The political center has an undeserved reputation as the home of the most dispassionate and reasonable people. According to a strain of thought that stretches back to the 18th century, parties endanger democracy; partisans see only their side of the truth, pursue their own narrow interests, and aggravate tensions and conflict. The rational course supposedly lies in the middle, where champions of civic virtue counsel compromise and invite us to put the public good first.
The anti-partisan story is a seductive myth, and a dangerous one. Those who represent themselves as standing in the center have their own partialities. Many people who call themselves nonpartisan or independent actually lean left or right but for one reason or another resist coming out of the closet as Democrats or Republicans. Some people who tell pollsters that they’re independents don’t follow politics closely or care about it enough to risk taking sides. They’re hardly model citizens.
Besides this muddled middle, there are centrists by conviction, who can be just as ideological as people to their right and left. Moderation has its zealots, so convinced of their righteousness that they ignore the probable consequences of their actions. And these days, some fanatics of moderation seem to be afflicted by a strange combination of blindness and amnesia that has made them likely to do harm even to the values they profess.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is a leading exemplar of the species. Frustrated by the failure of Congress and the president to reach a deficit deal last summer, Friedman called for support of a third party of the “radical center,” Americans Elect, which is running an online primary to choose candidates for a ticket that will go on the ballot in all 50 states. “The only rule,” Friedman noted, “is that a Democrat must run with a Republican or independent, and a Republican with a Democrat or independent.”
Evenhandedness is the characteristic pose of centrist zealotry. Democrats and Republicans, we are told, are equally to blame for seemingly intractable national ills such as the federal deficit. But, um, wasn’t the United States running a surplus before the Bush tax cuts in 2001? Didn’t President Barack Obama last summer offer a grand bargain with major concessions on Social Security and Medicare that the House Republicans turned down? And didn’t a third-party candidate in 2000 tilt the election to the Republicans, who created the fiscal crisis in the first place and whose determination not to raise revenue virtually guarantees either deeply unpopular policies or a perpetual crisis?
The fanatics of the center wave away such concerns. They believe so deeply in the spirit of compromise that their commitment to it is uncompromising. Every time Republicans move to the right, Democrats are supposed to be willing to find common ground by moving further to the right, too. Civic virtue positively requires it.
The history of climate policy and health-care reform is instructive. On climate policy, moderates in recent decades urged Democrats to support a market-oriented approach known as cap-and-trade in the interests of compromise. On health-care reform, they also urged Democrats to accept a market-oriented approach—private health-insurance exchanges and an individual mandate—for the sake of bipartisanship. But when Democrats adopted these approaches, Republicans abandoned them and insisted that they were tantamount to socialism. In the past year, one Republican candidate for president after another has done backward somersaults, repudiating earlier endorsements of cap-and-trade and the health-insurance mandate. Instead of winning over conservative support, compromise has done nothing to discourage Republicans from moving to the right—and nothing to prevent the fanatics of the center from saying that Democrats are equally responsible for political gridlock because they haven’t compromised more.
“I don’t think you go to the middle,” Newt Gingrich recently told Fox’s Sean Hannity. “You bring the middle to you.” That’s not only good strategy; it also describes what conservative Republicans have succeeded in doing over the past 30 years. If Democrats are to reverse the political momentum on the right, they need to bring the middle to them. There is a season for compromise and negotiation. There is also a season for staking out positions and taking the issues to the public, which is why we have elections. The solution to all public issues is not the “spirit of compromise.” The solution is first to establish the grounds on which compromises may be struck, and that requires a spirit of determination to prevail in the great struggle over the future of American politics.