Why Do We Call Them “Centrists”?

This Week in the Narrative 114

Nigel Clarke

“You know, I get accused of being kind of moderate and center. I plead guilty.”

Hillary Clinton

Wait … “moderate and center” on what spectrum?

This is what Clintonites and “Third Way” Democrats are often called, both in self-definition and as a pejorative — “Centrists,” as in not the hardline right or the radical left, but rather, presumably, the ideological center of political discourse.

It’s a good gig if you can get it.

Except, what happens when the flag demarcating this ideological center is planted firmly to the right of Ronald Reagan? When “Third Way” Democrats first took control of the party, and then the White House, in the early 90s, they set about ramping up Reagan’s War on Drugs, creating a more punitive (and more racist) incarceration state, oppressing the gay community in law, and deregulating Wall Street. Since then, they have vocally supported and/or overseen wars, record oil production, and the construction of the surveillance state; they bailed out the big banks, actively worked against single-payer healthcare, and indefinitely renewed sunsetting Bush tax cuts.

Examined through the spectrum of modern Western democracy, the Democratic Party under the “Third Way” has consistently stood to the right of British Tories, of French Republicans and Canadian Conservatives, of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. That is to say, the Democratic Party in the United States, supposedly the country’s “left-wing” party, has been one of the most right-wing (mainstream) political parties in the Western world.

The problem is, when the ideological center is positioned by the so-called left to the right of Ronald Reagan, it presents a difficult decision to those who want to consider themselves “right-wing” — join with Democrats, or go way the hell off the map to the right. It’s little surprise then, that the two Republican Presidents since the “Third Way” takeover of the Democratic Party have been George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Where else could Republicans go to distinguish themselves from Democrats?

Of course, “Third Way” Democrats would dispute the assertion that they represent some sort of arbitrarily established “center,” rather, arguing the opposite — that they have merely claimed territory designated as the center by public opinion. They will, like their Republican brethren, reject any comparison to peers and allies, obfuscating behind a cloud of “American Exceptionalism.” It’s sort of the “don’t hate the player, hate the game” defense.

The hole in this argument, of course, is that, whatever may have been true in the past, the ideological positions of “Third Way” Democrats are now dramatically and demonstrably contrary to the desires of the population.

A few quick, yet overwhelming examples:

Over 80% of Americans of all political stripes support a Green New Deal, including 92% of Democrats, yet “Third Way” Democrats oppose the idea. 70% of Americans support single-payer healthcare, 85% of Democrats, while, again, the “Third Way” stands in opposition. 78% of Americans want tougher Wall Street regulation, 85% of Democrats, while the “Third Way” continues to treat Wall Street as one of their main sources of funding and instruction.https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2014/10/06/struggle-for-soul-democratic-party-pits-wall-street-backed-think-tank-against-elizabeth-warren/pYk3SXRnZDmpi7C7N4ZpXN/story.html

The list could go on, but this is not a condemnation of “Third Way” Democrats. It really isn’t.

They simply represent, when compared to other Western democracies, or when compared with the opinions of the population in their own country, a solidly, if-occasionally-far, right-wing political ideology.

It’s not a condemnation, it’s a question: Why do we call them centrists?


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Written by Nigel Clarke

Writer and notorious vagabond. From the frozen north. Follow Nigel on Twitter @Nig_Clarke.

Nigel Clarke is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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