Monday, November 24, 2014

The Centrists Cannot Hold

WASHINGTON – In most advanced democracies, a large center-right party competes with a large center-left party. Of course, the extent to which an electoral system favors large parties – by having high popular-vote thresholds to enter parliament, or through winner-take-all constituencies – affects the degree of political fragmentation. But, by and large, the developed democracies are characterized by competition between large parties on the center left and center right. What, then, are true centrists like Mario Monti, Italy’s respected technocratic prime minister, to do?

To be sure, regional and ethnic allegiances play a greater role in some places in Europe – for example, Scotland, Belgium, and Catalonia – but far more so in emerging countries, where political cleavages also reflect specific post-colonial circumstances and often the legacy of single-party rule. Nonetheless, even in “emerging market” democracies, such as Chile, Mexico, South Korea, and India, a left-right cleavage plays an important role – while those who claim the political center generally remain weak.

The British Liberal Democrats, for example, have tried for decades to become a strong centrist third party, without success. While the political vocabulary in the United States is different, the Democratic Party, since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, is indeed a center-left force, the Republican Party occupies the right, and no other significant party exists.

In France and Germany, there is more fragmentation. Politics is still dominated by a large center-left party and a large center-right party, but smaller groups – some claiming the center and others the right and left extremes – challenge them to various degrees. In some countries, the “Greens” have their own identity, close to the left; but, despite remarkable progress in Germany, they remain unable to reach the electoral size of the large center-right and center-left parties.

Variations of this basic structure exist in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and the Nordic countries. The situation is particularly interesting in Italy, where Monti, having decided to contest the upcoming general election, has had to position himself on the right (which he signaled by attending a gathering of the leaders of Europe’s center-right parties). He and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are now fighting for space on the right, with the center-left Democrats leading in the polls.

There are at least four differences between center-right and center-left approaches to social and economic challenges. The right has greater confidence in markets to allocate resources and provide appropriate incentives; favors private consumption over public goods; is minimally concerned with economic inequality; and tends to be more nationalistic and less optimistic about international cooperation.

The left, by contrast, believes that markets, particularly financial markets, need considerable government regulation and supervision to function well; gives greater weight to public goods (for example, parks, a clean environment, and mass-transit systems); seeks to reduce economic inequality, believing that it undermines democracy and the sense of fairness that is important to well-being; and is more willing to pursue international cooperation as a means to secure peace and provide global public goods, such as climate protection.

When looking at actual economic policies as they have evolved over decades, we see that they always combine center-right and center-left elements. Repeated financial crises have tempered even the right’s faith in unregulated markets, while the left has become more realistic and cautious about state planning and bureaucratic processes. Likewise, the choice between privately consumed and publicly consumed “goods” is often blurred, as politicians tend to reinforce citizens’ understandable tendency to demand public goods while rejecting the taxes needed to pay for them.

As income inequality has increased – dramatically in some countries, such as the US – it is moving to the forefront of the debate, reinforcing the traditional political divide. Nonetheless, the center right and the center left are arguing about the degree of redistribution, not about the need for some progressivity in taxes and transfers. Both also agree on the need for international cooperation in an increasingly interdependent world, with differences mainly concerning how much effort to spend on it.

So, given that differences in policies as they are implemented have become largely a matter of degree, why do centrist parties remain weak? Why have they failed to unite moderates on both sides of the ideological divide?

One reason is that only a minority of any population is active politically. Active party members hold more ideologically consistent views – and hold them more strongly – than most of those who are politically less engaged, giving activists disproportionate influence in the political process. After all, more nuanced ideas and policy proposals are relatively difficult to propagate effectively enough to generate broad and enthusiastic popular support.

But there also really are fundamental differences in values and economic philosophies, as well as in economic interests, leading to a fairly consistent positioning of voters on the right or left. Disagreement may lead to compromises, but that does not change the underlying differences in starting positions.

It is probably a good thing that structured competition between large center-right and center-left parties persists. Such parties can help to integrate the extremes into the political mainstream, while facilitating alternation in power, which is essential to any democracy’s dynamism; a system in which a large centrist party remained permanently in power would be far less desirable. Those, like Monti, who want to mount a challenge from the center, however personally impressive they may be, have steep obstacles to overcome, and for good reasons.

