In politics, centrism refers to the tendency to avoid political extremes by taking an ideologically intermediate position. A centrist promotes moderate policies by finding a middle ground between the left and the right and downplays ideological appeals in favor of a pragmatic or “catchall” party platform. Centrism can be seen as a means to maximize electoral support, especially among swing voters (those who will vote across party lines).
The left-right political spectrum is a traditional way of classifying ideologies, political positions, or political parties. The terms left, right, and center are believed to originate from the manner in which parliamentary factions were seated in the French Convention after the Revolution of 1789. Seated on the left were radicals such as the Montagnards and the Jacobins, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, the aristocracy, and even religion in France. Seated on the right were royalists and conservatives such as the Feuillants, who supported the king and the Catholic Church. Seated in the center were moderate republicans like the Girondins, who wanted to abolish the Bourbon monarchy but opposed radical demands for revolutionary terror and exporting the revolution to the rest of Europe.
In contrast to the center, both the left and the right are understood to represent well-defined political positions, or ideologies, that are polar opposites of each other. The left-right spectrum is linked to the rise of three main ideologies—conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Conservatism is associated today with a right-wing stance; conservative ideology resists progressive social change and tries to conserve the status quo, or bring back the status quo ante of the ancien regime. Those to the right of conservatives are sometimes called ultraconservatives or the Far Right; These labels may refer to fascists, national socialists (Nazis), ultranationalists, religious extremists, and other reactionaries. Next to emerge was liberalism, which situates itself in the center of the political arena, claiming to be moderate, reformist, and thus centrist. The last of the three ideologies to arise, socialism is commonly seen as left-wing or radical, because socialists view themselves as the radical or militant heirs of the French Revolution. Unlike self-styled centrist liberals, socialists believe that social progress cannot always be achieved by gradualist liberal reforms alone and may require radical social change or even social revolution. Those to the left of socialists are typically labeled ultraleftists or the Far Left, often referring to anarchists, Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and other extreme leftists.
Center-leaning politicians or parties usually seek compromise between conflicting political extremes and often take middle-of-the-road stances designed to bridge opposite ideological camps. Political centrism is thus by definition a relational concept, because the positions considered centrist depend on the specific policies of the competing ideological poles that the moderates are trying to reconcile. Centrism is important in the early twenty-first century because it is believed to apply to a very large section of the politically active population. In many countries, most members of the voting public tend to identify themselves as independent rather than as either left-wing or right-wing. The Economist stated in April 2005, “Most Americans have fairly centrist views on everything from multiculturalism to abortion. They like to think of themselves as ‘moderate’ and ‘non-judgmental.’ More people identify themselves as independents (39%, according to the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press) than as Democrats (31%) or Republicans (30%).”
Politicians of various parties thus try to appeal to this presumed majority in the center to reach beyond their traditional, narrow constituencies and win elections. Left-wing and right-wing parties dilute their more extreme positions, for both know that the bulk of voters are somewhere near the center. With ideological considerations toned down, centrism tends to make politics more tranquil and stable. The post–cold war decline of left-right divisions has hastened the spread of a new centrist ideology, which is more supportive of democracy and capitalism.
But this center-seeking or centripetal approach entails some risk. Candidates advocating centrist policies to gain wider voter appeal risk demobilizing potential voters and losing support from the more ideologically minded partisans of their own party. Calling itself “New Labour,” the revamped British Labour Party won three successive general elections, but voter turnout declined from 71.29 percent in 1997 to 61.36 percent in 2005, as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policy of abandoning key socialist tenets and embracing the center ground alienated many Labour loyalists.
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Economist. 2005. Slumbering On. April 9: 28.
Hazan, Reuven Y. 1997. Centre Parties: Polarisation and Competition in European Parliamentary Democracies. London and Washington, DC: Pinter.
Sirota, David. 2005. Debunking “Centrism.” The Nation, January 3. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050103/sirota.