Inventing the Political Center

I’ve just been reading in the New York Post about the need for “centrist” politics in our polarized society. Post columnists, John Podhoretz and Seth Lipsky have both deplored an eroding center in American political life. Podhoretz compares the rampaging anti-Trump Left to the Tea Party, since both have made immoderate demands on our political leaders. Supposedly the Left “is becoming everything it hated,” by coming to resemble Republican extremists. Lipsky,  in his defense of the center, points to Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who in a recent biography by Hendrik Meijer is shown to be the quintessential Republican moderate. Lipsky pairs Vandenberg with “a member of my favorite endangered species, the centrist Democrat,” a type that he finds embodied in Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is upset by “the collapse of bipartisanship in Washington.” 

Joe Manchin has indeed voted more often than any other Democratic senator for Trump’s cabinet nominees, and even approved Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. But with regard to Trump’s landmark legislation, like the recently passed tax bill and the attempted repeal of ObamaCare, Manchin has predictably voted with the Democrats. This legislator, according to Lipsky, may be thinking about hanging it all up but not necessarily for the idealistic reason that Lipsky gives. Manchin comes from a state in which Trump is quite popular, and in all likelihood the electorate in West Virginia will vote in the majority for a Republican to succeed their current Democratic Senator. 

Arthur Vandenberg did in fact practice bipartisanship in foreign policy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant cooperating with the Democratic administrations of FDR and Truman. Moreover, Vandenberg followed this course until his death in 1951. For years he was the Democrats’ favorite Republican senator; and he was instrumental in winning congressional support for the Marshall Plan and for aid to Greece against Communist efforts to take over that country after the Second World War. Domestically, however, the Michigan senator was a fairly traditional Republican and as Lipsky admits, highly critical of the New Deal. He famously stood in opposition to the National Labor Relations Act in 1936 and objected to other New Deal measures undertaken by Roosevelt during his second term.

Although I agree that Vandenberg was a fine fellow, I’m at a loss for what relevance he has for today’s politics. Would he have taken a “moderate” view on sanctuary cities? What about anti-fascist demonstrators or people asking for visas from countries infested with Islamicists? I for one doubt that Vandenberg, Truman, or anyone else in American national politics in the late 1940s would have yielded on these issues. On social questions there was no significant difference between the two national parties in the 1940s and 1950s. By current standards both were reactionary and insensitive. I’ve also no idea how one can be a “centrist” on much of what today divides us. What is the centrist position for requiring transgender restrooms in all public facilities? What about requiring Christian bakers to make wedding cakes for gay nuptials?

The call for centrist politics seems endemic to “Never-Trump conservatives,” like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, and the editorial staffs of some of our authorized conservative publications. Still, it is worth asking whether these advocates of centrism are serious in their application of this term to themselves. Some self-described American political centrists remind me of how the Catholic Zentrumspartei (Center Party) approached parliamentary politics in late 19th-century Imperial Germany. Factions in the Center Party spanned the socioeconomic spectrum in the Reichstag from being pro-capitalist to being open to the economic programs advanced by the socialists. What held them together, however, were loyalty to the Catholic Church and determination to maintain the Church’s structure of authority in the German Empire. The Center Party could embrace its own brand of diversity, providing that the deputies and party leadership were agreed in their dedication to upholding the interests of the Church.

Similarly our would-be centrists and Never-Trump conservatives (by now the two terms may be mostly interchangeable) present different views on some things but also predictable loyalties. In their hatred for Trump, exuberant support for Doug Jones in the Alabama senatorial race, and drumbeat support for amnestying and granting citizenship to the DACA recipients and their families, these folks stand with the establishment. And this shouldn’t surprise us. We are talking about people who live and breathe the same air as their liberal friends and colleagues. If they’re looking for social acceptance, it’s not the folks in flyover country whose acceptance they crave. They are centrist in the sense that they are centered on an unchanging source of authority, namely, on how their liberal friends and the WaPo assess them as people. They also believe in the essential goodness of the political establishment, even if not all of them go quite so far as Bill Kristol in affirming fidelity to the “deep state.”

Centrism is not about occupying a vital center between two extremes, although our centrists sometimes claim they’re doing this. But they are characterizing themselves correctly in one critical respect. They wish to occupy the juste milieu as defined by the socially respectable Left and by fans of an expanding administrative state.  Although their efforts to fit in may not benefit our country, those who call themselves “centrists” are making defensible career decisions. At the very least they won’t be attacked by their peers at cocktail parties as riffraff.


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