16 December 2011

A Divided Center?

For those who despair of Bipolarchy, the people who blame the failure of government to address the economic crisis effectively on base-driven polarization, the great hope is the "center," the place in the imaginary political spectrum where the "moderates" dwell and not just compromise but reconciliation is possible. The moderate or centrist (some writers have suggested a meaningful difference between the two) is usually understood to be someone who has already achieved a compromise or synthesis of opposing ideological claims. It is assumed that the center is where consensus exists or can be achieved easily. But what if it isn't so easy? What if the center itself is divided? That's the possibility raised by Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie in a column that was picked up by one of my local papers this week. "The truth is, the center is not a monolithic community," McKenzie writes, "When we hear about candidates appealing to the middle, which often happens in general elections when campaigns worry about voters not aligned with either party, it’s important to understand the competing players."

According to McKenzie, two significantly different groups occupy the supposed political center. For our purposes, we can label these groups the "centrists," described by McKenzie as socially-liberal economic conservatives, and the "populists," described by the columnist as mostly cultural conservatives but driven primarily by distrust of elites. For generations, McKenzie notes, the populists followed Democrats, but have gone Republican for at least the last forty years, not counting occasional experiments with third parties. Now, however, the Occupy movements have reawakened latent hostility to economic elitism alongside recent animosity toward political and cultural elites. McKenzie believes that populists of all ideological persuasions, galvanized by the Occupations, are likely to demand that government take their side against the economic and other elites. To win the populists, Republicans may have to "lose their disdain for government." Even if they fail to do so, Democrats presumably can't depend upon the populist-center vote to the extent that they are still perceived as elitists in their own right. Whether this creates a promising opening than normal for a third party McKenzie doesn't say, though he notes that the populists have embraced George Wallace and Ross Perot in the past.

McKenzie has probably described two potential voting blocs fairly accurately, but is it accurate to say that both blocs belong to the center? What makes the populists centrist, for instance? For McKenzie, it's presumably their readiness to embrace big government as a shield or sword against elites while remaining culturally conservative. They're centrists if you plot a grid based on attitudes about government rather than culture, just as the socially-liberal economic conservatives who supposedly share the center with them might be polar opposites culturally but willing to compromise ideologically on the role of government and political action in general. If these two somewhat disparate groups comprise the political center, however, shouldn't we be able to imagine a center of the center, a position synthesizing the views and demands of both groups? Since their cultural attitudes are irrelevant to their placement on the political grid, compromise on cultural issues may not be necessary -- which is probably a good thing. McKenzie tentatively breaks the non-populist centrists down along presumed party lines as "strong-government conservatives" and "reinventing-government liberals." In general, McKenzie presumes these groups to be "comfortable both with equal rights and spending reforms." An image begins to form somewhat resembling Andrew Cuomo, the culturally-liberal austerity Democrat who governs New York State. Would Cuomo be palatable to the populists? More to the point, if Cuomo is even close to the ideal McKenzian centrist, why should we assume that McKenzie has described the actual center of American political opinion? Has he really done anything more than describe two blocs of swing voters? And should we assume that anyone who swings between voting Democrat and voting Republican is by default a centrist, much less a moderate? For all we know, the true center of American opinion might well lie to the left or right of both major parties -- or it may be impossible to plot on any conventional left-right grid. Attempting to define the center according to the choices Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, force on us may be a fundamental mistake. We may only know when the true center has spoken, and the true moderates have arrived, when they ask their own questions and pose their own choices. When that moment comes, maybe no other label will be necessary.

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