Is There Principle in Centrism?

Much too long ago, I wrote a post entitled The Centrist’s Manifesto extoling the virtues of a centrist view on politics and life. The Liberals, when they’re at their best, have got it. Americans are suffering because Democrats and Republicans are fighting across it. In general, if you have extremists on both sides of you telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing for different reasons, chances are you’re doing the right thing.

Back then, commentator Diego posed an interesting question:

my trouble with “centrism”, [is] this is a powerful argument for the status-quo; instead of pretending to be even-handed about it, we should call it a sort of un-ideological (or ideologically embarassed) conservatism; i.e. its ideology is to let the other guy do the political philosophizing while I stay above the fray.

This sort of centrism is a travesty of democratic participation, if by that we mean the active attempt to make the public institutions of the society reflect certain values. I don’t see how the creed of “centrism” does that, unless I mistake you badly. Perhaps I do. But I thought your point of view was distinct from “moderation”, an actual political-philosophical position within the “political arena”, basically espousing social democracy under liberal capitalism.

If that’s what “centrists” believe in, broadly speaking, why not say so? What rankles with me is the pretension of somehow being innocent of “ideology”. Everyone else is a ‘loud-mouth’ but not the centrists; but I say it’s the centrists who are the reckless ideological cowboys — now a liberal, now a socialist, now a green, now a conservative. This sort of voting behaviour implies an incoherent and muddled political philosophy, not some generous-minded pluralism.

I said:

I will be answering this… later. Right now, it’s bed time.

This was March 9, 2004. So, much too long ago.

In answer to Diego, I am using the phrase “centrism” and “moderation” interchangibly, so I am guilty of possessing a political-philosophical position in the “political arena”. I have principle. Indeed, I make this statement in response to Andrew’s interesting post at Bound by Gravity on whether or not centrists in general or Liberals in particular were unprincipled. I can say that I am principled. I have principles. My principle is the open mind.

This is what comes of being raised Anglican, I think. We’re all on about “the middle road” or “the middle way”, and I was quick to learn that while there were bad things out there, it was possible to have too much of a good thing. The Bible doesn’t just say “money is the root of all evil”, it says “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Keep money in perspective, and you can use it to good effect without corrupting your soul. Obsess over it, and evil things happen. The same is true with sex, power, food, exercise, workers rights, corporate rights and organized religion.

Almost every movement in history, even those that eventually went wrong, has raised valid grievances or sought to fight real injustices. We’ve even learned from truly loathesome movements such as fascism, if only to identify the signs of political thought going wrong. There is no mystique to politics or politicians; politics is simply the natural outcome when you force a group of people to decide how to distribute scarce resources. We are all going to disagree over what needs to be done, and how to go about doing it, but as individuals equally capable of great good and great evil, each individual is capable of divergent thoughts of equal merit. A person who understands this, and who looks for the right answers in as large and diverse a group as possible is not being unprincipled.

Whether or not they are unprincipled depends entirely on their motives for looking so far afield.

In terms of bringing the discussion of the merits of moderation and centrism in Canadian politics, I’d like to refer to one of the quotes made in Andrew’s post, a quote by Balbulican:

One of the reasons the Liberal party is so successful is that they are, essentially, unprincipled. Other parties with strong ideological roots (NDP, Reform, and Conservative) are obliged to formulate platforms and policies consistent with their founding principles. The Liberals, in contrast, are pure political opportunists: standing for nothing in particular, they can adopt any position at any point along the political continuum that offers them a strategic advantage at a specific point in time

There is another reason why the Liberal party is so successful that mirrors the one given above: not that they are political opportunists, but political pragmatists, standing for NDP positions one day, and Reform the next, because those particular positions on those particular days were the best positions to take in the interest of the country.

Balbulican touches on the reason why I haven’t voted for the Liberals since 1997 (and haven’t voted comfortably for them since 1993). The Liberal party’s internal spectrum doesn’t swing between left and right, red and blue, it swings between pragmatists and opportunists. The pragmatists take a wide range of positions, even unpopular ones, if they prove to be good for the country. The opportunists are interested in their own political advantage and tend only to lean towards positions which are popular among Canadians, as opposed to good for them.

And as opportunists tend to be more ambitious than pragmatists, surely its no surprise that we see average Liberals on the street as decent, open-minded people, while the power-hungry ones (like Paul Martin) find themselves close to the top. I know plenty of good pragmatic Liberals: like former Kitchener MP John English, who served his community well before retiring to take care of his family, or the late and highly respected Kitchener city councillor Mike Wagner, whose ambitions didn’t take him far beyond his ward.

It has been said that the political centre rests between the eyes of the average human being and that, for many, extremists are everybody but the man in the mirror. There is truth to that. We do have a tendency to refer to people who hold different political opinions as someone extreme. If possible we label these people so we can separate their opinions from us… Witness how many people believe we are governed by a leftist party, and how many people believe that the Conservative Party as a whole represents the right-wing agenda at its worst.

…except that when people tend to refer to the Liberal government of Canada as “that socialist horde” or “the corporate welfare bums”, they themselves tend not to refer to themselves as centrists. The people who use these labels tend to see the world in black and white terms. They see just two sides in politics, left and right, Democrat and Republican, and the side they’re on is right, and the side the others are on is wrong. There is no room for middle ground. There is no room for grey.

Opposing this is where you will find the principles of centrism.

On Earth there is little black and white. Outside of mathematics, there is no one right way to answer a question. There is almost nothing that you can talk about that you can truly be absolute about without risk of mistake. Even the previous sentence cannot be spoken in absolute terms without being wrong, because perfection lies only with God.

Although you as an individual may have the answers to some of today’s questions, you don’t have all of the answers. There is, however, somebody out there who has some of the answers you need. Being human, we are each as capable of greatness and great error, and while most humans will show their abilities early and can be pegged accordingly, we must never close the door entirely to surprises.

Another Reason I Stick to the Centre

Special interest groups on both sides can’t be fully trusted.

A Washington state utility released audiotapes Thursday that it said revealed bankrupt energy trader Enron Corp. plotted to take a power plant off-line in 2001 to jack up electric prices in Western states.

That same day, shortages of power forced rolling blackouts in northern California that affected about 2 million customers.

Snohomish Public Utility District in Everett, Washington, released the tapes as part of its effort to void a $122 million lawsuit Enron has filed against it seeking payment for electricity it was contracted to provide.

“We want you guys to get a little creative … and come up with a reason to go down,” the Enron worker tells the plant employee on one of the tapes.

“Anything you want to do over there? … Cleaning, anything like that?” the Enron employee says.

For all of the problems arising from costly union contracts, from bureaucratic lethargy, from the simple fact that government represents an infringement of liberty… our only alternative is to turn our power system and our health care over to guys like these?

I don’t think so.

There has to be another way.

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