This week I read another opinion piece bemoaning the disappearance of political centrists.
The few remaining Republican centrists were pushed aside by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and they have become increasingly irrelevant as the party consolidates behind the president.
Some hoped Democrats might claim the political center, but it is becoming increasingly clear that is not going to happen. Most of the well-known Democratic candidates for president are running a broadly socialist campaign, supporting proposals like Medicare-for-all, free college tuition and the Green New Deal.
Yet, there is something misguided about the talk of a vanishing political center, as if there are only two directions of political orientation: right and left.
The problem with this way of thinking is that there never was a coalition of people embracing a coherent set of policies halfway between contemporary liberals and conservatives.
The disappearing voice in politics today is not centrism but traditionalism. Along with that voice, certain ways of thinking about the common good are disappearing as well.
Traditionalists believe that the heart of any society lies in its middle institutions—relatively stable social groups that serve as intermediaries between the individual and the state. They are institutions like the family, the neighborhood, the church, the school, the library, the local news organization and the service club.
Although traditionalists care about what laws are passed and what policies are implemented, they are more concerned with how these things are done. They value opportunities to participate meaningfully in organizational life, to have a genuine say in what happens in their communities and to the groups to which they belong.
In short, traditionalists care about how power is distributed. They are distrustful of anyone who claims they will be better off if more power is given to fewer people, whether that is big government or big business.
While the political left seeks to transfer more power to the federal government, the political right seeks to transfer more power to large corporations.
Traditionalists disagree with the orientation of both the right and the left. They do not want to move power up to the next level, whether that means bigger government or bigger business. Instead, they want to move power down so that it resides chiefly in middle institutions, and that is important for several reasons:
The first is that middle institutions develop organically, as ways of securing common goods — certain human needs unattainable by individuals acting on their own. Without those institutions, people at risk become even more vulnerable. This is especially obvious as one thinks of the many ways healthy families, neighborhoods, and local schools nurture and protect children in ways neither government agencies nor corporations can.
The second reason is that middle institutions provide opportunities for people to be engaged in meaningful projects. They provide times, places and means by which people gather around common interests and goals. Without healthy middle institutions in which to participate, people are more likely to become civically disengaged.
The third reason is that middle institutions respond to the needs of particular communities. They are small enough to listen to the voices of their members while also large enough to accomplish things on a scale individuals cannot manage alone.
The fourth reason, and perhaps the most important, is that middle institutions develop trust. Trust grows from family, to neighborhood, to community, to region, to nation.
It develops incrementally, from smaller to larger; it never develops in the other direction. This is as true in society as it is in biology: the health of higher, more complex systems is dependent on healthy functioning of lower, simpler systems.
As we enter upon a year and a half long campaign for the 2020 elections, candidates will be talking about the big changes they want to make, about national reforms and large-scale initiatives.
Few ordinary citizens will have any meaningful input into these proposals. Think tanks and lobbying groups will set out the policy outlines and talking points; they will draft legislation and design marketing campaigns.
Because it is hard to get people engaged where there is no power or involvement, the successful candidates will resort to stirring up strong emotions, like anger, fear and resentment. This is not a recipe for creative, productive and wise deliberation.
The cure for this persistent cycle of destructive politics is to reinvest in the middle institutions at the core of local communities. The emotions evoked when one contributes meaningfully in community life are pride, joy and compassion. The strength of democracy resides here.
Three questions you can ask when evaluating the merits of political proposals:
- Will this proposal, if enacted, increase or decrease local autonomy?
- Does this proposal require active participation by ordinary citizens in order to succeed?
- Has this proposal developed from the bottom up or from the top down?
For a healthy society, we do not need more centrists willing to compromise between big government and big business. We need people who understand that our nation’s integrity lies in the middle region, where people are names and not just numbers.