What is Centrism?
‘Centrism’ is rather confusing as a political position. Vague and relative as they are, terms like ‘leftist,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ denote a set of core principles that can be upheld or challenged. I, at least, have always been confused by what it’s supposed to mean. After devoting a bit of thought to the question, I’ve decided I was right the first time: centrism is fundamentally incoherent. It’s also much worse.
One often hears that in U.S. politics, smart politicians aim for the center. Clinton ran as a centrist, so did both Bushes, so did Obama. Pretty soon someone will call the U.S.’s dominant role in Haitian relief efforts ‘centrist.’ Being a centrist means you can call yourself non-ideological and pragmatic, which in our anemic intellectual climate is understood to mean ‘correct,’ or as close to that vapid ideal as humanly possible.
Centrism is without content because unlike conservative or liberal, its basis is completely relative to ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conceived as imaginary ‘ideological’ positions that the centrist grants himself the authority to name. Centrism has a history (how could it not), but it keeps its distance. It is always cheerfully presentist.
None of which prevents some centrists from calling themselves radical, which is also ‘in’ these days. Third Way politics constitute ‘radical’ centrism’s most visibly branded forms. But the pragmatic centrist can always call himself ‘radical,’ since he predicates himself on being undetermined, unimpressed, a step ahead, free.
On one level, centrism should be taken at its word: it is neither right nor left, because these equal and opposite poles are its inventions. It has no formal dogma, because dogma is also its invention. Centrism is about just what it says it is: finding the center, or figuring out where the power is in any given situation and sticking to it. Since power is what relates otherwise disparate situations, centrism has a broadly ‘progressive’ teleology (in the sense of expansion) and a broadly conservative strategy (in the sense of conservation of power). The closest term of comparison is ‘opportunism.’
At the risk of rubbing salt in an open wound, we can take Obama’s trajectory as a high-profile, exhaustively documented example of how centrism works in practice. Obama’s marketing and general demeanor on the campaign trail skewed progressive because that’s where the power was after eight years of Bush on the Internet. He cut the cord once elected because in becoming president power had shifted from the grassroots to the Oval Office, Wall Street, and the Pentagon. He (correctly so far) calculated that nothing he could do once in office would drive away his party’s avant garde because in a two-party system they have nowhere else to go, while everything had to be acceptable to the most bought and paid for members of his party first, who are willing to leave at the drop of a gavel. Barring an inverted Reagan-style comeback, Obama looks like he will be remembered as the president who took most seriously his role as the chief PR man for big capital in its hour of need. What else does he have the time or space to achieve beyond constant crisis management?
Centrism as a political norm has in fact changed the face of politics, openly acknowledging what politics has been in reality since the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ and the fateful decision to stake the world’s future on the price of the dollar, that is, public relations as population management. Rousseau’s ideal state, with government as the strictly bureaucratic servant of the general will, has come to pass, with the modification that the general will is now produced by a corporate entertainment media complex. Or at least it is only taken seriously when in this form. Every excuse the centrist makes, every concession to ‘hard realities’, every condescending shake of the head to the criticisms and demands of ‘ideologues,’ should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction. If conservatism is the failure of democracy, centrism is its abnegation. And those still willing to identify as ‘left’ can’t be sure if they’re Zhuangzi or the butterfly.