

    In a related matter, I see ‘Independents’ in a similar manner – both parties are the same, both sides do it, ad nauseum.

  14. george says:

    @al-Ameda:

    They’re usually the same people who claim to see no difference between the two parties, and like the ‘both sides do it’ rationalization or explanation.

    Maybe I’m prejudiced from being in Canada a long time now, but most centrists I know claim the two wings (Conservatives and NDP) are bad in completely different ways … ie not that there’s no difference between the two, but that both are too extreme in opposite directions.

    Saying both left and right wing are bad isn’t saying they’re the same, anymore than someone saying Siberia is too cold and the Saraha desert is too hot is saying they’re both the same.

    And I say that as someone who thinks the Democratic party is to the right of Canada’s conservative party, so personally I don’t think they’re extreme at all. But in the American context, for many people the Dems are too far too the left, the Reps are too far to the right – and I don’t see how that possibly can be construed as saying they’re the same.

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @george:

    and I say that as someone who thinks the Democratic party is to the right of Canada’s conservative party, so personally I don’t think they’re extreme at all. But in the American context, for many people the Dems are too far too the left, the Reps are too far to the right – and I don’t see how that possibly can be construed as saying they’re the same.

    It’s generally a kind of ‘dog whistle,’ a way of saying that both parties are corrupt, both accept money from special interests, you know the drill.

    Footnote: I had the pleasure of talking politics with a few people in my neighborhood, and these people were Jill Stein voters, and they honestly thought that both Hillary and Trump were equally bad. In short they walked and talked like ‘centrists.’ I wonder if they still think that the Republican Party takeover in Washington is working the same way as a Democratic Party takeover might have. I hope those ‘centrist’ / Stein voters are doing well in counseling.

  16. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @george: This entire conversation is about centrism is a Presidential / first past the post system, not a parliamentary one. And in particular, the one in the United States. You’re engaging in Whataboutism.

  17. george says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    Not sure I see the whataboutism. This seems like pretty standard engineering practice. If someone says its impossible to build a bridge out of some material A, and someone else points to a place where a bridge has been built out of that material, the usual engineering procedure is to look at how and why they build it, and see what parts of that are applicable to their current project, and which aren’t. You might end up with material B, but taking good elements from material A.

    Its odd that a practice that has resulted in planes and jets flying, solid state electronics developing into modern computer technology, and in fact most of modern material science being called whataboutism.

    However, if that’s the name for it, its probably a good thing, since whataboutism is what has driven much of modern science and engineering. Taking ideas from other applications is extremely valuable.

    Or if you don’t like engineering, consider art. Picasso said something like mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal. Meaning if something works in one application, its often possible to steal it and make it work in a different application.

    Democrats are basically a centrist party. The GOP is a right wing party, and well on the way to being a far right party. Making centrism viable is one way to starve the GOP of votes. So why not look at why it works in other places and see if some of that can be stolen?

  18. Walt Peterson says:

    The notion of “centrism” is based on a two-dimensional political spectrum that doesn’t encompass all possible political points of view. However, we are stuck in a two-dimensional universe as long as we continue to use single-member districts with plurality voting. What we need is to have legislatures chosen from multi-member districts (a good way to minimize gerrymandering, by the way), with cumulative or approval voting, and executives chosen by ranked choice voting.

  19. george says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Are there people who think both parties are the same? Sure. Every communist I’ve ever met thinks the R’s and D’s are interchangeable. But no communist calls him or herself a centrist – they’re proud to be very left wing.

    The people I know who consider themselves centrists say that they’re in the center because one party is too far to the right, the other party is too far to the left.

    And actually, that’s kind of the definition of being in the center. If both parties are the same, then there’s no room between them to be in the center – the only way to differentiate yourself from two identical parties is to be either to the left or to the right of it.

    Someone who claims that the GOP and the Democratic Party are the same, but they’re somehow between those identical parties, is logically confused, like someone who claims to be on the number line between x=2 and x=2 … there’s no space between them.

  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @al-Ameda: “and yet Cassidy, Corker, Flake and Heller voted for it.”

