Where have all the centrists gone? A look at why American politics is so dysfunctional

SALON
By Matthew Rosza
May 7, 2017

American politics is seeing the death of centrism — and it may be having disastrous effects

Centrism.

It’s not a term you hear a lot in American politics today. Consider President Donald Trump. Though he’s refusing to work with Democrats, the #resist movement is demanding that Democrats don’t work with him either.

But a CNN/ORC poll from March found that 72 percent of Americans would prefer for Trump to forge bipartisan compromises on major legislation in order to bring about positive change, while 69 percent want to see Democrats work with the president. Yet statistics notwithstanding, centrism can be a death sentence for a politician.

Consider Joe Lieberman.

In the early 2000s, the Connecticut senator was best known for being Al Gore’s running mate in the failed 2000 presidential election. But, by 2006, Lieberman became a pariah to Democrats for crossing the aisle to work with Republicans — oftentimes to the consternation of the liberal base.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in the policy center all the time, or the ideological center,” Lieberman said, describing to Salon his definition of centrism. “It means, I think more broadly, that you’re willing to compromise, to come to the center, and meet with people of opposite points of view so that you can get something done.”

In 2006, Lieberman was defeated in the Democratic primaries by challenger Ned Lamont. Lieberman won in November as an independent, however, and stayed in the Senate through the 2012 elections. He’s now senior counsel at Kasowitz Benson Torres, LLP, a national law firm headquartered in New York.

If centrism is the politician’s death sentence, primaries are the gallows.

“Those who are yelling the loudest have gotten the microphone and those are the ones that get the attention of the press,” explained former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, a Republican. “There are fewer centrists. I mean, they’re there, but the big money is not following them, so they find it very difficult to be heard above the rest of the noise.”

It would be easy to blame a riled-up base for kicking out centrist politicians. But Whitman thinks the problem isn’t them — it’s everyone not showing up to vote.

“As you get fewer and fewer people voting — in primaries particularly, which is the first time they’ll have the opportunity to chose whom your candidates are going to be — it leaves it to the most dedicated partisans who come out to vote in those primaries,” Whitman, who also served as the head of the EPA under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, told Salon.

The two parties have also become far more ideological.

Whitman said that the primaries are “where you get these litmus tests that say, If you’re a Republican, you can’t believe in choice or you can’t believe in climate change.”

Whitman said the parties “used to be like umbrellas, where you had a central handle which was the shared core beliefs, and then you had all the spokes that held up the canopy, and those were different ways of interpreting those beliefs. But you could still have that central core.” Whitman said that voters were less likely to be informed.

“They’ve forgotten what it takes to be part of a democracy.”

And yes, there is gerrymandering to blame. Where there were once moderate Democrats and Republicans, there are now simply Republicans and Democrats. The challenge is more likely to come from the base than the opposition party.

“Even in gerrymandered districts there are moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats,” Lieberman said.

But to illustrate the importance of centrism in governing — real governing — Lieberman pointed to the Senate’s “liberal lion,” Ted Kennedy.

“He would always propose to them that they adopt a rule — the percentage changed depending on his view on the legislation, usually on big legislation it was 50, 60, 70 percent,” Lieberman said of the Massachusetts senator, who died in 2009. “But his point was, Okay, let’s ask our staffs to go through this bill, and see if we can figure out what percentage of the bill we may not agree on now, we may agree on, but we can probably work it out. And then there is another percentage that it’s pretty clear we’re not going to be able to agree on, but let’s just save that for another day.”

Whitman had similar observations from her tenure as governor of New Jersey.

“If I didn’t have a good relationship with the Democrats in the caucus, I wouldn’t have gotten anything done. And it was very important to find those people and reach out.”

The most accomplished presidents tend to be the ones whose landmark achievements may seem like basic common sense or common decency today, but were herculean to their contemporaries. Franklin Roosevelt and the sweeping New Deal economic reforms. Dwight Eisenhower and the Federal Aid Highway Act. Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights bills of the 1960s. Richard Nixon and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of these accomplishments were forged due to bipartisan compromises, and as such all of them were made possible by Democratic centrists and Republican centrists who set aside their partisan and ideological differences in the name of a greater good.

On the other hand, there’s the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which extended health insurance coverage to more than 20 million Americans — but passed without a single Republican vote.

In the years since, the Tea Party made it politically fatal for any Republican to work with then-President Barack Obama. Even the Obamacare repeal is troubling, because Republicans have painted themselves into a corner.

On the other side of the aisle, there’s the Bernie Bros, who refused to follow Kennedy’s example and allowed what they believed to be a perfect option (Bernie Sanders) to be the enemy of a good one (Hillary Clinton). The Jill Stein voters from three swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan and my own Pennsylvania — who could have strategically voted for Clinton to ensure a stable and sane government.

America wouldn’t necessarily be better off with the moderate Republicanism of a Whitman or with a “Scoop” Jackson Democrat like Lieberman. What needs to be observed, quite simply, is that centrism was a vital element in our political process, and its loss has seriously damaged our political life. Until we get it back, the dumpster fire burning right now in Washington will only get hotter.