Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia), often referred to as “centrists,” have been putting obstacles and limits on US President Joe Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better reconstruction plan. . Many observers wonder about the real meaning of that term in 2021; It is not necessary to be cynical to suspect that the mentioned figures are not so much centrist as autocentric, and that they only obey the imperative of obtaining reelection.
By what criteria to judge the centrists? That question has become urgent not only in the US but also in France, where President Macron, who has promised to build a new center in France, will seek re-election in the coming year. As in the case of the two US senators, critics see Macron’s centrism as a smokescreen for a politician who in practice rules for the right (to the point that they call him “the president of the rich”).
The question, then, is no longer whether the center can be sustained, but whether any meaning of centrism can be sustained in current politics. This term made sense during the 20th century, which many consider to be an era of ideological extremes. Being at the center implied a commitment to fighting anti-democratic parties and movements. But even then, those who called themselves centrists were often accused of bad faith. With characteristic irony, Isaiah Berlin, a quintessential liberal, was included among the “miserable centrists, despicable moderates, crypto-reactionary skeptical intellectuals.” These first self-styled centrists could take advantage of the prestige accumulated in the struggle against fascism and Stalinism; But afterward, the legacy of a deliberately restrained stance in politics faded. Today there is in many countries a kind of zombie centrism: a remnant of the Cold War that no longer offers any genuine political guidance to its adherents.
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The German Christian Democrats recently learned it the worst way. His attempt to run in the federal election in September as the center, in the face of a possible coalition between the Social Democrats and the post-communist Die Linke (The Left) party, was a dismal failure. It was obvious that the anti-communist campaign of the Christian Democrats (which seemed to be taken from the 1950s) had no relation to the challenges of the 21st century. The idea that someone as measured as Chancellor Olaf Scholz was going to be waving red flags in the Reichstag seemed truly absurd. But there are still two forms of centrism that are not reducible to a Cold War zombie liberalism. One is procedural: In systems like the American one where there is separation of powers, politicians are forced to practice the art of concession, especially in an era in which clear majorities in legislative chambers have become rare.
The increasingly fragmented party systems in Europe face a similar imperative. The Dutch Parliament is home to no less than 17 parties (maybe more, depending on how you count it). And Germany already has a government in which social democrats and left-wing greens are part of a traffic light coalition with pro-market liberal democrats.
Fragmentation (be it institutional or political) forces politicians to adopt what the Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit calls scrupulous unscrupulousness (principled unprincipledness) for democracy to work. After all, most people are not willing to compromise just for the sake of it, as no one would say that the second best option is the best option. The exception is those who subscribe to the second credible form of centrism: positional. For positional centrists, the equidistance between political extremes is evidence of pragmatism and “not ideology,” and they generally try to capitalize on the value still attached to bipartisanship (especially in the US). They profit from appearing reasonable when the left and the right are dominated by fanatics. In his first election campaign, Macron stressed the radical stance of his opponents (the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon) to show himself as the only representative of a responsible position. Appealing to the horseshoe theory (very popular with anti-communists during the Cold War), centrists also often suggest that left-wing and right-wing populism will sooner or later converge on the same illiberal destiny. But like third-way theorists in the 1990s, Macron’s followers have also proposed that left and right are outdated labels; this allows them to invite former socialists and gaullists into their movement.
Centrism, however, is not automatically democratic. A good example is Macron, who has been called a “liberal strongman.” Its “neither left nor right” stance implies an overtly technocratic form of government. The assumption is that for every political challenge there is always an exclusive rational response, which allows any critic to be branded irrational. But as Macron discovered with the revolt of the yellow vests In 2018, the denial of democratic pluralism implicit in this position may provoke an intense counter-reaction.
Procedural and positional centrism depend on the proper functioning of democracy, and both can be dangerous in countries suffering from asymmetric political polarization. This is what happens today in the United States, where the Republican Party no longer recognizes basic aspects of democracy. Today the Republicans are embarked on a vast project that includes extreme manipulation of electoral districts, voter suppression, election subversion and legislative obstructionism, and they show no interest in making concessions. Now that Biden is in the White House, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who despite his reluctance has been a reliable Trump accomplice), is following the same manual he perfected during the Obama presidency.
Procedural centrism makes no sense when political adversaries no longer abide by procedures (as Republicans now do). But the situation is even worse for positional centrism. If a party rejects democracy, equidistance is complicity. If all Sinema and Manchin offer is zombie centrism, procedural centrism or positional centrism, at some point even their own voters could punish them for blocking government initiatives that are in fact very popular.
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