Political centrism: Smug, weak and misguided


The political center isn’t always where you want to end up.

Pundits filling print or online op-ed pages or pontificating on cable news think they’re pretty smart because, unlike elected officials, they have the wisdom to see and urge on us the middle way: compromise and all our problems are solved.

Until 1980 or so, that was a workable way to look at governing. There was a lot of common ground. Shared experiences of the Great Depression and World War II glued the nation together. For too many reasons to list here, those bonds are gone. Today, there are huge differences in our views of – and hopes for – what America should be.

Oversimplified, but still pretty accurate, this split looks like this: One side holds that lower taxes, smaller government and less business regulation will result in unchecked growth and prosperity. This is the Republican Party edging toward libertarianism. For shorthand, you might think of this as “freedom for money,” the market rules.

The other side is appalled by the economic inequality this has brought on and by the stark racial and social injustice remaining in our country. You might think of this as “freedom from money” where concepts of equity and justice dominate. The drive is for relief from the pernicious inequalities in income, wealth, access to health care and political power resulting from the accelerating concentration of wealth and corporate power.

These are big differences, heartfelt and passionately held (though I don’t think they’re anywhere near morally equivalent). Yet, despite these differences, too many political commentators impressed with their own wisdom keep offering the same canard: just compromise, why don’t you; the middle is the answer. Just watch the emerging debate over antitrust action against the tech giants. The commentariat will quickly buy into arguments for moderation that industry uses tactically to head off change.
Sadly, this idea that there’s a “bipartisan” middle, a solution to everything just waiting for a champion, has an infectious attraction. Our own Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, is the latest to be infected. Former Washington Republican Party chair Chris Vance was an earlier victim, with his Washington Independents organization.

But where is the middle? Saying as Schultz and Vance do that the middle is the right answer devalues the real views of most people on any side of an unsettled issue. Of course, we all complain about political gridlock, but when asked,”Do you want an America that looks like this or like that?,” folks will not be shy about expressing their values.

Somehow, these “independent” guys think they’re smarter than us and that the goal is just to end the debate, shutting up the divergent factions with a middle-of-the-road solution. And, of course, only they can provide that solution, and only the cadre of political commentators can see it.

This is pretty naïve. Real solutions to political problems that provide clear views of our future – with buy-in from a majority – are the result of argument and debate, not a rush to the middle. The problems are not standoff or gridlock, though they can be part of the process. The problems are out there in the real world. People have strong views about them and, though it may take time, they want real solutions — health insurance that covers pre-existing conditions, for example.

Running down the middle of the road is not the way to start. Compromising your way to an as yet unknown middle ground is not the goal. The goal is solving the problem while serving and honoring to the greatest degree the ideas you believe in. Someplace in the middle is only where, not dishonorably, you may end up.

The pundits and our friend Howard Schultz have it backward.

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper. Reprinted with permission from Crosscut.com.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for Crosscut.com and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.


  1. There’s no question we live in a polarized, tribalized, ideologically divided country, But what we’ve been witnessing is a see-saw process where, if Democrats oust Republicans and enact a liberal agenda with no Republican buy-in, the Rs exploit whatever excesses the Democrats are guilty of (and with total power, they always commit some), win the next election and undo everything the Ds did. And vice versa. And nothing ever gets done to solve America’s problems. The only hope is for some president to get elected who has the wisdom, persuasiveness and, perhaps, guile to win the other side over to agree on something that will last. I’d like it to be a moderate D, but the last one who really did it was Reagan. And, despite what lots of people think, America prospered—especially when compared to the miserable ‘70s. Ideological purity, either Tea Party conservatism or Bernieite socialism, is not going to solve immigration, the national debt, too-expensive health care, climate change or any other problem. Live with it: in a divided country, compromise of some sort is the only hope.

  2. But Mort – doesn’t this assume that our politics is still on an oppositional line across an issue in which solutions are a function of where you want to set the slider on the continuum? Meet in the middle and everybody concedes something and gets something. Or, as in your Reagan example, one side “persuades” enough of the other side to meet in an assumed center and you have adopted the best solution.

