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 Dictionary.com – 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:
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:
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).