    And Cassidy followed up, with fellow *moderate* Lindsay Graham, to offer an even worse bill after the previous one failed.(And it doesn’t even pass Cassidy’s own “Jimmy Kimmel Test.”)

  21. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @george: I think that Grommit Gunn is getting at the issue that “centrism” seems to mean different things in the US and Canada. While you are acknowledging that point obliquely, continually returning to the same “things are different here” line of discussion seems distracting from the train of discussion at some point. I’m fairly sure you will disagree, but there you are.

  22. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: Specifically, because Canada has a parliamentary system, you actually have a left, a right, and a center. While we philosophically have left, right, and center, our actual political party system seems more far right, center right (Even the Conservative GNP/Saenuri Party in Korea–whatever name it is going by post Park Geun hye is more liberal on most issues than the Democratic Party here). In that situation, “Centerist” will actually be perceived as “leftist,” and mostly is–particularly on the “right.”

  23. Todd says:

    I think how we define centrism matters. Or perhaps we could even say that pragmatism is more what people like me would prefer. From the Democratic perspective, I think it’s useful to start from the leftward positions of people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But those positions can’t be lines in the sand. Pragmatism dictates that sometimes you have to be willing to take the best deal you can get. When progressives attack some Senators and Representatives for ever “working with Republicans”, as if that’s some sort of a mortal sin, it’s less that helpful. That being said, in the past 10 years “centrist” Democrats who did things like not want to campaign with President Obama, or avoided taking positions because they might anger conservatives pretty much all ended up losing their elections anyway … after they’d voted to do things like make the PPACA much worse than it had to be.

  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: Pretty much this, yes.

    If one is looking at centrism as a political philosophy (i.e. the Liberal-Democrat Party in UK), then there is already a centrist party in the United States. It is called the Democratic Party, which today basically is a broad coalition party that runs an extremely large gamut from progressive to liberal to center-left to center to center-right.

    If one is defining centrism as the middle point between the two parties in a presidential / first past the post system, then a centrist in the modern US is someone who thinks there is a middle ground to be found between white supremacists and everyone else.

    There’s zero room for a centrist third party in the US political system, or in any other first past the post system, for political science-based reasons. In a system like the US system, the two major parties are coalition parties by definition, that represent a wide array of constituencies.
    If I constituency becomes influential enough and its overriding concern is fairly mainstream, then one of the two coalition parties (or both) will find ways to absorb those concerns into its own platform in order to increase its voting base.

    In this system, the only third parties that are sustainable are those whose primary reasons for existence are not easily absorbed by one of the existing coalition parties: the parties on the left and the right hand fringes.

    By definition, centrists represent a middle ground within the spectrum of acceptable political thought, and one party or the other will absorb their concerns in short order. If one party shares 90% of your concerns, but is small and can’t get anyone elected to actually represent your concerns (i.e. a centrist 3rd party), and another party shares 70% of your concerns and can actually get elected to represent those concerns, then the centrist 3rd party can only really advocate for 0% of your concerns because they only ever get 5% of the vote. In that circumstance, it is always more logical to go with the party that you agree with 70% of the time.

  25. DrDaveT says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    While we philosophically have left, right, and center

    No, I think this is misleading, perhaps even dangerously wrong.

    Philosophically, we have the following:

    1. The Left. Believers in liberty based on equality, and in progress based on education and science. Intellectual heirs of Rousseau, Mill, and others.

    2. The Right. Believers in liberty based on property rights, and in a fixed social order. Intellectual heirs of Locke and Burke.

    3. The Far Left. Believers in enforced equality through collectivism; actively opposed to personal property. Intellectual heirs of Marx. (Very rare in the US today.)

    4. The Far Right. Believers in security through authoritarian central government. Often also believers in cultural homogeneity and expansionist nationalism. Intellectual heirs of Hegel and Nietzsche.

    5. The LIbertarians. Advocates of personal freedom with as few constraints as possible, at least for themselves. Intellectual heirs of Eleanor H. Porter PeeWee Herman Ayn Rand.

    None of those alternatives to Left and Right can be characterized as Center; they are all more extreme than either the Left or Right positions. In most countries, what we call the Left would be the Center, and the Far Left would be the Left.