Dead Centre: The myth of the political centre

dead cIn the three months since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister of Australia, one concept more than any other has dominated the political discussion: the concept of the ‘centre ground’. In the mainstream press especially, the notion that politics has a ‘centre’ and that Turnbull has to move towards it in order to win the next election (and that he is better equipped to do so than his erratic predecessor) has attained the status of an iron law. In his interview with Kerry O’Brien for the ABC a few weeks ago, Paul Keating framed the challenge with his usual flair: ‘He’s trying to take the Liberal Party back to the centre. Can he take on the right wing of his own party, or is he going to be stuck with a Looney Tune party?’

Such sentiments are hardly new, of course; of all the concepts to have taken a grip on the political consciousness in the last century, the idea of an ideological centre – indeed, of a non-ideological centre – has proved to be one of the most tenacious. But this tenacity reflects no very deep engagement with what the centre might be, or how it is formed. Rather it reflects a set of assumptions about what ‘the voter’ is prepared to swallow and what politicians have to say to win her vote. Moreover, this superbly ‘rational’ idea of how politics is done in liberal democracies would appear to have a life of its own, independent of those other concepts without which it should appear to lack meaning: even as we are told that old-style notions of left and right are losing their resonance, the notion of the political centre seems to retain its forcefulness. How come?

The question is especially pertinent in the light of developments elsewhere in the world. The recrudescence of ‘extremist’ parties (of both the left and right) in Europe and elsewhere, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party, and the emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the race for the Republican candidacy in the US are not, perhaps, decisive defeats for the concept of the political centre (one only has to look at the bewilderment of the mainstream press in the face of these rebellions to see that that concept is alive and kicking); but as minor reversals they are nonetheless striking. At the very least, they open a window on to a concept that, while fundamental to our politics, is only rarely examined in detail.

Perhaps the most influential attempt to frame the idea of the political centre is Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy. Published in 1957, this book applies an economic model of duopoly to democratic politics and suggests that, just as it is rational for two businesses selling identical products to gravitate to the halfway point of a street with an even spread of customers (this is known as ‘Hotelling’s law’), so it makes sense for political parties to position themselves in ‘the middle ground’. Assuming the presence of two major parties and only one (left-to-right) ideological dimension, Downs suggests that those parties will tend to converge on the position of ‘the median voter’ whose political beliefs and preferences are such that there will be an equal number of voters to her left and right. In short Downs’ theory suggests that the big parties can only increase their share of the vote by moving towards the electoral ‘centre ground’.

There are some obvious problems with this ‘median voter theorem’, not the least of which is the dubious analogy between economic and political ‘markets’. Politics, like much else in the modern world, is shot through with the language and priorites of advertising: parties are ‘branded’ and policies ‘spun’; commentators will talk endlessly about a party’s (in)ability to ‘sell’ this or that proposal. But whatever the impression politicans give, none of them is in politics to sell consumer products to customers; they are in politics to advance a view of the world and/or a particular set of interests. Sometimes, of course, the interests are their own, and may be reducible to power for its own sake. But the idea that politicians as a group move reflexively towards some theoretical centre is inadequate as a description of political reality; there is more – much more – going on than that.

Nor is the median voter itself a convincing theoretical construct. I can think of two obvious objections: one, it assumes that a voter’s preferences can be bundled together into one position and placed neatly on the left or right of the spectrum; and two, it assumes that those preferences are based on ‘perfect information’ about which party is where on the political spectrum, about what those political parties stand for, and about how what they stand for relates to their interests. In its crude form, the median voter theorem gives a lot of credit to the ‘rational’ voter, and little or none to political parties and their powers of persuasion (or indeed packaging).

Moreover, ‘rational choice’ theories of political behaviour consistently underestimate the way in which concepts like ‘the centre ground’ operate ideologically to normalise a particular set of assumptions and to sustain a party or parties in power. The idea of the centre is identified with moderation in politics; as such, it dovetails beautifully with notions of politics as ‘the art of the possible’, with all that that implies about consensus and compromise. But since ‘the centre’ changes over time, it is important to consider how it changes and who or what has the power to change it. Do politicians merely move towards the centre; or do they seek, aggressively, to define it? Further, to the extent that it is defined (and redefined) at intervals, how might a progressive political party or movement seek to ‘colour’ the concept in a way that benefits its own aspirations.

Our current ‘centre’ was formed in the years after neoliberalism laid magnificent waste to the corporatist consensus of the 1970s. Defining themselves against the greed and weakest-go-to-the-wall mentality that dominated the 1980s, but also against the industrial chaos that had brought that mentality into being, ‘third way’ politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reasserted the state’s responsibility for minimising the harsher effects of the market, while also insisting that public ownership and other forms of state interference in economic matters were no longer efficient. In framing this vision, the third-wayers are assumed to have turned their backs on two forms of ‘extremism’ and moved towards a ‘moderate’ position between social democracy and neoliberalism. They appealed to the (non-ideological) centre and reaped the electoral rewards as a consequence.

