Op-Ed: Can being a ‘centrist’ mean anything when one side is anti-democracy?

Sen. Joe Manchin leaves the Senate chamber with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) leaves the Senate chamber with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Nov. 3. The two senators are blocking passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

President Biden’s ambitious “Build Back Better” plan has been stalled and pared back by two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who are regularly described as “centrists.” Plenty of observers have wondered what this label actually means in 2021. It is not only cynics who suspect that these figures are not so much centrist as self-centered, guided only by the imperative of getting reelected.

By what criteria are centrists to be judged? That question has become urgent not only in the United States but also in France, where President Emmanuel Macron, having promised to build a new center in French politics, will seek reelection next spring. As with the two senators, critics see Macron’s centrism as a smokescreen for a politician who effectively does the bidding of the right, warranting the label “the president of the rich.”

The question, then, is no longer whether the center can hold; it is whether centrism holds any meaning in today’s politics. The term made sense in the 20th century, which many understood to be an age of ideological extremes. Being in the center entailed a commitment to the fight against anti-democratic parties and movements. But even then, self-described centrists were often accused of bad faith. With characteristic irony, Isaiah Berlin, a liberal par excellence, counted himself among “the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates, the crypto-reactionary skeptical intellectuals.”

Whereas these earlier self-described centrists could live off the credit amassed in the fight against fascism and Stalinism, the legacy of self-consciously moderate politics has since worn thin. In many countries today, there is a kind of zombie centrism — a leftover of the Cold War that no longer provides a genuine political orientation to its adherents.


German Christian Democrats recently learned this the hard way. In September’s federal election, they failed spectacularly in their effort to claim the center against a potential coalition between the Social Democrats and the post-communist Left Party. The party’s anti-communist campaign, seemingly lifted straight out of the 1950s, obviously did not address 21st century challenges.

Still, there remain two forms of centrism that are not reducible to zombie Cold War liberalism. One is procedural: In systems with separated powers, such as the U.S., politicians are compelled to engage in the art of compromise; this is even more true in an age when clear majorities in legislative chambers have become rare.

A similar imperative applies in increasingly fragmented European party systems. The Dutch parliament currently features no fewer than 17 parties. And, after weeks of negotiations, Germany will soon have a government in which the left-wing Social Democrats and Greens are in a “traffic-light coalition” with the business-friendly Free Democrats.

Fragmentation — be it institutional or political — forces politicians to adopt what the Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit called “principled unprincipledness” for the sake of making democracy work. After all, most people are not keen on compromise for its own sake, because nobody thinks second-best is ever the best.

The exceptions are those who subscribe to the second plausible form of centrism: the positional kind. Seeing equidistance between political poles as proof of their pragmatism and “nonideological” credentials, positional centrists often try to cash in on the premium that still attaches to bipartisanship (especially in the U.S.). They benefit from seeming reasonable when the left and right are dominated by firebrands. In his first election campaign, Macron routinely emphasized the radicalism of his opponents, the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to show that he alone represented a responsible position.

Appealing to the “horseshoe theory” — highly popular among anti-communists during the Cold War — centrists also often insinuate that left- and right-wing populism eventually converge on the same antiliberal endpoint.

But centrism is not automatically democratic. Macron is a case in point. His “neither left nor right” posture implies a baldly technocratic form of government. The assumption is that there is always some uniquely rational response to any policy challenge. By definition, critics can be dismissed as irrational. But as Macron discovered with France’s “yellow vest” protests in 2018, the denial of democratic pluralism implied by this approach can provoke an intense backlash.

Both procedural and positional centrism are premised on there being a properly functioning democracy in place, and they can actually become dangerous when a country suffers from asymmetrical political polarization.

This is the situation in the U.S. today, where the Republican Party no longer recognizes basic features of democracy. Republicans are engaged in a vast project of extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, election subversion and legislative obstruction, showing no interest in compromise. Now that Biden is in the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Donald Trump’s grudging but reliable enabler, is largely following the playbook that he perfected during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Procedural centrism makes no sense when one’s political adversaries no longer respect procedures, as is now the case with the Republicans. But the situation is even worse for positional centrism.

If one party rejects democracy, equidistance is complicity. If Sinema and Manchin have nothing to say for themselves beyond zombie centrism, procedural centrism or positional centrism, even their own voters might eventually punish them for obstructing policy initiatives that are in fact highly popular.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and a fellow at the New Institute, Hamburg, Germany. His most recent book is “Democracy Rules.”