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    1. CommentedStamatis Kavvadias

      Interesting. Though the article does not prove its claim at the end that "a system in which a large centrist party remained permanently in power would be far less desirable," it provokes syllogism on the evolutionary course of political processes in, so called, "representative democracies". These processes, in did, swings from left to right, virtually without any intervals of steady course in the middle. But understanding our current status, should not cage us to only see as far as what is possible from where we stand and incremental thinking!

      The bigger issues are the targets we would like to get to, because these targets are what will motivate us. The important questions are, how can we create institutions that are neutral (similar to centrist...), and what could replace "representative democracy", which has found its limits in the global system of economic power and dominance.

    2. CommentedRoland Hazy

      A nice answer to this article regarding centrist power:
      By the way, is Dervis really promoting a two-party system over multi-party systems? And how can one wash together different democratic countries; please someone compare Sweden to US. Even economists are now speaking of two main variants of capitalism which is rooted in different political structures.

    3. CommentedCher Calusa

      It’s interesting that the outcome of any political party system in a democratic style government structure is that theoretically the polar opposites will create a middle ground giving an opportunity for moderates to emerge and unite each end of the spectrum. Since a minority of any population is politically inactive, we have to re-examine the premise. We’ve already seen how political party systems don’t create the healthy competition and decision making that we had hoped they would. It’s such a fair and wise idea but it certainly does need the participation of equal numbers of politically active people for successful decision making. How can we integrate people into a system that will take this non-participation quotient into account? Shouldn’t we be examining what would create participation and move into this direction? How can we create a system in which everyone understands that they have an important contribution to make? The fact is that even when citizens make the “choice” not to participate, they have already chosen an outcome that won’t be necessarily beneficial. If we are to envision a future worth living for, we must understand how interconnected we are and how to use this interconnection to capitalize on our abilities to solve problems for everyone's well being in this global system. The party system , as the world knows it, is easily corrupted and incapable of leading us to a positive future.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        Given a Gaussian distribution along the political spectrum, it is natural to assume a general electoral landing spot at about a standard deviation from the center -- ergo the success of Left and Right Centrist parties. This natural phenomenon is actually healthy as it remains basically balanced, while avoiding the dangers of a one-party system, even if that party was -- or at least began -- as Centrist.

        But to bring people into this system I think, would involve bringing a consciousness of where the same natural -- even mathematical -- phenomena that leads to this system would like to take us. [Forgive the anthropomorphism, but it makes for easier language.]

        Individuality, our views and contributions to a society whose whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, by nature lead to some animosity. What is crucial is that there has to be a sense of mutual respect and love that overshadows without eliminating the lower "hate" -- reducing it to the maintenance of enough personal space to survive to provide its contribution.

        Let Center dominate, but indeed let some course-correction pull to left or right as necessary, survive within. But more importantly, let such be the case with us as individuals, our local communities and national and ethnic groupings , and the holistic Humanity that we are rapidly evolving into.

    4. CommentedTony Phuah

      How about moderation ( as guiding principle?

      It’s fine as long as not over. • Moderation • balance

    5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Simply desintegrate the unstable Italian state.

      A fragmented political party system is a great advantage. It leads to better politicians.

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      It is true that centrist parties, politicians cannot provide the answer.
      But it is interesting how this article is celebrating polarized, western style, democratic party politics in an age when western style, polarized democratic party politics became exposed, corrupt and dysfunctional.
      Today's self important and self serving individual and party politics is incapable and helpless in directing, sustaining nations, and even more incapable of finding answers to global problems.
      This is on top of the also unsustainable economic model this governing structure supports, serves.
      Humanity has evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent web within a closed, natural ecosystem.
      We need completely new governing systems and consumption models in order to adapt to our new conditions.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        Mr. Hermann points out a rather obvious fact.

        A broad open palm and agile fingers, all with coordination local sensory and muscule apparatus, are a lot more effective it the safe capture and containment of a wobbling water balloon than a few random, senseless, stiff needles.

        It should be obvious at least, but the unfortunate thing is that it is not and must still be pointed out.

    7. CommentedLuca Arcangeli

      The situation in Italy is strange: the presence of Silvio Berlusconi, with his huge amount of influence over the media, in the last 20 years has turned the political dialogue into a personal fight against him.