Banner showing the centrist definition according to four authoritative English dictionaries.
The Definition of Centrist – from four authoritative dictionaries, where the meaning of words in our language are found – no opinion involved.

Centrist Definition Introduction: What is a Centrist?

You’d think that this would be a simple question, given that what the word ‘centrist’ means is not only right there in dictionaries, but also essentially built into (or at least heavily implied) the word itself. Unfortunately, there are those who misuse the word to push dishonest partisan narratives and agendas, as well as those who merely don’t understand what the word means – largely due to the confusion brought by said 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, as far as how centrist is defined. Every one-dimensional political spectrum is going to – at the very least – have a left, center and right, and all centrist really means is those who stand in that center range. The quickest and easiest answer to what a centrist is can be summed up as follows:

A centrist is someone whose views result in them standing in the center range of a political spectrum.

That’s it. All sorts of people come up with their own – typically selfish – reasons for adding spin on top of it, but that’s all it actually means. You’re free to choose to add things you’d like it to mean on top of it, but that doesn’t make it so anywhere outside of your personal opinion, and there are certainly patterns in how American centrists behave, and what we think, but beyond this definition, nothing else is necessary or inherent to be accurately labeled a centrist.

If all you wanted to know was what ‘centrist’ means, then you don’t have to go any further. We’re going to drill down further below – specifically into some of the dishonest political messaging, debunking myths and data that shows where centrists are on the American political spectrum.


Selfish Reasons Politicians Twist the Definition of Centrist

For a number of reasons, people from all over the political spectrum – including some centrists and moderates – try to add their own opinions, and even pretend that who they are is what a ‘true centrist’ is, but those are no less false, dishonest, spun narratives than those that twist the meaning of the word to denigrate centrists. A positive false stereotype is no less false than a negative false stereotype.

As you should with any such confusing issue, ee refer to the authority on the definitions of words: dictionaries. At the top of this page, 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 – the highest trafficked online English dictionary.

Starting from that point, we can see how this plays out in each country differently, as the case of French President Emmanuel Macron perfectly illustrates, being a centrist in France, while his views would place him on the left in the United States. The center range, referred to in the definition above, is different in each country, because the distribution of beliefs are different in each country.

Global variance aside – 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 liberal and progressive factions on the left and far left, and conservative factions on the right and far 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 (that one-dimensional spectrum is deeply flawed, but we’ll discuss that issue 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 so no single segment is far larger than the others, population wise.

Here is one of the most well respected maps, developed by a team of top political scientists at VoteView, using a model originally developed by Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal at Carnegie-Mellon. Note: elements marking out the centrist range, and three sections under it (center-left, center and center-right) are our additions:

political spectrum of the US Congress, showing how under-represented centrists and moderates are
a map of the ideological spectrum make-up of Congress between 2014 and 2016, showing how drastically under-represented centrists and moderates are

Personally, I’d make the centrist segment wider, but I was trying to be generous. Regardless of whether you want to spread the centrist section out a bit, or shrink it, the problem here is clear – centrists and moderates are dramatically under-represented in Washington.

Here is another graphic – this one from Pew Research – showing the same issue:

Chart showing the growing polarization between the parties, and lack of representation for centrists in Washington.

This isn’t the subject of this page, so we wont dwell on it, but

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).

What is a Centrist Party, Organization or Candidate You Can Point me to that Represents the Center Well?

Trailblazing Centrist Independent US Senator from Maine – Angus King
centrist quote from Maine Senator Angus King
while 75% is an exaggeration, this is a good illustration of Angus King’s centrist stance

Maine has a long history of electing centrists and moderates – moderate Republican Margaret Chase Smith for instance, who famously and bravely came out against Joseph McCarthy in her ‘Declaration of Conscience’ speech, and moderate Republican Susan Collins, the current senior US Senator from there. Angus King is a former governor who has bucked the two major parties for decades now, and is leading the way forward for us in Washington as the only independent centrist in Congress.



No Labels & the Problem Solvers Caucus – The Leading Centrist Political Organization

logo for centrist political organization No LabelsLaunched in 2010 (I was at the launch event, and have followed closely since before it launched) No Labels has grown into the most well-known and influential political organization representing the views of centrists and moderates in the United States. Among a great many other projects it is working on, their ‘Problem Solvers Caucus’ has brought together centrist, moderate and reasonable liberals and conservatives in the House to try and be a bridge (and breath of fresh air) for bipartisan problem solving in an increasingly divided and dysfunctional Congress.


