Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently lamented to POLITICO that his style of centrist politics is losing its relevancy in today’s world. “It’s a very open question whether the type of politics I represent has had its day or not,” the former PM said. Mr. Blair has a point. There is an undeniable shift toward political extremes in Western democracies taking place. The Brexit vote in Great Britain, the recent strengthening of Israel’s right wing government, and the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump movements in the United States are just a few examples of the international movement away from moderate, centrist politics. While I wouldn’t classify the Palestinian Authority and their President in the West Bank as moderates, as some do, there are now rising fears that the terror group Hamas could gain much power in the October elections. So I agree with Mr. Blair that the loss of moderate politics’ influence is an ‘open question,’ but I’m not sure the fight for the center, particularly the center-left, is over in America. I say this as a self-identifying center-left, moderate Democrat.
I titled this piece ‘Confessions of a Center-Left Democrat’ as homage to Ari Shavit’s recent article “Confession of a Democratic Zionist.” Shavit, a center-left Israeli journalist, broke down the concept that Israel being Jewish and democratic does not ‘deter peace’ or ‘perpetuate the occupation.’ In this piece I will explain why I believe moderate democratic politics in America are not as dead as Tony Blair thinks and why center-left politics do not sacrifice liberal ideals and the means needed to move America forward.
Firstly, is moderate politics really dying as Tony Blair claims? It would certainly seem that way in our current political environment of non-nuanced black-and-white political discourse. When you look at the numbers from a recent Reuters poll though, more Democrats and Republicans identify as “moderate” or ‘lean’ toward either part rather than ‘strongly’ identifying with their party. So why does it feel like every American is either a liberal, flag burning Marxist are a racist fascist? It’s because the silent majority no longer consists of Nixon’s disenfranchised Republicans or even Bernie Sanders’ Democrats. Rather it is the moderates and centrists whose voices are being drowned out by the screams of extremists. To be clear, I don’t use the term “extremist” negatively in this context, but there is a reason why we see angry protesters on the news and not centrists looking for someone to compromise with. This does not mean moderate politics is dead, it just mean its voice is being smothered.
The reality of the American electorate is that we are asking our politicians for the same thing: end the gridlock and get shit done. It does not take a political scientist to understand the notion that the more polarized politics become, the harder compromise will be. Whether your top political agenda item is the environment, the second amendment or national defense, you have to be willing to compromise in order to make a deal. That is simply the nature of the beast. Do we really expect leading climate change denier Senator Jim Inhofe and Bernie Sanders to find common ground on a new environmental plan, let alone much else?
Tony Blair’s centrist political ideology is often compared to that of the Clintons and is an ideology praised as a pragmatic form of governing in order to ‘get shit done.’ As Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Starr said, center-left politicians just want to be known as “practical problem-solvers.” The devil’s advocate would say that a more moderate form of politics is lacking in strong core beliefs and promotes flip-flopping on issues important to the party base. But does center-left politics mean sacrificing core social progress made by the Democratic Party? On the contrary, center-left politics puts a strong emphasis on social justice and equal opportunity for minorities. Does center-left politics erase the liberal reforms made to shrink the wage gap? To the contrary, the progressive tax, a major liberal platform used to help fund welfare programs and even out the wage gap, is a key aspect of center-left politics. Does center-left politics mean flip-flopping on issues and appeasing Republicans? Of course not, but the nature of compromise means that you can’t get everything you want.
So I respectfully disagree with PM Blair, but understand his fears. The rising populism throughout Europe and now America is certainly something centrist politicians should not ignore. While the Democratic Party has experienced a strong insurgency from the far left, however, the majority of Democrats still place themselves toward the center. One of the common sentiments we heard during the Democratic National Convention was that we should proudly vote for Hillary Clinton while continuing to be inspired by Bernie Sanders. I think this is the perfect encapsulation of my argument for center-left politics. We must build off of liberal ideals like social equality, reforms to our economy, and saving our environment. The rise of the center-left does not beget the fall of liberalism; in fact the two are partners in the same fight. But without the partners to reach across the aisle and make the hard compromises, our political gridlock will continue to stall the progress of our nation.