Well, that’s the theory. But the reality was much messier, as can be shown with a brief survey of those politicians most commonly tagged as ‘centrist’ or ‘third way’. I’ll take each of the usual suspects in turn.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton, of course, made no secret of his desire to be a new kind of Democratic president, presenting himself as a centrist candidate in the 1992 elections – as a politician solidly based in the ‘New Democrats’ faction of the Democratic Party, formed in the late 1980s in the wake of George H. W. Bush’s presidential victory. Nevertheless, according to data collected by Alvarez and Nagler (1998), Clinton never convinced the electorate of his credentials as a New Democrat/centrist; in fact he was perceived as liberal – as liberal, indeed, as Michael Dukakis, whose liberalism is widely believed to have cost him the election in 1988![i] Moreover, and in sharp distinction to that perception, when Clinton was actually in power he implemented a program far to the right of anything his liberal supporters would have countenanced. The Clinton administration passed into law more deregulation legislation than any other, prosecuted the ‘war on drugs’ with as much zeal as any Republican administration, extended the application of the death penalty and introduced the policies of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ (three felony convictions = one life sentence) and mandatory minimum sentencing for low-risk offenders. As for Clinton’s promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’ – that was perhaps the most conspicuous instance of the tactic known as ‘triangulation’: stealing the opposition’s policies, more or less, in an effort to rob it of support from its base. In an essay published in 1999, Clinton’s own Labor Secretary, the political economist Robert Reich, recalled his former boss’s bad faith:

When, during his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton vowed to ‘end welfare as we know it’ by moving people ‘from welfare to work,’ he presumably did not have in mind the legislation that he signed into law in August 1996. The original idea had been to smooth the passage from welfare to work with guaranteed health care, child care, job training and a job paying enough to live on. The 1996 legislation contained none of these supports – no health care or child care for people coming off welfare, no job training, no assurance of a job paying a living wage, nor, for that matter, of a job at any wage. In effect, what was dubbed welfare ‘reform’ merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.[ii]

So: Clinton was widely perceived as a liberal, behaved like an especially heartless Republican, and is referred to, uncritically and unironically, as a centrist. It seems to me that in this regard the press has taken him at his own estimation, while also accepting his definition of what, and where, the centre is.

Tony Blair

Like Clinton, Tony Blair is perceived as a third way politician who came to power on a promise to unite the best elements of right and left – market efficiency and social justice. But, again, the facts tell a different story. It is almost certain that, had he lived, John Smith would have led the British Labour Party to victory in 1997. At the time of his heart attack in 1994 Smith’s Labour Party was a massive 23 points ahead of the Conservative Party in the polls. More importantly, Smith saw no advantage in moving the party further to the right. Having jettisoned the two totemic policies that had held it back in 1980s – unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Europe – Labour was in a perfect position to take advantage of the ERM crisis of September 1992, which had destroyed the Tories’ reputation as sound economic managers. In other words, Blair’s decision, upon attaining the leadership in 1994, to move the party to the right, replacing Clause IV of the party’s constitution (which committed the party to ‘common ownership’), embracing Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms and waxing lyrical about the efficacy of the internal market, was not made out of political necessity; it was made because that’s what Blair and his circle believed was in the best interests of the country: in their hearts, they were economic conservatives.

In that respect, they were well to the right of the people whose votes they needed to win power. Indeed, data from a British Social Attitudes Survey shows that leftwing attitudes began significantly to decline in the years after Blair’s election, not before it as is commonly believed. Support for income distribution was as high in 1996 as it was in 1986 (43/44%) but fell by twelve percentage points between 1996 and 2005, while the proportion of people believing that state benefits are too low fell from 46% to 29% in the first year of Blair’s government.[iii] According to Curtice (2007), these remarkable numbers cannot simply be put down to the many small improvements that the Labour government made to British people’s lives. The change was, in large measure, ideological:

In moving his party towards the centre [sic], Blair assumed that he was taking his party closer to where the electorate already were ideologically. But if a party changes what it stands for, it may not simply change people’s perceptions of that party, it may also mean that people change their own beliefs too. After all, if as a result of a party changing its stance there is no longer a mainstream party advocating, say, greater equality or more nationalisation, then it is not unreasonable to anticipate that increasingly fewer people will be persuaded of the value of such policies. Moreover, it is often argued that people take their cues about what they believe from the party to which they feel a sense of emotional attachment. So if the Labour Party moves to the centre, as it did under Tony Blair, there is good reason to believe that many of its supporters will change their own views in sympathy.[iv]

