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Centrism refers to a political position ostensibly somewhere "between" the left and right wings of the one-dimensional political spectrum. The term is somewhat nebulous, as what counts as the "centre" is relative to what one understands as left or right in any given political context. Centrism can be seen as a strange thing to advocate for on its face, as it nominatively endorses "whatever is in-between existing polar opposites". This can lead to charges of moral relativism, political opportunism, and just plain simple lack of backbone. Would a centrist in the 1930's argue for gassing "just some of the Jews" as a sensible compromise between Nazis and their critics? Probably not, we hope.
More reasonably, centrists describe themselves as such because they believe their views to be within the mainstream of contemporary political discourse, and therefore not too left or right to be outside the Overton window of acceptable opinion.
Relationship with Liberalism
While you can have a lot of fun making up specious arguments like "true centrism is libertarian socialism as it achieves a healthy middle-ground between right wing libertarianism and left wing communism", most self-described centrists are technocratic liberals of some-sort. They are broadly socially liberal, so long as that liberalism isn't seen to be too extreme, and support free-market capitalism with occasional vague nods to the importance of regulation and a welfare state to differentiate them from your out and out libertarians.
This goes some way to explaining the wide variation in what one might describe as centrist. A person whose economic and social views are considered a horrifying exemplar of hard-left politics in the United States, might just be considered centre-left in a social democracy like Denmark or Finland. However, not all centrism is pure liberalism. Some of Europe's centrist ideologies include Christian democracy, and some of them show both moderate social democracy and moderate social conservative tendencies.
In established democracies, it is usually highly beneficial (and intellectually reasonable) for a party to occupy as much of the territory it can in order to form a broad alliance that can command a larger share of the vote. Hence, parties often strive to occupy a center-left or center-right branding to make themselves more appealing to swing-voters, even if their actual policies are perhaps a bit more radical. So naturally a lot of career politicians clamour to be thought of as mild-mannered centrists.
Interestingly, some centrist parties and politicians might endorse a Third Way, trying to harmoniously combine socialism and capitalism. This often manifests as technocracy or "evidence-based policymaking" and can take the form of a centralized, targets-fixated, and slightly authoritarian managerial state, as under Tony Blair. Hence centrism can also be seen in certain contexts to develop authoritarian tendencies.
A modern centrist economic consensus called new neoclassical synthesis has governed large parts of the world since the early 90s, such as the US under Democrat rule, the UK especially under New Labour, and the Eurozone. This assumes that a capitalist economy can trundle along, spreading prosperity, and authorities such as an independent central bank should largely limit their actions to giving it a nudge when it's approaching crisis. Theoretically, this is a fusion of classical economics on a microeconomic scale (the invisible hand of the market benefits all, free of intervention) and Keynesian economics on a macroeconomic level (the government can intervene by increasing spending and lowering taxes to boost investment). According to the theories of late post-Keynesian economist Hyman Minsky, what looks like centrist economic stability is ultimately unstable because while the economy seems to be stable, risktaking increases by lenders and investors (who see falling incomes from safe investments and turn increasingly to unsafe investments thinking nothing wrong can happen), until it all collapses as in Great Recession and in the Great Depression, though his explanation is still not widely accepted.
According to a 2016 study from the IMF, the results of such consensus is mixed:
The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments.
However, there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected. Our assessment of the agenda is confined to the effects of two policies: removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders (so-called capital account liberalization); and fiscal consolidation, sometimes called “austerity,” which is shorthand for policies to reduce fiscal deficits and debt levels. An assessment of these specific policies (rather than the broad neoliberal agenda) reaches three disquieting conclusions:
- The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries.
- The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.
- Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.
Neoliberalism has been criticized as serving an imperialist agenda. It has been alleged that the neoliberal theory of "democratic peace" encourages and excuses Western military interventionism and forceful imposition of economic policies that favor Western interests in the Global South. In this way, discussion of neoliberalism cannot be extricated from discussions about imperialism and neocolonialism.
Professor Ruth J Blakely of the University of Sheffield has accused the United States of promoting state terrorism in the Cold War to encourage a neoliberal agenda. Bakeley cites American support of the Indonesian dictator Sukarno as evidence of this. Sukarno's policies led to the murder of hundreds of thousands and the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party and its civilian supporters, all of which played a vital role in the imposition of neoliberalism on Indonesia.
Centrist politicians aren't often trusted, as it's hard to know which side of an issue they actually favor until the last moment. One of the most common criticisms isn't necessarily of centrism but instead of those that centrism sometimes attracts, mainly opportunist politicians with no core values who see centrism as giving them the best chance of getting elected. (Such people tend to do whatever furthers their own political career instead of what actually helps their country/organization.) Furthermore, they have a tendency to rarely fight for much once elected, more or less giving in to the most demanding party/faction so that they can claim to be reasonable "compromisers," even if said compromise does more bad than good. One example of this was the Simpson-Bowles plan. This budget plan that was championed by centrists simply because it was seen as a "compromise" between the two parties, even though some of the measures in the plan could have arguably worsened the 2008 downturn.
Other stand-out examples include Joe Lieberman, who favored extending Medicare to people aged 55-64 until it seemed that it would actually pass and, in the U.K., Keir Starmer who was elected leader of UK Labour in 2020 after promising to continue the relatively popular left-wing program of his predecessor,[note 1] only to later abandon most of it and purge the party of its left wing MPs and members in a bid to win over conservative swing voters.
