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Centrist, much like ‘political left’ or ‘political right, isn’t a term that is easily and concretely defined. Some use it and the words moderate and independent almost interchangeably. Some think that it means a precise point exactly halfway between left and right, or the democrats and republicans. There is no definitive meaning for centrist, but on this site we try to use the term in a way that is roughly similar to how people use the terms left and right politically.
What Centrist Doesn’t Mean
Centrist doesn’t equate to an ideology. As much as some would like there to be one, there is no such thing as centrism. As such, centrist doesn’t equate with liberal or conservative, it equates to left and right – ranges on the political spectrum of a given country.
It also doesn’t make sense to say that a centrist is someone who is exactly at some mid-point between left and right. Just like we see that those on the left span a section of the political spectrum, a centrist is someone who stands inside the middle section of the American political spectrum.
It’s also a pointless point to say that someone always leans to the left or right. It’s pointless because everyone leans in some way. You could say the same thing about liberals, who either lean more toward left wing/socialist or moderate/centrist, or conservatives who lean either right wing / movement social conservatives, libertarian or moderate. Everyone has a lean, and those who fall into the centrist spectrum aren’t any less centrist because they tend to lean a bit more in one direction than another.
Centrists are also not defined by where the two major parties stand. The most frequent line of garbage I hear along these lines is the claim that the center has shifted right because the republicans have gone more and more right wing over the last decade or so. Another is that, since the right has moved farther right, that means we must all be aligned with the liberal controlled democratic party now.
Neither is the case. The spectrum doesn’t shift just because the republican party has gone off the deep end, nor because the democrats are pushing their moderates out as well and getting more extreme after every election too. Although there are less and less of them every year, you can still be a republican or democrat as a centrist. It has nothing to do with your party registration, although the majority of us are independents (and even more would be if many states didn’t require us to register with a major party to take part in primary elections).
The Most Objective Definition of Centrist
As much as people try to make it out to mean all sorts of other things, all centrist really means is “someone who falls in the center of the ideological spectrum of the country they live in”. There are numerous ways that people try to subjectively define what puts someone into the center, but the most objective way is by looking into polling data, and finding out if you align with the views where a super-majority of the American people stand.
With most issues, you can find the super-majority position (even with wedge issues like abortion), and to get to a super-majority level of support, you need centrists and moderates.
Neither the left or right represents a majority of the American people, so when you see polls that say 60+% of the American people hold a particular opinion, that number must include the prevailing view among centrists. Do that across a list of major political issues, and you’ll see if you happen to fall into the centrist spectrum.
Where centrists and moderates split is in the range of the spectrum between left and center, or right and center. It’s far too overly simplistic to just break down the spectrum, even the horribly unrealistic two-dimensional spectrum we’re used to being fed by the media, into left, right and center. I’d at least add far left, moderate left, moderate right and far right to that – and that doesn’t even leave room for libertarians (who, like centrists, have views that aligns more with one side or the other, but in a way drastically different than centrists).
Some Centrist Misconceptions
Much like liberal, conservative, libertarian, communist and other political groups, there are a great deal of misconceptions about centrists. Some of these stereotypes are positive, and some are negative, but most of them just don’t hold up to scrutiny.
As easy as it would be to fall prey to us vs them tribal nonsense, centrists are not more logical than other areas of the spectrum. Anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty knows that any set of ideas has it’s root in a set of assumptions, and what sets people apart is what those assumptions are. There is an enormous amount of evidence that shows that people who subscribe to ideologies, especially the fervent believers, do in fact exhibit a great deal of illogical activity, but speaking as someone who’s interacted with thousands of centrists and moderates, I can tell you that you can find the same thing among our ranks.
This is an educated guess, but I would venture to bet that we’d see the same amount of illogical behavior among centrists if there was a centrist ideology, and especially if there was a centrist political party. People are all wired fundamentally the same. I hope the center can avoid the baggage that comes with
Another big misconception about centrists is our apparent mushiness. I see this all of the time in blog comments, twitter and the like. This follows along the lines of what I was saying about other centrist stereotypes – we’re all fundamentally wired the same. I’ve met some seriously zealous centrists, and plenty of mushy liberals and conservatives. The hard core political zealots that wont work with people who see the world differently than they do are a product of extremist ideology and partisan tribalism.
It doesn’t have anything to do with where someone is on the ideological spectrum. In other countries those of us who are centrist in the United States would be on the right, and in other countries we’d be on the left, and the stereotypes exist there as well. These sorts of things are just fairy tales invented by people who see the world differently than we do, as a way to demean and attack.
This page is, of course, a work in progress. Leave a comment below if you think there is anything missing, or find something that should be edited, contact Solomon Kleinsmith, who’s heading up the Centrist Wiki.