Under Blair’s prime ministership the UK changed from a predominantly left-of-centre country to a predominantly right-of-centre one. As Curtice puts it, ‘in moving his party to the centre Blair did not simply change people’s perceptions of the Labour Party – he also discouraged them from supporting the values with which the party had traditionally been associated.’ (Simon Jenkins, in Thatcher and Sons (2006), puts it more colourfully: Blair, he writes, was a ‘cuckoo in the nest’.[v]) No wonder that Thatcher, when asked to identify her greatest political achievement, replied ‘New Labour’.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating

In the eyes of those who revere the centre as an expression of politics as the art of compromise, the governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating shine bright. But again, and as with Clinton and Blair, the successful framing of a ‘centrist’ politics was achieved without the explicit consent of the voters who elected them, at least at the outset of the process. It was Malcolm Fraser, in 1979, who demanded the Australian Financial System Enquiry, which recommended, inter alia, the removal of state regulation of interest rates, the dismantling of exchange controls and floating the dollar, and relaxing barriers for foreign banks to enter the market. Many of these recommendations are associated with what we now call neoliberalism or economic rationalism and all of them were opposed by the ALP on the basis that ‘Total deregulation of financial markets, as advocated by the report, would bring about higher interest rates, increased government taxes and charges, less finance for housing, a more volatile exchange rate, greater foreign ownership and less control by government over the form or pace of development of the Australian economy’[vi]. It was only after Hawke’s election in 1983 that they were implemented. Whether Hawke’s government was responding honestly to perceived economic necessities; whether the safeguards put in place for workers and the less well-off were sufficient in the circumstances: these are secondary considerations. The point, again, is that what we call the centre was redefined from within the political class and (initially) without a strong mandate.

So, whatever (or wherever) the centre is now, it was not framed by political parties shuffling democratically to some centre spot where the ‘median voter’ sits, queenlike, inspecting the major parties’ offerings. Nor, as was once said of the British Empire, was it conceived in a fit of absentmindedness. In the UK in particular the ambition to shift the Labour movement to the right was a consciously ideological endeavour. It was, in the words of Philip Gould, one of the principal architects of Blairism, a ‘project’: a project, moreover, in which the relevant actors often learned directly from each other. Between 1990 and 1993, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took two significant holidays – the first to Australia, the second to the US – in order to learn, first hand, from the experiments in policy and presentation taking place under Hawke and Clinton. The move towards a more neoliberal focus in economics was not a conspiracy in the sinister sense. But it often bore the marks of groupthink.

Why is this important? It’s important because if what we call the centre is not an expression of electoral will, it must be an expression of something else: a particular program or ideology directed towards a particular end. No doubt economic ‘rationalists’ would regard the adoption of neoliberal policies as an expression of economic reality; but in the aftermath of the debt crisis of 2008 that analysis looks wrongheaded at best. The facts have changed, as Keynes might have said, and yet ‘the centre’ remains resolutely in place: ideology posing as its opposite.

The ideology underpinning this idea of the centre is based on a rhetorically qualified attitude to an essentially neoliberal economics. In the mouth of a Blair, or indeed a Rudd, it is not ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘the free market’ or ‘capitalism’ that constitutes the challenge for social democrats. It is ‘mindless Thatcherism’ (Blair), ‘free-market fundamentalism’ (Rudd) and ‘extreme capitalism’ (Rudd) that are the problem. The issue, in other words, is not a system in which wealth is created socially and appropriated privately, but the lack of a proper ‘safety net’ for those at the shittier end of it, as well as an insufficient appreciation of the state’s (limited) responsibilities in areas such as research and development. But while ‘neoliberalism’ is the name sometimes given to these supposed excesses of capitalism, few centrist or third way politicians show any desire (save for in times of crisis) to temper the policies associated with it. It’s as if Gordon Gekko, not Ben Bernanke, was responsible for the GFC – that the problem was individual greed, and not the ideological assumptions embedded within the system that rewards it.

Blair’s ‘vacuo-Olympian style’ was the perfect complement to such ‘centrist’ politics. Capital-letter concepts such as ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ could be deployed as if they had no real relationship with, say, the redistribution of wealth from rich or poor, or from north to south. So too with Clinton, for whom the language of progressivism gave partial cover for his reactionary policies. (Progressive-sounding policies such as the expansion of Medicare or internet access for all US schools tended to be dropped soon after they were proposed.) Of course, from a properly left perspective the idea that one can reconcile an essentially neoliberal economic agenda with a progressive ‘social policy’ is a nonsense: there is no such thing as ‘the economy’ in that sense, as something separable from the social sphere. Blair’s rejection of socialism in favour of what he called ‘social-ism’ was simply an admission that the main point had been conceded and the white flag run up in place of the red one.