    But what if there are no lines between extremes on which to split the difference? No binary choices that define the problem? What if participants in the system aren’t really looking for solutions and are in fact playing a different game? How can you have a debate on healthcare when one side only says that what the other side has proposed is bad but then fails to produce any meaningful alternative? R’s opposed the ACA for YEARS, but never ever articulated a substantive proposal for an alternative despite promising year after year. Even now…

    A right to decent healthcare is either a right or it isn’t. The climate is either changing and we have to do something about it or it isn’t. There are many debates to be had about what to do about it, but when one side says it doesn’t even think it’s happening, how can there be a center? We either have a racial problem or we don’t. When one side denies there’s even a problem, then how do you split the difference? That the D solutions aren’t better is because they haven’t had anyone to debate with. For years. How can you when one party refuses to even acknowledge the problems?

  3. The goal is not to split the difference or to elect centrists. The goal is to find a leader who is able to define a new politics that attracts independents and soft Democrats and soft Republicans. Lincoln did this with the new Republican Party; Teddy Roosevelt did it with Progressivism; Tony Blair did it with New Labor. Meanwhile, the goal is not to run or elect “centrists,” but rather politicians who adhere to two pledges — civility (no ad hominem attacks, etc.) and a belief that compromise, finding common ground, is what the job entails. (I borrow that credo from Rep. Denny Heck (D-10). You don’t start with the center, but you create the conditions where you end up with laws that have 60% support, and therefore can endure.

  4. Here’s the thing: yes, we live in a deeply polarized and nearly evenly divided country, where the cosmopolitan left shares less and less culturally, ideologically, socially (and to some extent demographically) with the exurban and rural right. It’s silly to deny that the differences between the two sides are meaningful, and profound. So I start with some sympathy for Dick’s view that it is healthy for that noisy back and forth to play out, let argument sharpen against argument, even if the immediate result is stalemate.

    But here’s the other thing: as a country, we have some BIG, very serious problems that need to be resolved, sooner rather than later. Health care, obviously, which in 2017 accounted for a whopping 17.9 percent of GDP ($10,739 for every American), up from 8.9 percent of GDP in 1980, yet millions still remain uninsured and aggregate outcomes are poor compared to peer group countries.

    But not just health care. I find it truly astonishing that no one — not the president, not any of the Democratic presidential candidates, not the media (with minor exceptions), not the public — is even talking about the looming reality that in 2020 Social Security, our most important social safety net program, upon which tens of millions rely to stave off abject poverty, will pay out more than it takes in, and that we are now less than two decades away from Social Security not being able to meet its obligations (as the NYT mentioned yesterday, in an article that apparently no one read because we’re all too busy debating fun, symbolic stuff like a partisan impeachment that has no chance of success). The longer we wait to fix this — and like it or not, fixing it will almost certainly require a bipartisan deal that will include a mix of spending reductions and tax increases — the more painful the solutions are going to be. Everyone in power knows this, yet… crickets.

    When I see the system failing to address big, systemic, important stuff like this — and there seems to be A LOT of this sort of big systemic political failure these days — my perceptions about the health of our democracy sours rapidly. In our democratic society, debate and disagreement are supposed to act as the oil that lubricates the great engines of American governance. Instead, healthy partisanship has curdled into a sort of extreme polarization, and our standard political interaction consists of warring armies of online tribal dittoheads, legions of cablenet pundits hired for their ability to faithfully reproduce ad nauseum tired talking points at maximal volume, and cadres of mediocre politicans elected on the same basis, engaging not in healthy debate, but rather in ostentatious set piece displays of ritualized anger and condemnation devoid of any meaningful exchange of information.

    Which is all a roundabout way for me to say that I find most of our current federal politics to be borderline grotesque, dishonest, irresponsible and deeply stupid. I’m not pining for centrism so much as I’m desperate for sanity; wisdom may be a bridge too far, but am I crazy to dream of competence?


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