A Few Questions First…
This essay is rife with unexamined premises that cry out for critical questioning. Thus, before anyone should get too excited about the Second Coming of the Centrists, the centrists should answer a few questions.
First Question: Who are the ‘centrist’ voters?
Significant evidence suggests that most self-proclaimed ‘Independent’ voters are hidden partisans who like the social accolades that comes from declaring oneself an independent, but behave identically to self-declared partisans. ThinkProgress has an excellent article surveying the evidence, so I will not extensively re-litigate this point.
However, I will add two points. Another measure of political centrism looks at policy views and uses those views to derive the respondent’s political position. This study found that many of the people coded as moderates were people with extreme views that did not align with the traditional partisan dichotomy in the United States. For example, both extreme libertarians and welfare nationalists, such as France’s National Front and Britain’s UKIP, would code as centrist because their views, while extreme, do not align with either Republicans or Democrats. Thus, the supposed centrist coalition is even smaller than the 7% of voters that ThinkProgress identifies.
Additionally, partisanship drives voting behaviour. In the 2016 election, the correlation between the presidential result in a state and the Senate result in that state was 100%: if Trump won a state, the Republican running for Senator won; if Trump lost, the Republican lost. This correlation overpowered any ideological position taken by the candidates for Senate. Russ Feingold ran as a populist with support from Bernie Sanders and lost in Wisconsin, Katie McGinty ran as an establishment-friendly centrist and lost in Pennsylvania, and Jason Kander ran as a conservative Democrat and lost in Missouri.
Second Question: Who are the ‘centrist’ Senators?
Given the extreme partisanship I’m describing, how can there be states that elect both Republicans and Democrats? Another quirk of the Senate election system: Senators only face re-election every six years. This pace is slower than the speed of partisan swings, which tend to follow the cadence of the presidential schedule.
Most ‘centrists’ rode a partisan wave into office in a state that typically leans against them. For example, most Democratic Senators in red states won office during the Democratic wave of 2012 driven by Obama’s re-election bid, such as Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Similarly, the now-ousted Mark Kirk of Illinois and vulnerable Republicans, such as Cory Gardner of Colorado, were elected in the Republican wave elections of 2010 and 2014, respectively. Thus, the apparent centrism of the Senate more closely reflects a quirk of the six-year electoral cycle than any underlying political ideology.
With partisanship serving a central role, swing voters matter far less than turnout. The author claims that
“By definition, a swing state has a large contingent of voters who might vote for a Republican or for a Democrat in any given year.”
This is not even remotely true. A far more workable and accurate definition of a swing state is one where the number of partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans is approximately equal, so small differences in turnout can swing the election. For example, North Carolina has a relatively even split between Democrats, comprising urban liberals and black voters, and Republicans. However, this balance has led to a political landscape fought like trench warfare.
The author makes a fallacious assumption about states that elect both Democrats and Republicans. Voters in ‘swing states’ are no less partisan than those in partisan strongholds, such as Utah or New York, there is just not an overwhelming majority of one side’s partisan like in those strongholds.
‘Swing state’ voters are just as partisan as anyone else.
Third Question: What policies would the Centrists support?
For a simple mapping of political opinions, a party can choose conservative or progressive positions on economic and on social issues (reductive, but bear with me). Where will the Centrists find their open ground? They cannot choose conservative positions on both types of issues as the Republicans already occupy that space, nor can they choose consistent progressivism as the Democrats are already there.
This leaves two remaining options. One option combines social conservatism with economic progressivism. This combination has politically-successful adherents, such as the welfare nationalist parties in Europe. These policies hew closely to what many Trump voters want from the new administration (although not what the Trump government has pursued since entering office). Yet I doubt this ‘drawbridges up’ politics is what proponents of ‘political innovation’ have in mind.
