The political center is wherever you’re standing

The Center

By Martin Bosworth

Yesterday I came across a Daily KOS diary written by “Bonddad” (aka Hale Stewart), a prominent economics blogger and writer who also has his own blog space. Hale’s a very smart man who’s forgotten more about the markets than I’ll ever know, and I had the pleasure of getting his expertise for a story I wrote a few years back on the declining fortunes of the middle class. So when he speaks, I generally give it a listen.

The central thesis of his diary is that the Dems are not only failing to capitalize on their successes in the 2006 elections, but they’re fast proving themselves to be as bad as their foes across the aisle when it comes to making real change:

At the heart of my discontent/discord is this: I’m a centrist. I fall under the socially liberal, fiscally conservative banner and no one — I repeat no one — is talking to me. The Republicans are completely beholden to the religious right and their twisted version of how to create a theocracy. And the Democrats have a really annoying anti-business bias that I disagree with. Business does not equal Satan.

What makes this interesting is that if you were to ask someone like David Sirota, for instance, what they thought of the current Dem landscape, he’d tell you that they are ANYTHING but anti-business. And of course, I threw my support behind Matt Taibbi’s screed that modern liberalism has abandoned the working class and populism, and that progressive ideas need to be about the economic and social in equal measure.

So, are we ALL right? Can the Democratic party be simultaneously pro-and-anti-business? Yes, definitely. Much like any large movement, it’s going to have factions and wings that sometimes conflict with each other. You can’t paint the Dems with the same broad brush, any more than you can “The Media,” “The Military,” etc. They’re too big and too diverse for that.

But more than that, I think this exposes the false concept of “the center.” People worship and fetishize the idea of “the center” as the Nirvana that all politicians must strive for. “Does it play to the center?” “Will it appeal to the center?” What the hell IS the center?

The center, to me, is whatever the speaker thinks it is. Bonddad believes in fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, so to him, that’s the center. Sirota may think it’s something different. And I bet if you asked me and my fellow Scholars & Rogues what the center was, you’d get a dozen different answers.

This is the political expression of our egoistic, individualized, atomized society. We position ourselves as the center of the world, and therefore all our cultural and political endeavors radiate outward from what we believe. We, naturally, think of ourselves as being right and rational, so any politician or leader who espouses ideas we agree with must be the right one. The further someone deviates from what we want to be true, the less of a “centrist” and more of a “radical wacko” they are.

I’m a progressive. I KNOW I am not even close to what American politics might consider the center. I’m getting the rest of the world to catch up to me and those like me, in fact. And when they do, will we be the center? I don’t know. And I don’t think it really matters. I think all that matters are the ideas and how they can be put into action. Our leaders should be those who are willing to plant their flag far beyond what the masses believe. That’s why they lead.

So the next time you hear someone talk about being a centrist or the importance of playing to the center, ask them what the center IS. In fact, ask the next five someones what the center is. You’re bound to get five different answers. 🙂

12 replies »

  1. Martin,

    I disagree to some extent. I appreciate that we all define our place in society principally in terms of ourselves. In your last graf, you note that asking five people to define “center” will produce “five different answers.”

    Suppose you ask 500? Or 5,000? Or 500,000? Or 5,000,000? As you ask more people, it’s likely that you’ll find tremendous overlap in those different answers.

    That’s the art of current big-time national politics: finding a way to position a candidate where the most overlap exists.

    Thanks for the provocative post.


  2. I was going to blog about this a while ago but, well, things arise. It is this: what’s all this (to use a vernacular word) kak about “centre”, “left”, “right”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “insert-purgative-term-here” -ism?

    As you so insightfully point out: “any large movement [is] going to have factions and wings that sometimes conflict with each other”. This means that worrying about where someone claims to stand is irrelevant next to what their objectives are on important topics.

    So you have republicans who are against the free market; or democrats who are anti-abortion and pro-trade. All very confusing.

    Perhaps we should just choose ten important issues with a clearly defined continuum of answers and ask each candidate where they stand on them. That way, irrespective of who they happen to represent, we can figure out what they’re actually planning to do should they get elected.

    I’ll kick off with a few:

    i) Individual rights: where do you stand in terms of the government’s right to impose its will on others who disagree – always impose, sometimes impose, never impose
    ii) Trade protection: where do you stand in terms of giving subsidies to favoured agricultural or industrial lobbies – always give subsidies, sometimes, never
    iii) Education: where do you stand in terms of holding schools to account for the quality of their graduates – always hold to account, sometimes, never
    iv) Health: where do you stand in terms of providing government-subsidised minimum standards of care – don’t want to, maybe a little bit, definitely

    … you could have a field day with this. Trot out the issues, not the labels. I wouldn’t want some burk elected just because they know how to wield appropriate badges of dubious merit.

  3. I really disagree on some of this. While I think that we all think we’re RIGHT – and this goes to the self-centeredness you’re talking about – I think most folks who aren’t toward the center know it, to some degree. I think this process is tremendously complicated by the SILENCE of the center for the past couple of decades – the majority has been all to willing to let the yappy fringes speak in its name, to nobody’s benefit.

    I also suspect that the S&R crew could come up with more consensus on the subject that you think we could. For instance, I don’t think I’m the center – I’m closer than most of you, because “center” is a statistical concept that’s somewhat knowable – but I’m hardly the crossroads of American political thought.

  4. Sam and Denny,

    Ah, yes, the “great, silent majority” that Nixon espoused, eh? 🙂 I just don’t buy it. Given the incredible democratization of communication that’s occurred just in the past ten years alone, it’s easier than ever for people to make themselves heard. If the center is so powerful, why is it not dictating the shifts of the tide?

    Because there’s nothing there at the core. It’s a false construct that pollsters and pundits have crafted to define whatever position their particular object of worship has created as THE TRUTH.

    I never thought I’d say this, but I agree completely with what Gavin said. Break it down completely on the issues. Where do you stand on XYZ? Why or why not? That will put some kind of end to this constant desire to “triangulate” and poll test for a majority that, as far as I can see, is invisible, intangible, and unknowable.

  5. Elaine,

    Darling, I love your comments, but I think you’re dead wrong here. 🙂 Why? Because your center isn’t the same as my center. Mostly because I’m not a woman. 🙂

    I think you make a good point, but those values you cite are not as easily defined as it seems. Some people genuinely believe it is the right of man to rape and pillage the Earth for all that we can squeeze out of it…to them, it’s perfectly rational and reasonable. That is their center. 🙂

  6. Well, busting it all out on an issues basis is what (the recently dormant) DS08 is all about. I’m hard to map on any kind of conventional left/center/right scale because that’s more how I work, anyway.

    I think you’re making hay by subtly redefining terms for purposes of your argument in ways that aren’t obvious, but once we get past the semantics I don’t really think we disagree on the dynamics.

  7. Sam,

    I’ll buy that. I think we agree that the idea of cataloguing and confining people into easily-mapped boxes of viewpoints is ludicrous and should be cast aside. 🙂