October 8, 2006

In Praise of Centrism

While many voters consider themselves pragmatic centrists (perhaps even a majority), those who are deemed “centrists” are often viewed negatively among loyalists of both parties, who believe that centrism connotes intellectual weakness, excessive compromise, and a lack of strong ideals.

I want to reframe centrism as the political philosophy that takes the best ideas of all political persuasions instead of simply being viewed as either watered down liberalism or conservatism. In addition, centrism should be viewed as a philosophy of governing that is concerned primarily with societal outcomes, and less so with ideological purity. It is a more humble philosophy that allows for unintended consequences, continually updated assumptions, and the sincere desire to take into account opposing viewpoints.

The following are a few examples of centrist positions on key issues:

1. Educational opportunity

Centrists recognize that our nation is rightly focused more on providing equal opportunity than on guaranteeing equal outcomes, and that education is the key driver of opportunity in our society. Adequately providing educational opportunities requires some degree of economic redistribution, while also making sure that incentives are in place that allow for personal responsibility and choice. A system of progressive school vouchers would be an ideal centrist educational policy.

2. Health care

Centrists recognize that our system of health care is inefficient and ineffective because bureaucracy costs are exceptionally high by world standards, tens of millions of our citizens are uninsured, our businesses are at a disadvantage because in all other industrialized nations business do not have huge health care liabilities, and there is little incentive to invest in preventative care that saves lives and money when one’s insurer at a young age will likely not be the insurer during old age. Centrists also realize that an entirely state-run health system would be a disaster, but that some form of nationalized system that guarantees everyone basic health care is the direction we must move towards. Some form of mandatory coverage within a private-run system combined with health vouchers for the poor is likely the direction to go.

3. Drug policy

Centrists recognize that the “War on Drugs” is an abysmal failure based on any sensible metric, as well as an infringement of basic rights that is contrary to our democratic ideals. A centrist position on drug reform would emphasize the decriminalization of most drugs, a focus on drug use as a health and educational issue, while maintaining stiff and severe penalties for those who use drugs in situations where there is an increased chance of injuring innocent bystanders (i.e. driving while intoxicated or harming children).

4. Foreign policy

Centrists recognize that the promotion of democracy and human rights should be a centerpiece of our foreign policy, but that sometimes these goals can conflict (as in the case of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Shiites parties in Iraq). There is simply no guarantee that majorities will choose peace or the promotion of human rights. For this reason, centrists favor a focus on clear and present dangers to the U.S. and a more gradual and decidedly less militaristic approach to the promotion of democracy abroad, since homegrown movements have a much greater chance of being sustained.

Of all the current crop of presidential candidates, Mark Warner continues to come closest to espousing a centrist philosophy; one of his slogans in fact is the “sensible center”. Hopefully, the time will soon be ripe for someone with his mindset to ascend to the presidency since the country is ill-served by ideologues of either party, particularly ones whose criminal incompetence never ceases to amaze.

Jason Scorse