The Death of Centrism

The United States today is not so united.  Americans seem to be divided into two clearly demarcated camps, between the “left” Democrats and the “right” Republicans. This split is nothing new. In his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington himself stated that partisanship “serves always to distract the public…It agitates the community…kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

Americans from both parties are becoming increasingly hostile towards the other side. The enormous gap between the left and right is growing wider, and the “center” appears to be disappearing. Every debate becomes another excuse to alienate neighbors, friends, and often family members from each other. In January 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 71% of all Americans believed that conflicts between Republicans and Democrats are “very strong.” This is a sharp increase from December 2016 when 56% of Americans responded, “very strong,” and from December 2012 when only 47% gave this response.

America is in a period of increasing polarization: “the grouping of opinion around two extremes” or “poles,” like in a magnet. But in reality, it’s not a binary choice between the two extremes. What about the millions of Americans, like myself, who adhere to neither pole? We are the self-proclaimed disenfranchised “centrists,” “the big middle ground that is not part” of and does not necessarily agree completely with either party’s agenda. We are stuck, trapped in the middle of the partisan crossfire, holding out hope for compromise and good government.

This huge disconnect between the two polarized parties and the public they say they serve is why in the eyes of the average citizen, nothing seems to get accomplished in Washington. As renowned political scientist Clifton B. Parker put it, “it’s difficult to solve our country’s problems…when the most liberal Republican in Congress is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.” Both parties have been trending toward ideological purity for over two decades. In 1996, my birth year, a large number of high-profile moderates from both parties retired and were replaced by significantly more conservative or liberal successors. The end result of this trend will be the extinction of Congressional centrists. The current election cycle may very well be the tipping point at which the words moderate and centrist disappear from the Congressional political lexicon.

Three months ago, Dan Lipinski, a centrist Democrat from suburban Chicago notable for his pro-life stance on abortion, lost renomination in the primary to Marie Newman, a favorite of the activist left. Newman was endorsed by 30-year-old Congresswoman Alexandria “AOC” Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who herself also came to office by defeating a long-time Democratic congressman she deemed “insufficiently progressive.” AOC is without question a rising star in her party and is on a mission to push it further to the left. She has publicly criticized party leadership and even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for “working to appease the interests” of “conservative” Democrats. This kind of rhetoric is routinely spewed by leaders from both parties. It appears that compromise has become a dirty word, and many pragmatic moderates like me have no choice now but to be “politically homeless.”

In 1969, former President and General, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower warned the nation against veering toward the “extremes of the Far Left and the Far Right.” Eisenhower wrote that in order to prevent descent into chaos, American politicians must “accommodate all reasonable citizens, from the moderate conservative to the moderate liberal.” After all, Ike said that it is us centrists, not the ideological purists, “who get things done.”

President Eisenhower’s words resonate strongly with me. Along with millions of other Americans, I belong to the forgotten center and effectively have no voice in today’s political climate. I have always held political views that were some mix of traditionally “left” and “right” wing positions. On immigration, criminal justice reform, racial justice, and drug policy I side with the Democrats, while on taxes, spending, education, and abortion I am about as conservative as it gets. Then, there are some issues like foreign policy, healthcare, and guns, where I am somewhere in the middle of both parties’ platforms – or like trade and climate change where I agree with neither party. American citizens should be exposed to and be free to adopt for themselves a “mixed bag” of policy positions, and both parties should return to the old fashioned “big tents” that did accommodate people of differing positions on a wide range of issues. I left the Republican Party because it has become the party of Trump, who I strongly oppose. However, as long as their most high-profile young Congresswoman is a socialist, I will go nowhere near the Democrats. Will either party decide to listen to people like me – or will it be too late and will we create a third party that will put ideological purity aside and actually tend to the needs of the American people? Only time will tell.

While they publicly scorn and loathe each other, the hard left and the hard right have one thing in common. They ignore and do all they can to silence the voices that advocate common sense and moderation in working to find common ground. Both the hard left and the hard right are sworn enemies of centrism, working together to snuff out this part of the American electorate in an immensely polarized America.