We hear often about the disappearing center in politics, polarization, and the inability and lack of desire to compromise. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It is a common metaphor to think of political views as a line that goes from left to right. However, this approach makes it difficult to understand how people like Stalin or Mao ended up in the same category of murderous dictators as Hitler. To solve this mystery, we can change a linear representation to circular, in which case Stalin and Hitler just meet at the top of the circle; they just come there from different sides. But if a circle model makes it easier to understand extremes, it still doesn’t help much with mainstream politics.
Surprisingly, left and right are not that easy to distinguish, at least if we concentrate on American politics. Democrats are commonly considered left based on their advocating for more government control and more personal freedom. This seems like a contradiction because more government control inevitably means less personal freedom, but this contradiction may be partially resolved if we understand that in reality Democrats advocate specifically for more social freedom and more economic government control.
Republicans are considered right based on their advocating for less government control and, ironically, also more personal freedom. Let’s clarify this as well: Republicans are actually talking about more economic personal freedom rather than social, where they say that government should be involved in what people do even at home (smoke marijuana, for example).
What else? Republicans apparently support authority and order, but for all practical purposes so do Democrats since government embodies those two things. Democrats, on the other hand, support helping others — but so do Republicans, who give a lot to charities. Democrats are thought to like changes and progress, while Republicans cling to preserving the past. But those are too subjective (what is progress? is change always good?) to serve as a reliable indicator.
How about the center?
With not much success with left and right, we can try to define the center in politics. The dictionaries describe it as “(t)he political philosophy of taking a moderate position that avoids extremes, as of right and left” and “adherence to a middle-of-the-road position, neither left nor right.” The problem with these definitions is that both the left and the right have many beliefs and support many ideas. So should centrists maintain the middle ground for every contentious political idea or they will be still called centrists if they adhere to some ideas from the left and some ideas from the right? For example, libertarians want a lot of personal freedom – more than any liberal – and they want very little government interference – less than any conservative. And what is a moderate position anyway? Is someone who has no strong positions at all a centrist? Plus, what seems to be an extreme position to some may look very moderate to others.
Since it looks like it is almost impossible to define centrists based on their thoughts, another way is to do it based on their actions, i.e. voting pattern. In this case, those who split the ticket or cross the party lines from election to election are called independents. However, this may not be a reliable indicator either since these people may vote based on personal likes or dislikes for a candidate or other factors which have nothing to do with ideology.
To make things even more complicated, the center moves. What was a centrist moderate position 40 years ago is not centrist anymore, and what was considered extreme at that time is the center now. The middle line, if we define it as an average view of all Americans (yet, another definition of center), has moved to the left in the last several decades, giving an impression, but just an impression, that Republicans are further to the right. Here is a simple mathematical model: Imagine a neutral line at 0 and an average Republican at +5 to the right and an average Democrat at -5 to the left of that zero neutral line. If that neutral line moves two points to the left, it will now be at -2. If Republicans move one point to the left, they will be at +4 but still farther away from a new neutral point of -2 (6 points difference vs. 5 points difference before). Now, if Democrats moved to the left the same two points, the difference between them and Republicans will be 11 points instead of 10 before, supporting the evidence of increased polarization; however, this occurred despite Republicans actually moving to the LEFT.
Here are the facts supporting this model. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and even some Republicans are ready to accept it. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ being a socialist seemed to be an asset, especially with young people, rather than a liability, and his poll numbers were consistently high among all voters. And it is impossible to even imagine today’s Democratic senators, president or presidential candidates supporting welfare reform that was passed during the Clinton era. Even Trump’s election doesn’t disprove this point: He is not really a Republican and many Republicans opposed him from the very beginning.
Compromise: It’s complicated
It looks like a center is almost impossible to define. So maybe it is just the people who are ready to compromise on all issues? But what is a compromise? If one of your sons wants to go bungee jumping on vacation and the other wants to watch a silly TV show all day, what do you do? You can suggest spending half a day for each activity or doing one today and one tomorrow, but neither is a good solution even though either may be considered a compromise; the right thing may be to do something totally different and good for kids’ development, but that would not be a compromise by its definition. Or imagine that your spouse wants to replace the siding on the house and you think that it is not necessary now. Will a compromise be to replace the siding on half the house? Or replace it with cheap stuff instead of high quality materials? Again, neither is a good solution; instead, an idea should be re-evaluated based on its merits and the siding should be either replaced with good materials or not replaced at all. Looking for a compromise just to half-satisfy all parties is not reasonable because it will leave them also half-unsatisfied; the solution is to do what’s really best.
So here is my definition of an independent moderate centrist: It is someone who can objectively and critically evaluate, without bias, all proposed ideas from both the left and the right and find the best current solution based on facts, logic, and reason regardless of where it came from (and yes, in some cases, it may be a compromises, but not always). In other words, it’s a person who can understand and support any reasonable idea and for whom left-right divide is irrelevant. In which case, should we even care about the political spectrum?
Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.
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