That leaves ‘socially liberal, economically conservative,’ the darling of cosmopolitan technocrats everywhere, which has so many problems. Despite how it may look from cosmopolitan enclaves like New York, Boston, or the author’s own Hanover, New Hampshire, there simply aren’t that many voters who fall into that ideological bucket. Furthermore, these voters tend to be geographically concentrated in cities of ‘new economy’ industries like technology, higher education, and finance. Only in these cities does extraordinary wealth meet hedonic liberalism at a large enough scale to create a sizeable block of these cosmopolitans.
However, the American electoral system rewards geographic dispersion: the ‘natural gerrymander’ of Republicans’ voter geography gives them a built-in advantage. Finally, most voters with these views have decided that one was more important than the other: those who chose their economic conservatism became the Republican donor base, while those who chose their social progressivism became the Democrats donor base.
The obvious rebuttal would be that centrists would consider each policy individually and find the ‘commonsense solution.’ Yet this rebuttal assumes that there is a meaningful and desirable middle ground on each policy. For example, the median Democrat’s opinion on health care is something like:
“Health care is a fundamental right, so the government should work within the existing private insurance system to provide quality care to as many people as possible.”
The median Republican’s opinion is approximately:
“Health care is not a fundamental right, so the government should not spend money providing health care to those who cannot afford it.”
What is the middle ground between these policies? Is it ‘health care is a fundamental right, but it would be too expensive to expand coverage, so screw it?’ The Sandersian (and rest of the developed world) opinion on health care is:
“Health care is a fundamental right, so the government should create a universal insurance system to ensure every citizen has coverage.”
There is a meaningful middle ground between this position and the Republican position, but that middle ground is the Democrats’ position. This is the middle ground between the Republican Party and a Senator who runs as an Independent, partially because he views the Democrats as insufficiently progressive.
The middle ground on most policies is rarely the ‘sensible compromise’ between extreme positions, but the position that entrenches the status quo and benefits those in power. As Vox’s David Roberts wrote, the centre is not moderate, it’s corporate.
Fourth Question: What do the Centrists stand for?
By which I mean, what moral principles underlie the Centrist’s political narrative? Narratives and moral principles are immensely powerful because they provide a ‘North Star’ for a political movement. Politics is ultimately about our conflicting moral beliefs; this is why political conflicts are so protracted and so vicious, as they don’t just question the effectiveness of our desired policies, but the righteousness of our beliefs.
Roughly speaking, Republicans stand for ‘Tradition and Freedom’ and Democrats stand for ‘Justice and Equality.’
What will the Centrists choose as their moral principles? Most likely, nothing.
Centrists seem to view moral principles like items on a buffet that they can choose and discard at will. Their only consistent beliefs appears to be ‘We are not Democrats OR Republicans!’ This is not non-partisanship; it is anti-partisanship. It is a blind belief that one’s rationality is strictly proportional to their distance from either party.
Yet this is nothing more than the Golden Mean Fallacy as a political ideology. If the Centrist Party defines themselves as the centre, between the Democrats and Republicans, they must relocate whenever the other parties move, so they may stay in the middle. If the parties polarize asymmetrically, then the Centrists must shift towards the more-extreme party to maintain the middle ground. The author gives away his adherence to this Golden Mean Fallacy anti-partisanship in his footnote, stating:
“Even if the Senate were more lopsided, say, fifty-eight Democrats, three Centrists, and thirty-nine Republicans, the Centrist votes would determine whether the minority party could filibuster or not.”
Someone truly claiming to speak for the (amorphous and ill-defined) ‘People’ would see a substantial Democrat majority and conclude that most Americans want Democrats and Democratic policies and side with the Democrats to pursue those policies. However, this would violate the Centrist’s anti-partisanship and extinguish their relevance. Only by permanently maintaining the fantasy that ‘both parties are equally bad’ can the Centrists carve any niche for themselves.
As I’ve written before, most self-proclaimed Independents pursue political narratives full of unexamined assumptions, which don’t hold up under scrutiny. The ‘Centrists’ are no different.