mueller36_Kent Nishimura  Los Angeles Times via Getty Images_manchin sinema Kent Nishimura Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Can the Center Hold Any Meaning?

During the twentieth-century “age of ideological extremes,” political centrism had an obvious role to play in preserving democracy. But once democracy itself is in jeopardy, as it is in countries like the United States today, centrism becomes meaningless – or even dangerous.

PRINCETON – US President Joe Biden’s ambitious “Build Back Better” plan has been stalled and pared 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 re-elected.

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 re-election next spring. As with the two US 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 much sense in the twentieth 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.”

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