Taxonomy of the Center

By Callimachus | Related entries in General Politics

This turned up in a comments thread and probably got drowned out there by yak about Iraq, but it seems worth saving, since a lot of people talk about ideas like “moderate” and “centrist” without agreeing on what they are.

Tom Strong laid down an important distinction:

Moderate: Gentle in tone, open to compromises (particularly “third way� compromises), tempered.

Centrist: Possessing views that represent “the middle majority.”

They’re related, but they’re not the same.

Right. To which I would append two other “related but not the same” positions:

Balanced: holding with conviction individual positions that are held by both left and right in current politics, in more or less equal number.

Might be “liberal� on abortion, “conservative� on gun control, “liberal� on environment, “conservative� on defense, etc. No need to be moderate. I suspect this is closer to Lieberman and McCain and possibly Dean.

Independent: considering each political question without reference to what anyone else thinks, but merely consulting one’s own inner moral or ethical compass.

This often will end up looking like balanced, but it is not necessarily the same thing. Balanced can be a deliberately calculated political tactic (as of course can centrist).

And of course there are those who simply get up every morning and put on the team jersey of whichever side is ahead in the polls. I call them by their 19th century name, trimmers (trimming their sails to the prevailing political winds).

Might be some redundancy there, but it’s a place to start. You can’t debate till you can agree on terminology. Refinements welcomed.

What it starts to look like is a taxonomy of people who do not affiliate consistently with either political party/faction/directional tendency in a given bipolar political system.

Some observations occur: you can be a moderate in any political climate, but in a highly polarized one you can’t be a centrist because there is no center. It’s also possible to be what I’ve called an “independent” and happen to perfectly align with Party A or Party B, because you’ve independently come to the same conclusions it has about the issues. But I don’t find that a likely scenario in contemporary American politics.

Another possible identity here is reformer: one concerned primarily about the political process and the perceived level of corruption of it, usually by both parties but especially the one that holds the upper hand. Other positions on questions of the day tend to be secondary to this concern. Ross Perot in ’92?


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12 Responses to “Taxonomy of the Center”

  1. Daniel Berczik Says:

    I prefer the term Taxidermy of the Center, because it is drained of essential life force and embarrassingly stuffed.

    The problem with attempting to define what is centrist or moderate, I believe, comes from the obfuscation of definitions themselves. We have accepted that the words liberal and left are synonymous, as are conservative and right. This is a false reasoning. Much of the left could clearly be characterized as being conservative, meaning the impulse to preserve dearly-held prerogatives. Similarly, there are both conservative and liberal rightists, the liberal rightists having their own dogma, but willing to accept the possibility that there are other, perhaps better means to achieve their stated goals.

    Say a person person favors a market economy, yet understands the necessity of governmental oversight in some cases. This would put this person in the rightist camp, while the modifier would be that of being liberal. A conservative leftists would advocate governmental controls whether it was called for or not.

    One comes down to a difference between nouns and adjectives.

    “Centrists,” almost by definition, would be liberal in their thinking, so there is little to talk about. A centrist could not be considered to be conservative (note I am not writing “a conservative”) because his nature would be one of specific enquiry to each issue.

    This is why conservative thinkers articulate their philosophy better than liberal thinkers do. The conservative thinker has a home base from which he operates, whereas a liberal thinker must start each new task from scratch.

  2. GN Says:

    Cal,
    Thank you for this post. It is very thoughtful and well articulated. My interpretation of what you have said (if I could generalize it in one sentence is:)

    The discourse of a disparate group is always going to be influenced by the assumptions of each to the basic proclivities of individuals and the general consensus of the whole. (excluding the “Trimmers”)

    Assuming that the definitions you have presented are acceptable to the group (any group) there will always be a significant disparity on most issues. The consensus can look like liberal, conservative or any mixture thereof (Centrist?, Moderate?) plotted on a standard deviation chart. You have readily described American politics as it is currently practiced.

    Assuming that this model is applied, net results would seem to driven by the loudest voice. The application will always manifest by party forcefullness (fair, unfair, truthful, deceitful etc.) at the ballot box. Results at the ballot box can look conservative, liberal or moderate depending on perspective.

    Sorry if this seems convoluted, but if I have read you correctly, here is my take on it.

    I agree with most of the definitions you put forth.

    “What it starts to look like is a taxonomy of people who do not affiliate consistently with either political party/faction/directional tendency in a given bipolar political system.”

    Awsome description of what seems to be happening right now.

    “Some observations occur: you can be a moderate in any political climate, but in a highly polarized one you can’t be a centrist because there is no center. It’s also possible to be what I’ve called an “independentâ€Â? and happen to perfectly align with Party A or Party B, because you’ve independently come to the same conclusions it has about the issues. But I don’t find that a likely scenario in contemporary American politics.”

    We part ways on this one, because I believe that your perception of “Centrist” is ultra conservative (defintive) rather than descriptive. My perception of Centrist (since I like the application Standard Deviation Theory) is “starting at the center(Mighty Middle?) working to the right (conservative) or left (liberal) to whatever degree you land on to achieve the best for the whole regarding an objective. With that said I offer an additional label of “Objectivist” as a subset to Centrist and Moderate.

    I think what has been experienced in American politics for the last 50 or so years has been in-ability to hold the elected officials to the collective electorates’ objectives rather than the majority party’s(or factions within same) ideologies. That is the fault of “us”, the voters. We have not been very good at directing our officials. A shining example is the UAE ports incident. It does not matter what any of our individual opinions might be on that issue. The Officials did not miraculously develop a position on the deal. Their constituents internalized the information available and reacted with a decision (best for the whole collectively; could end up correct or in-correct) and made their desires known. They did this quickly and emphatically, which has not happened in our system for quite a long time.

