A centrist manifesto for a populist moment


We can all sense it: the hollowing out of the center, the ever-increasing polarization of our public life. Republicans shift further right while Democrats move further left, leaving much less overlap between the parties (in Congress and in public opinion) than there was from the mid-20th-century heyday of the so-called “vital center” on down through the first decade of the 21st.

Those of us who favor a politics of consensus, conciliation, and the common good are distressed by the trend. But too often our response falls short, amounting to a thin and reactive defense of the center-left and center-right that has held power for decades and increasingly finds itself under siege by an angry populism, as if the way forward should amount to a turn backward toward the deposed status quo.

That’s a foolish response — one that grows out of a pervasive refusal to accept the legitimacy of the grievances driving the flight from the center and inflaming populist passions all around us. If there’s any chance for a newly revitalized center to recapture the political imagination, it will need to become less defensive, less committed to regaining power without undergoing significant reform, and more willing to reconstitute itself in light of populist objections to the old centrist consensus.

One obstacle standing in the way of an honest reckoning with the centrist failures of the past is the pervasive tendency of populists to make their criticisms in extremely broad terms. It’s not just that this or that president or Congress has pursued this or that bad policy. It’s the establishment itself — the country’s prevailing political norms and institutions as well as the centrist elites who work in and run them — that is to blame. Hearing such charges and seeing them rewarded at the ballot box places these elites on the defensive — and understandably so.

But that doesn’t mean the critique isn’t partially valid. Until quite recently, the country’s main political parties, mainstream media companies, financial institutions, tech firms, and think tanks and other policy research groups have all been overwhelmingly dominated by people who affirm a relatively narrow range of centrist ideas on economic growth, trade, immigration, financial regulation, and foreign policy. That’s what lends plausibility to the quasi-conspiratorial accusations favored by anti-establishment populist politicians: It really can seem as if the system as a whole is committed to upholding these specific policies, necessitating an assault on that system as the only way of changing course.

Where the centrist establishment goes wrong is in effectively conceding the truth of this populist accusation by associating its own preferred policies with the requirements of liberal democratic government as such. So favoring free trade, high rates of immigration, and a militarily aggressive approach to international affairs become not only the specific (and contingent) policies that have held sway for most of the past half century but essential correlates of liberal government itself — somehow almost as essential to democracy as the rule of law; individual rights to speech, worship, assembly, and …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics


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