Introduction: What is a Centrist?
You’d think that this would be a simple question, given that what the word means is not only right there in dictionaries, but also essentially built right into the word itself. Unfortunately, there are those who misuse the word to push dishonest partisan agendas, as well as those who merely don’t understand what the word means due to the confusion brought by the misuse of the term.
Without even looking at a dictionary, just reading the word ‘centrist’ and looking at the context it is in tells you pretty much all you need to know. Every one-dimensional political spectrum is going to have a left, right and center, so the quickest and easiest answer to what a centrist is as follows: a person who is standing in that center range, as opposed to those on the left or right.
That’s it. That’s all it means. For a number of reasons, people from all over the spectrum try to add their own opinions, and even pretend that they are the true definition, but that’s all that is required to be a centrist.
Getting more specific, we refer to the authority on the definitions of words – dictionaries. Above, you’ll see four slightly different definitions, from three of the most authoritative dictionaries of the English language (Merriam-Webster, Oxford English and Cambridge Dictionaries, as well as Dictionary.com – the highest trafficked online English dictionary.
How this plays out in each country is different, as the ‘center range’ of each nation’s political spectrum is different, but in the United States of today, here’s what it boils down to:
Centrist Definition: someone with political opinions placing them in the center range of the political spectrum, between liberals on the left and conservatives on the right.
Where Centrists Stand on the American Political Spectrum
For a moment we’ll just work with the one-dimensional left to right spectrum that is most often used in political discourse (flawed that one-dimensional spectrum is, but we’ll discuss that elsewhere). We can disagree on where exactly the line is drawn between the different areas of the spectrum, but if you’re going to have a spectrum that you split up into three zones – left, center and right – then you’re naturally going to split them up roughly evenly.
Here is one of the most well respected maps, developed by a team of political scientists at VoteView, using a model originally developed by Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal at Carnegie-Mellon – elements marking out the centrist big tent, and three sections under it (center-left, center and center-right) are our additions:
Regardless of whether you want to spread the centrist section out a bit, or shrink it a bit, the problem here is clear – centrists and moderates are dramatically under-represented in Washington.
While every map shows a slightly different version of this than others, and it’s a subject of reasonable debate as to when exactly it began, the trend of both the Democratic and Republican party tents shifting away from the center has been ongoing for some time. With the GOP, most point to the Gingrich / ‘Republican Revolution’ in the mid-90’s when the Republicans began actively pushing moderates out of their tent, with the Democrats beginning to follow suit sometime in the early years of the next decade (which is why there are more moderates left in the Democratic party than in the GOP).