    It was objective, because the reaction came from ideology that was sold by the administration to achieve a seperate goal. The administration (and hopefully both parties) learned a valuable lesson (I hope) about mixing ideologies and objectives. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” applies to people as well as physics.

    Lastly, the application of objectivist theory should be applied to your description of “reformer”, “one concerned primarily about the political process and the perceived level of corruption of it, usually by both parties but especially the one that holds the upper hand.”, to wit, as a process within each party, not as a campaign tool for one against the other.

    Sorry this is such a long response, but you opened the box.

  3. michael reynolds Says:

    This debate has some relevance for the Centrist Coalition, on whose board I serve without knowing exactly what anyone means by “centrist.”

    The problem with all political labels is that they are misunderstood, or understood differently, by a large percentage of the people using them, and the definitions differ by geography and change over time. There’s the originalist meaning of liberal or conservative, then there’s the daily usage.

    I’m forced into the odd position of defining an interventionist, utopian, messianic foreign policy as “conservative,” and a hybrid of America-first isolationism, international collectivism and good old fashioned pacifism as “liberal.” And I’d love someone to explain to me uncontrolled government spending can be “liberal” if financed by taxes and “conservative” if financed by bond sales to our enemies.

  4. reader_iam Says:

    Has anybody here read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles?

  5. reader_iam Says:

    For a look at some of the deeper issues behind why and how people align the way they do, it’s hard to beat.

    Run, don’t walk, to your nearest physical or virtual bookstore …

  6. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    A lot of us calling ourselves centrists out here in the web world are very much in the reformer mold. We agree that 1) modern American poiltics is too blindly partisan; 2) both parties pander too much to their wings and engage in too much spin; 3) we need a government more centered on producing results than engaging in power struggles and 4) we need to focus on finding ways to unify the American people rather than developing clever ways to divide them.

    Almost all of these centrists are also moderates in that they believe strongly in civility and honest debate.

    But once you sit us all down and start talking policy, things can get pretty dicey. Turns out, there really isn’t a set platform centrists can agree upon outside of reform issues. Which is why a centrist party is probably impossible but a centrist movement based on reform has a chance of succeeding.

  7. kreiz Says:

    With all deference to my friend Callimachus, this discussion, while intellectually fascinating, falls on my deaf, pragmatic ears. I don’t mean to downplay C’s concern with the importance of language and definition. My qualm is a practical one. Despite our fondest desires, centrists/moderates/independents aren’t a significant force in the major party structures or as a third party. In a world where McCain is considered a crazed liberal and Warner is dismissed as a conservative, the discussion loses some of its meaning.

    I understand the counterargument, best summarized by Dave Shuler’s mom- “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” After so many year of witnessing centrist irrelevance, I’m more inclined to stand in the dark. I can’t help but think of the movie “Reds”, where John Reed endlessly debateed which splinter group represented the true American communist party. In the end, it didn’t matter.

  8. Callimachus Says:

    Daniel this is addressed to current political factions, not to classical philosophies. I am well aware of the difference and the degradation of the old terms “liberal” and “conservative” both in the mouths of those who claim them and those who hurl them as insults. However unfortunate, the contemporary reality-on-the-ground does exist, and a rough map of it can be a useful thing.

    “Centrists,� almost by definition, would be liberal in their thinking, so there is little to talk about. A centrist could not be considered to be conservative (note I am not writing “a conservative�) because his nature would be one of specific enquiry to each issue.

    False. A conservative is not immobile or caught in a time warp. He allows change very reluctantly and with deliberate slowness and careful choosing. But he will allow some old things to pass away if they are no longer of value, and allow innovations if they are provent to be of value. He gives preference to the old and proven ways, but he is not blindly committed to them. One who doesn’t is in a pathological, not a political condition.

    So in a generally conservative society, a more open-minded conservative position can be a center position.

  9. Tom Strong Says:

    Everything comes down to this: what can we agree to work together on, even if we disagree on other matters?

    If things ever get bad enough, reform will be the topic; it will pull the “center” together. But until then, I expect partisanship to rule the day.

  10. Daniel Berczik Says:

    Cal,

    Point taken re: classical versus practical applications. I may also be guilty of slander towards conservatives, though I do not intend it. I still consider the conservative motto to be Bill Buckley’s “Standing athwart history yelling stop,” (although I have met more innovative conservatives lately than liberals) and base my characterization on Hayek’s formulation of conservatism.

  11. Callimachus Says:

    Dan,

    I tend to think of the Russell Kirk types.

  12. rtaycher1987 Says:

    “”I’m forced into the odd position of defining an interventionist, utopian, messianic foreign policy as “conservative,â€Â? and a hybrid of America-first isolationism, international collectivism and good old fashioned pacifism as “liberal.â€Â? And I’d love someone to explain to me uncontrolled government spending can be “liberalâ€Â? if financed by taxes and “conservativeâ€Â? if financed by bond sales to our enemies.”"
    -michael reynolds

    Neo-consevatism doesn’t seem to have very conservative but a liberal foreign policy id one that includes influences of idealism/utopianism, international, and pacifism (plsu a hint of realism ), (theisolationismislargley only taken in rhetoric for popularity reasons over pacifism) .

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