Leaders of the Maine Centrist Project are aware that centrism is something of a dirty word in America’s highly-polarized political environment.
“When did compromise become a bad thing?” asked Dave McConnell, an attorney from Falmouth and one of the founding members of the Portland chapter of the Centrist Project. “Both sides of the aisle see a movement for people in the middle as a threat.”
And while centrism does garner some flak from right-wingers, mostly from those opposed to the idea of even collaborating with Democrats, most of the critique around the position comes from progressives who largely believe that centrism is dysfunctional and nothing more than neoliberalism rebranded.
Political writer John Nichols wrote in the Nation earlier this year that “The Democratic Party Must Finally Abandon Centrism,” arguing that it’s been the status quo since Bill Clinton popularized it back in 1992. Since then, Democrats have lost over 1,000 seats in the House and Senate.
Rajshree Chandra, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, critiqued centrism recently in the Wire writing that its core component — posturing itself in a pragmatic middle space between two extremes — actually draws harmful false equivalencies of groups and ideas.
“Centrists hate to take sides even when a principle is at stake,” she writes. “In general, they tend to be less transparent and definitely less consistent than the principled ones.”
After last month’s domestic terror attack in Charlottesville in which President Trump placed the blame on “many sides,” seemingly putting neo-Nazis on the same moral plane as anti-fascist protesters, progressive voices online took that as an example of the problems with centrist thinking.
A series of political webcomics titled “Famous Moments in History, Reimagined By Centrists,” drawn by Kasia Babis, went viral on Twitter that week and summed up the dominant critique of political neutrality in 2017: one panel shows a would-be centrist standing behind Hitler saying “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” atop another panel depicting a centrist standing between two crowds of people — KKK members and anti-racist protesters — with a silly grin and a sign that says “Compromise?”
But according to McConnell, neutrality is not what centrism is about at all.
“Centrism does not mean staking out some arbitrary position in the middle of every topic,” said McConnell. “To take the Charlottesville example, when you’ve got neo-Nazis on one side, to me there is no middle ground. We’re not about being a neutral Switzerland in every issue; we do take positions on certain issues.”
McConnell says that the Maine Centrist Project was born in 2013 out of similar frustrations Americans had back in 1992, when Independent candidate Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote — arguably the most successful centrist presidential candidate in modern U.S. history. Before the results came in, political journalist E.J. Dionne predicted a yearning for a “new political center” where “conservative values were mixed with liberal instincts.”
The Centrist Project wants to break the "dysfunctional two-party system."
McConnell says the same yearning is happening now because many Americans are fed up with “a broken two-party system”, and the extreme ideological convictions within it that result in a “lack of civility and collaboration.”
He used climate change and health care as examples of this inability to make bipartisan progress. He says Republicans won’t advance climate change legislation, and Democrats won’t budge on Obamacare reform, disagreements that result in little progress on issues that are divisive to many Americans. (However, the political experts cited earlier would likely label that comparison as another false equivalency on the grounds that there's nothing comparable about the acknowledgment of a scientific reality and the unwillingness to toss out a major legislative effort without a plan for adequate replacement.)
“In this current political environment, every problem becomes just another opportunity for short-term political point-scoring,” said McConnell.
Instead, McConnell said that centrism — or as he calls it, the “un-party” — offers an “approach to government, not an ideology.”
In Maine, the largest block of eligible voters, close to 40 percent, are unenrolled in a political party. McConnell believes that the demand for ideological purity on both the right and the left has led to this disillusionment, especially among millennials.
But this lack of a clear dogma within centrism is precisely what some progressives believe makes the movement so politically ineffective and morally devoid. How can a political group function if it solely relies on tension between the right and the left? While a call for politicians across the aisle to work better together might be considered laudable, would it be better received from a party that had its own unique set of values?
On their website, the Centrist Project does list what they consider to be the organization's key common sense principles: fiscal responsibility, social tolerance, environmental stewardship, and economic opportunity.
“[Independent Senator] Angus King is a perfect example of the type of politician we’d like to see more of,” said McConnell. The Maine Centrist Project supports the Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who they’ve endorsed as a candidate for the governorship.
“Terry is a public servant and a problem solver who has a proven capacity to bring people together and get things done,” said Nick Troiano, the executive director of the Centrist Project.
Hayes, along with Independent State Representatives Kent Ackley, Kevin Battle and Owen Casas spoke at an event organized jointly by the Maine Centrist Project and Maine Independents at the University of Southern Maine last Tuesday, in an effort to bring more local voters to this “sensible middle ground.”
“It’s great to be a part of a growing movement that’s about making government work for people and solving problems,” said Kyle Bailey, the chair of Maine Independents. “We’re opposed to the process that fuels loyalty to party over country. That’s what’s happening right now, and it’s toxic for democracy.”
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