Honourable mention also goes to the Liberal Democracts UK, who formed an alliance in 2010, hoping to "moderate" the excesses of an austerity obsessed conservative government, only to enable them, have their policy proposals chucked into a shredder and see their capitulation to the Conservative Party decimate their electoral performance for years to come.
Very Serious People
“” Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals... ...The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance..
|— Henry Farrell.|
Although all points on the political spectrum bring their own cadre of shallow, cynical crowd pleasers to the party, centrism is probably one of the easier grifts to work for fame and profit. As a centrist your milquetoast views and refusal to take sides might not win you enthusiastic supporters but it will greatly reduce the chance of you alienating your audience or creating enemies with real influence. This adaptation is highly conductive to climbing the greasy pole and fashioning your political views into a lucrative writing/speaking career. Since your politics are assiduously geared to the median you will always have an audience willing to be comforted by having their opinions parroted back at them and news outlets willing to give you airtime for being a "safe" guest. This can create an unearned sense of accuracy/understanding on the part of the pundit since they inevitably find themselves surrounded by equally authoritative and respectable media figures who just happen to agree with them.
This suspiciously media-friendly style of political analysis combined with a tone argument (I'm wearing a lanyard, a moustache and saying nothing controversial so my opinions are "mature" and correct) is considered the hallmark of the 'Very Serious Person'. VSPs, in this sense, are commentators whose success stems less from their ability to provide insightful commentary and more from their unthinking championing of political and economic orthodoxies while aping an "adults in the room" aesthetic. Although certain individuals, such as Thomas Friedman, are often widely seen as the very definition of VSP-dom, it is more of an affectation than a definitive political category as a person's VSP-ness has a lot to do with the percieved reasons someone holds their views and how they use that relative inoffensiveness to court an audience. Regardless there are a few common traits that typically make up the 'Very Serious Person' style of politics:
- Orthodoxy – The VSP avoids at all costs endorsing radical ideas that might upset their audience, editors or influential peers. Afterall, the whole point of being a VSP is in refusing to rock the boat.
- Respectability – While the VSP may privately or publicaly agree with more radical figures or movements they take great care to position themselves as Very Serious People and never in connection with filthy dirty activists.
- Connectedness – Generally speaking, VSPs have failed upwards and been socialised and educated alongside many of the kinds of people they write about, often sharing similar socio-economic backgrounds. This helps them appear au fait with the inner workings of power while faciliating the odd name-drop that adds percieved weight to their otherwise mediocre insights.
- Incompetence – Ultimately, for a VSP to be a VSP in the pejorative sense, they must demonstrate a level of ignorance or short-sightedness that stems from their unthinking adherence to orthodoxy. This usually happens when the obviously flawed orthodoxy causes them to make wildly inaccurate predictions or advocate for projects and initiatives that end in inevitable disaster. Crucially, due to the VSPs' relative Respectability and Connectedness, they will rarely be forced to own up to their incompetence. Alternatively...
“”Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.
Another common critique of centrism is that centrists will commonly invoke the balance fallacy, typically acting as if "both sides are just as bad" to hold onto their centrist credentials. This can lead to the more corrupt or extreme of two parties being elected/empowered by opportunists fueled by self-interest. This is especially common with Very Serious People, who have an unfortunate tendency to give both the left and the right the exact same amount of scepticism while ignoring that one side may actually be unequivocally correct on certain topics (e.g., the left being against racism, in general, is clearly more correct from virtually any standpoint than the far-right seeking to, at best, tolerate it.)
Finally, many centrists disregard ideologies such as socialism and libertarianism completely, ignoring the truth value of individual claims in such philosophies.
- While Corbyn was very unpopular at the time of his departure his policies on things like rail and water were broadly supported and it's difficult to see how Starmer would have won the leadership race without promising to carry that legacy on
- Have targets improved NHS performance?, The Kings Fund, 2010
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- Did Hyman Minsky find the secret behind financial crashes?, BBC, Mar 24, 2014
- Horpedahl, J., Magness, P., & Witcher, M. (forthcoming). Teaching the causes of great depression to college students: Evidence from history, economics, and economic history textbooks. Journal of Economics and Finance Education.
- "Neoliberalism: Oversold? -- Finance & Development, June 2016".
- Spector, Alan J. (2007). "Globalization or Imperialism? Neoliberal Globalization in the Age of Capitalist Imperialism". International Review of Modern Sociology 33: 7–26. JSTOR 41421286.
- Hahn, Niels S.C. (2007). "Neoliberal Imperialism and Pan-African Resistance". Journal of World-Systems Research 13 (2). Retrieved June 30, 2019.
- Godfrey, Richard (January 3, 2013). "The private military industry and neoliberal imperialism: Mapping the terrain". Organization 21: 106–125. doi:10.1177/1350508412470731.
- Blakeley, Ruth (2009). State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South. Routledge. pp. 4, 20–23, 88. ISBN 978-0415686174.
- Simpson, Bradley (2010). Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.–Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968. Stanford University Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0804771825. ""Washington did everything in its power to encourage and facilitate the army-led massacre of alleged PKI members, and U.S. officials worried only that the killing of the party's unarmed supporters might not go far enough, permitting Sukarno to return to power and frustrate the [Johnson] Administration's emerging plans for a post-Sukarno Indonesia. This was efficacious terror, an essential building block of the neoliberal policies that the West would attempt to impose on Indonesia after Sukarno's ouster""