Three Centrist Parties Leading the Way in Minnesota, Oregon and South Carolina

While there are other groups trying to build centrist political parties around the country, three stand out above the others. These groups have been around for enough time to show that they have staying power (one since 1992 – 25 years as of this writing), they have leaders who are taking the role of party officers seriously, are seeing membership growth, display organizational professionalism and are running serious candidates and campaigns that have a chance of winning:

The Independence Party of Minnesota

centrist party logo for the Independence Party of MinnesotaOriginally formed in 1992, during the heydays of the Reform Party, the Independence Party of Minnesota – originally the Reform Party, but changed its name following the hostile takeover of the national Reform Party by Pat Buchanan in 2000 – has been fighting the good fight for over a generation now. Given the drift away from the center by the two major parties, they’ve begun to grow, fundraise and run candidates across the state, have elected one governor and had one sitting US Senator.

The Independent Party of Oregon

Logo for the centrist Independent Party of OregonFormed in 2007, the Independent Party of Oregon has begun to grow quickly in the last few years, becoming the third biggest party recently, with over 110,000 registered voters – over 5% of the electorate in Oregon, and has even brought in more new members than the Republican Party has in recent years. They’re also pioneering open primaries by letting independents vote in its primary, even though the state does not require it and both major parties continue to have their primaries closed to independents.

The American Party of South Carolina

Logo for the centrist 'American Party of South Carolina'The newest of the three, the American Party of South Carolina only launched in 2014, but has already begun to make waves. The party was founded by a duo of former major party members that left each party and began the process of forming a new party in 2013 by collecting the necessary 10,000 petitions at the South Carolina State Fair. They are currently recruiting a slate of candidate for the midterm elections in 2018, supports term limits for Congress and have a particular focus on anti-corruption issues.

Frequently Asked Questions about Centrists

Q: Why don’t centrists join the Democratic/Republican Party / isn’t the Dem/GOP a centrist party?

Centrists have been steadily leaving the two major parties for years precisely because neither are welcome to centrists, and both are increasingly and actively hostile to centrists and our views. Some still hang on, and you don’t have to be an independent to be a centrist or moderate, but most centrists are independents (and many who are with the parties are only there so they can participate in closed partisan primaries), when we vote for party members is usually is because they are the lesser evil – not because we think they’ll actually be good at the job, and more and more of us every election cycle are realizing that both are lost causes.

Q: What is a centrist stance on healthcare, and how does it differ from Dem & Republican plans?

A: Much like there are liberals who aren’t for single payer, and conservatives that are for more government involvement in healthcare, there is a position that most centrists take on healthcare reform, but it’s not monolithic. The predominant position among centrists and moderates (and the American public at large – with upwards of 70% support in some polls) is for the ‘public option’, where private insurance can compete with a government insurance option on a level playing field – no forcing everyone into the same system (the predominant Democratic position – ‘single payer’ / socialized healthcare), while not gutting the best parts of the ACA (like the failed GOP healthcare legislation would have, had it passed).

Q: Do centrists just want incremental change, or is that another false partisan stereotype?

A: Centrists want incremental change if what we support is only incrementally far from where the political status quo is, and centrists want bold changes if the status quo is far from what we want. It really is that simple, and a great example of this involves corruption. The vast majority of centrists would like to see a rather dramatic change in the electoral system of the United States.

Popular anti-corruption ideas among centrists include gutting the ability of all special interest groups from influencing campaigns with money (many Democrats would leave a loophole for liberal special interests and only block money from corporate special interests, while many Republicans would open the floodgates and have no limits on how much deep-pocketed special interests could spend). Another idea that most centrists support is open primaries, which would allow all voters to vote for whoever you want, no matter what party – or lack thereof – in primary elections (many Democratic and Republican state parties use taxpayer money to fund their primaries, while blocking independents from voting for who they want to vote for).

What Does ‘Centrism’ Mean? Is there a Centrist Ideology?

The term ‘centrism’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it sometimes gives people the impression that you’re talking about an ‘ism’ or ideology. An ideology is a list of connected issue stances and perspective on political philosophy, but it is nonsensical to say that a location on a spectrum has an ideology, as the beliefs of those who are in the center will eventually be on the left or right (or some other area, for spectrums with more than one dimension) sometime in the future.