The strangest idea put forward by the centrists is that the centre is in some sense non-ideological. This assertion rests on a narrow conception of what an ideology is. When most politicians say ‘ideology’ they don’t mean the distortion of thought inevitable in a society set up along certain lines (‘the haunted air’, as Lionel Trilling called it); they mean a rigid, programmatic view of the world – not marination but indoctrination. This confusion underpins the notion of politics as management, and stems in part from the historical coincidence of economic rationalism and the world’s emergence from what Eric Hobsbawm called, in his book of the same name, ‘the age of extremes’. That neoliberal capitalism happened to be dominant when the USSR fell apart in 1990 was bound to give the former ideology the look of historical inevitability – of non-ideology, in other words. The ‘end of ideology’ is an old idea, going back to the 1960s. But after 1990 it looked, for a time, like a fair description of reality. From that point on, moderation was associated with a capitalistic view of the world, and extremism with a socialistic one.

That the media fell, and continues to fall, for the ideology of the non-ideological centre is thus a particular problem for the left. In the US the economist and journalist Paul Krugman has often lamented the ‘cult of balance’ that helps to sustain a conservative worldview. Similarly, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about the ‘ideology of objectivity’ in which ‘partisan’ is invariably a term of opprobrium and ‘bipartisan’ a term of praise. Such loadings locate the political ‘centre’ in the space between the major parties; but since it is the major parties that have sought, successfully, to define the centre (as opposed to simply moving towards it in the way described by Downs and his acolytes) it is invariably the status quo that benefits. The notion that the ‘centre’ is an ideological construct is rarely broached.

In her excellent book On the Side of the Angels (2008), Nancy Rosenblum ponders the rhetorical function of terms such as ‘centrist’ and ‘extremist’ in politics. Like Krugman and Hitchens, she is writing primarily about politics as it is practiced in the US; but her observations can be applied more broadly:

The puzzle is this: why are ‘centrist’ and ‘extremist’ such accessible, apparently meaningful terms for characterising the relation of parties and partisans to one another? ‘Centrism’ is only in part sound electoral strategy, and ‘extremism’ is only in part a predictor of electoral defeat, an admonition not to defy ‘normal laws of political gravity’ if partisans want to win and govern. This is only in part, because extremist is not a neutral term of political analysis. It is levelled by partisans against opponents and by political pundits selecting the strongest possible negative label. It is a radical intensification of ‘partisan’ as a term of attack, the ultimate political opprobrium … These questions are amplified if we consider the disjuncture between steady accusations of extremism in day-to-day politics, on the one hand, and what is often described as the characteristic centrism of the major American parties, on the other, or the disjuncture between perceptions of party polarisation and the common mantra that American parties lack distinct political identities.[vii]

To Rosenblum’s question – ‘Why are “centrist” and “extremist” such accessible, apparently meaningful terms for characterising the relation of parties and partisans to one another?’ – the answer I’ve given is that they function ideologically, as safeguards to a particular view of the world. At present, that view is a broadly neoliberal one, but that it should continue to be so is by no means inevitable. The current ‘centre’ emerged from a radical break with the past; the question now, as the system it brought into being comes under pressure from its own contradictions, is how to redefine it in a way that takes into account the realities of climate change, globalisation, inequality, the information revolution, and (if Paul Mason is to be believed) the end of the capitalist system itself. It is not quite time to declare, with Yeats, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, but there is increasing scope for movement. Politically there is much to play for.

[i] Alvarez, R. M. & Nagler, J. (1998). Economics, entitlements, and social issues: Voter choice in the 1996 Presidential election. American Journal of Political Science, 42(4), 1349-1363

[ii] Quoted in Hitchens, C. (2012). No one left to lie to: The triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. Australia: Allen & Unwin

[iii] Curtice, J. (2007). Elections and public opinion. In A. Seldon (ed.), Blair’s Britain: 1997-2007 (pp. 35-54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[iv] Curtice, J. (2007). Elections and public opinion. In A. Seldon (ed.), Blair’s Britain: 1997-2007 (pp. 35-54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[v] Jenkins, S. (2006). Thatcher and sons. Great Britain: Allen Lane

[vi] Quiggin, J. (1998). Social democracy and market reform in Australia and New Zealand, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 14(1), 76-95

[vii] Rosenblum, N. L. (2010). On the side of the angels: An appreciation of parties and partisanship. Princeton: Princeton University Press


First published in Arena Magazine