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How Do You Define Political Centrism?


Given the push for bipartisanship and compromise currently underway among the punditry and self-appointed advisors eager to share their wise opinions, I am old enough to notice how different this concept looks today from earlier times.  Well, times not so far back, even.

Remember, the Constitution makes no mention of political parties. After Articles I (Legislature), II (Executive), and III (Judiciary) there is no Article IV for Political Parties (Article IV is really about “full faith and credit,” admission of new states and so on). Everything we experience about how our system actually works, the political conventions, the nominations of individuals for public office, party platforms, the campaigns, campaign finance,  the business about Majority and Minority leaders, “ranking members” on committees, all that is extra-Constitutional, outside the formal Constitutional table of organization that supposedly describes how our famous system works—- it all simply grew like a barnacle attached to our ship of state. Do you suppose those earnest people who want to “take our country back” and restore the “real” Constitution of our Founding Fathers realize they will have to give up political parties, plus deprive women of the vote and restore slavery as well, if they mean what they say? Even give up cell phones, television, electricity, automobiles, and immunization against polio, typhoid and so on,  if they’re honest purists? But I digress.

In any case, the American federal system, unlike the European parliamentary set-up. generally operates with two main political parties, the one considered to be on the right is Republican (business-finance interest with historically a rural farmer element) and the Democrats on the left (worker interests including minorities and unions with a heavy urban base), and the two parties shared and overlapped in the middle where dwelt an increasingly well-off middle class, various intellectuals and constituencies interested in things like the environment or education.

This tidy map of the political spectrum, left-shared middle-right, no longer obtains.  Once the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, Southern Democrats began defecting. There was already an ideological conversion happening among Goldwater Republicans, composed of a newly invented “silent majority” of social conservatives frightened by the hippies of the ’60’s, religious fundamentalists, and business people who had discovered and latched on to Friedman economics and free market theory. The migration accelerated with Nixon’s properly-named “Southern Strategy,” and it came to fruition under Reagan. Since then, the Republicans have continued to march steadily rightward, dragging the political spectrum after them, with the result that their party has absorbed more and more of what used to be considered extreme fringe rightists (such as libertarians, theocratic evangelical Dominionists, white supremacists including some KKK-types and militia survivalists, anti-immigrant nativists, and multitudes of conspiracy theorists), as well as the lingering states’ rightist disgruntled former Confederate-types—-don’t forget the South by and large settled the West post-Civil War, and that legacy is alive and well.

This rightward plunge changed the complexion of America’s politics because, as the rightward surge turned heretofore fringe right elements into regular Republicans, that meant that more moderate Republicans were either primaried out of existence, or they hastened to re-educate themselves into uneasy conformity with their new compatriots, while shamelessly pandering to big money for necessary campaign funding—- or, they faded away and became independents or even, gasp! Democrats.

To begin with, anyone who survived high school geometry understands perfectly well that the geographic “center” of anything cannot be located off to its far right. However, the bottom line is that today’s pundits accept the new Republican definition of “centrist.” What does that mean? To inner Washington, being centrist means, according to Open Left being a deficit hawk, pro-trade deals like NAFTA, in favor of cutting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, but not subsidies to industries like Big Oil, and, I would add, showing fealty to Friedman free market economics (“the business of America is business”).  To me, with my long memory, this is not “centrist,” this is putting the center point way, way over on the right.

What do the average American voters think is centrist? What do they think bipartisan compromise should look like? Answer: not, repeat not, what the pundit class (and the Republicans) say it is, or must be.  Not, in other words, what the pundits are telling Democrats they must do when they are told they must “move to the center because the voters in November rejected the Democrats’ ‘liberal’ agenda.” What poll after poll has shown is that, when asked specific questions about what Americans want, it turns out that what most of them want is not only what the old center stood for, but what is actually one policy/program after another from the days of America’s 20th century greatness, that Republicans sneeringly define as “liberal,” and which they pretend do not work, or cost too much, or both.  Voters pretty much think the center is what it used to be, not what Tea Party-Republicans pretend it is.

I will address this total disconnect in another article, but what I want to make totally clear here is this: The next time some self-righteous rightie starts spouting gnarly talk about that radical Obama and how he must compromise with Republicans by “moving to the center,” or some wiseacre pompously announces that the great American voter has rejected those big-government liberal-communist-fascist-whatever policies of Democrats, let them know the great American voter has done no such thing, the American voter is well and truly in the old middle, not over in Republican fantasy-land, no matter how much the Republicans wish otherwise. And, compromise is not a one-way street. It is the Republicans who must move to The Center… the old center, the real center, to appease the voters.