The term centrism does exist, though – sometimes also referred to as centerism or centristic – but it’s not the same as as an affiliation to an ideology like liberalism, conservatism, socialism or libertarianism. In essence (if accurately used) it really is just short hand for ‘what centrists think’.

While we’ve been conditioned to think of the spectrum of political belief as if it could be summarized on a simple left to right line, that just plain doesn’t represent how actual people see the world. Even among those accurately described as liberals or conservatives, there are a number of varieties – for example social or business conservatives, and/or so-called progressives or labor unionists.

The same is true of the center. As illustrated in one of the charts above, we usually break the center down into at least three parts:

1 – Center-Left / Moderate Liberal (split between independents and some moderate Democrats)
2 – Centrist (most are independents – small but increasing number joining centrist parties)
3 – Center-Right / Moderate Conservative (mostly independents, but some are still moderate Republicans)

There are plenty of other ways to break up the political spectrum in the United States, as well as these centrist sub-groups – each with their own somewhat different way of looking at the world, and with differing ideas on how best to solve political problems.

Understanding the different areas of the political spectrum, and the fact that the spectrum is wide, complicated and filled with mostly well-meaning people who merely just see the world differently than we do isn’t something inherently unique to centrists and moderates. There has, however, been a sort of ‘culture’ of trying to be more understanding among us, which we believe to be healthy.

Ultimately this attempt at understanding other ways of seeing the world is just what we believe a reasonable person would do, regardless of where you stand on any spectrum of ideas. Because of this, we encourage as much as we can, while also understanding that this in no way interferes with the need to stridently fight for what we believe in – and in many ways is very helpful.

Busting Myths & False StereoTypes – What *Doesn’t* Define Centrists?

You Literally Cannot be a Centrist without Taking Stances

Perhaps the most bizarre of them all, some people actually think that people who don’t take stances on issues are what centrist means. This is bizarre because what centrist does mean are people who stand in a particular area of a nation’s political spectrum, and it’s impossible to get there unless you (drumroll) take stances that align with the people in that area of said political spectrum.


Centrist is a Range on a Spectrum, Not a Point

The simplest version of how one would break down a political spectrum reasonably reflective of the people that spectrum is supposed to map  would be to have a left, center and right (literally political science 101 – where I first learned of this myself). Some dishonest or misinformed would have you believe that the center is merely a point, or a small sliver, forming a border between left and right, while the reality is that it’s a range covering just as much of the spectrum as left and right. Just like the left and right, the area defined as centrist can be broken down into the center-left (left-leaning independents and the shrinking portion of Democrats who are moderates), centrists that don’t lean much either way (most of us are independents – some are with major or minor parties) or center-right (right-leaning independents and the shrinking number of moderates still in the Republican Party).


Being a Centrist Has Nothing to do with Personality

As you can see from the definitions from the four dictionaries above, there is nothing in there about personality traits. There are indeed some personality and style stereotypes about centrists – some positive and some negative – that sometimes are the case, but that’s just as true about those on the left and right, but matching or not matching with them does not make you any more or less of a centrist. Similarly, people outside of the center don’t magically become centrists merely by fitting centrist personality stereotypes.


Compromising Doesn’t Make You Any More or Less of a Centrist

While most centrists see the practical value and effectiveness in strategic compromise, being willing to compromise does not make you more or less of a centrist. Compromising when you don’t have the votes necessary to get all of what you want is the reasonable thing to do no matter where you land on a political spectrum, and if you’re on the left, left wing, right, right wing or even on the fringes, merely being willing to compromise doesn’t make you any more of a centrist – you are what you are based on your political stances.


Centrism is a bit of a Misnomer – There is No ‘Centrist Ideology’

While there is a pattern in beliefs that usually correlates strongly with what stances centrists align with, the term ‘centrism’ isn’t an ideology. Centrism is more just a shorthand for ‘what centrists think’, not the counterpart in the middle to liberalism and conservatism. Centrism is what lives and breathes between the left and right, and while that stands between liberal and conservative here, every nation’s spectrum is different, and every nation’s spectrum evolves over time, so what is on the left or right may be in the center someday, or ideologies not even thought up yet.

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