Why Has Centrist Picked Up a Negative Connotation?

By Kate Harveston on January 03, 2018

Why Has Centrist Picked up a Negative Connotation?

When did America’s government transform from a machine for moving the country forward in the best interest of its people into a self-absorbed, ego-driven battle?

Political pundits and the mainstream media alike recycle the old “as divided as we have been since the Civil War” factoid several times a week. However, this is not the 19th century. Politicians from that time period would probably be appalled to see the way our political system has degraded.

We’ve become so committed to party lines and ideologies that we’ve forgotten the importance of compromise. I often hear people demonize words like “centrist” and “moderate.” Who else has been told they’re “wishy washy” or “muddy middle” simply because they are open to hearing the other side? It’s unfortunate, but people demonize centrism not because there is anything wrong about it, but because they so fear exposure to ideas that don’t come from their party groups.

20th-Century Politics

Should we have seen this coming in the wake of the closest presidential election in 100 years? It seems the battle lines drawn in the Florida recount of Bush vs. Gore have stood fast and are more entrenched today than ever before.

The divisive style of politics that has grown out of polarizing moments like the 2000 election, 2016 election and even the Trump administration’s new tax plan seems unconcerned with America’s well-being. Instead, we see a pattern of loyalty to ideology over country.

About 20 years ago, ideas from the other side of the aisle were at least considered by our respective parties, but today it seems not even good suggestions can be allowed any traction. It would be too much of a threat to the political power of each party.

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Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

There is centrism, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, there is radicalism. We might not be at the point where the majority of Congress members and Americans are radicalized yet, but denouncing centrism is inherently promoting a move toward more radical politics.

A study from the Pew Research Center shows that representatives and the public have exhibited an undeniable shift away from moderate views since the turn of the century. Instead of trying new ideas, we’re wasting time bickering over party-line ideals and getting nothing done.

High vs. Low

Michelle Obama famously criticized the inflammatory behavior of her conservative opponents by saying "when they go low, we go high." The statement understandably energized Democrats and liberals, but the phrase may inspire the wrong conversation. Obama was citing the need for us to have higher moral standards — defensibly — but what about high and low partisanship?

What does that mean? David Brooks of the Harvard University Press explains it in his piece, Towards Better Partisanship, Not Less.

While Brooks doesn't speak directly to the idea of centrism in his piece, he explains the concept of high partisanship — partisanship defined as standing up for an idea because of its merits. What we have today is low partisanship, which Brooks explains is "about strategy, power and ultimately, victory.”

Centrist ideas are needed, and should be welcomed in a system that fosters high partisanship. Through the exchange of ideas, compromise is made. Those who support their cause might find a way to move it forward by ceding a little ground to the opposing side. The end product is legislation that serves the American people well.

Instead, we get this winner-take-all mentality. Brinkmanship increasingly defines our political conversations, and we end up with legislation that is more a token of party ideals than a boon to American quality of life.

Our government isn’t a sports league, and lives are too valuable to be shaped by political wins and losses. It’s time to start acting like adults.

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Kate Harveston is a political journalist from Pennsylvania. If you like her writing, you can find more of it on Centrist Project, Independent Voter Network, or on her personal blog, Only Slightly Biased.