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By Robert A. Vella

In yesterday’s editorial on Spain’s inability to form a new government, I wrote the following observation of centrism:

And while the world’s political leaders are acutely aware of the inherent dangers posed by this growing inability to govern, they are dumbfounded on how to correct it.  Part of their difficulty, perhaps a large part, is due to the nature of centrism which is constrained by a narrow set of parameters consistent with maintaining the status quo.  Centrists, in other words, do not think outside-the-box.

Now that populist support for progressive/democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders has become evident after the Iowa caucuses and going into the New Hampshire primary, this aspect of centrism is manifesting itself in the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  She is obviously dismayed that Sanders is seen as a progressive while she is not, even though she apparently seems confused about what a progressive really is.  In a CNN town hall event on Wednesday, Clinton was reminded.  From Talking Points MemoSanders And Clinton Battle Over Her Credentials As A ‘Progressive’:

“I do not know any progressive who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street. That’s just not progressive,” Sanders continued.

[…]

Sanders had previously claimed that Clinton tried to be both a moderate and progressive, a criticism he was also asked at the town hall.

“Some of my best friends are moderates. I love moderates, but you can’t be a moderate and a progressive. They are different,” Sanders said.

Clinton had a chance to respond to his criticisms.

“I was somewhat amused today that Senator Sanders set himself up to be the gatekeeper,” she said, arguing that President Barack Obama, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and late-Sen. Paul Wellstone would not have qualified as progressives by Sanders’ definition.

Centrists (which Hillary Clinton most certainly is) have a difficult time dealing with ideologues (which Bernie Sanders most certainly is) because they view the political world through the prism of pragmatism.  Political realities are what’s important to them, not philosophical commitments.  What determines their policy positions depends upon the political climate at any given time.  If it leans conservative, so do they.  If it leans liberal, so too do they.  Centrists do not see any intrinsic value in ideology, and that’s precisely why Hillary has changed her mind so often on various issues.

But, the centrists’ pragmatic approach to politics runs into trouble when the political climate is highly polarized as it is today.  When the public realigns into strongly-held opposing camps, the previously perceived ‘sensible’ middle ground shrinks.  Such is the case now in Spain, and this trend is growing quite dangerously around the world.  It is the reason why political dysfunction and distrust are on the rise almost everywhere.

John Cassidy of The New Yorker highlighted this limitation of centrism in an editorial titled Bernie Sanders and the New Populism:

If you look at the rise of populism in other countries, you will find that urging people to be realistic is a common reaction from establishment politicians and their supporters. It is a risky response, though. Trotted out too often, or too vehemently, it can make those who rely on it sound suspiciously like one of the “mothers and fathers” that Bob Dylan addressed back in 1964—those people whose “order is rapidly fadin’,” whose “old road is rapidly agin’,” and who, finally, are bid, “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.” That, of course, is something no politician wants to hear, especially one who came of age in the sixties.

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7 thoughts on “Centrism, Political Reality, and the Clinton/Sanders feud for the Heart of the Democratic Party

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