The traditional, historical definitions and descriptions of “centrist” and “moderate” (hereafter referred to simply as “Centrist”) are academic and stale and bear little useful application as a starting point in our current political situation. In simplest terms, a Republican is a member of the Republican Party and a Democrat is a member of the Democratic Party, regardless of what those parties claim to believe in at any given time. Centrists have no such affiliation. (A centrist or moderate Republican is still a Republican and a centrist or moderate Democrat is still a Democrat.) As a result, what it means to be a Centrist has been left up for individual whim and for debate for decades.
Making things worse is the practice of defining and describing Centrists relative to Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, etc. With such measurement standards constantly shifting in the real world, the shifting of anything else that is based on them is even worse. (An example of this is the phrase, “take the best from both parties.” What if both parties reach a point where they both suck? Where do we stand on that?) When two shifting groups become more similar, the place to put Centrists narrows or disappears. When two shifting groups grow more dissimilar, the place to put Centrists may become too broad, possibly becoming incoherent and unmanageable.
Finally, what “Centrist” means is muddled by definitions offered by those who stand to be in opposition of a future Centrist organization. Most readers have surely heard or read phrases to describe Centrists such as:
“Splitting the difference.”
“Trying to make everyone happy.”
“Not taking a position on anything.”
“Having no values or principles.”
“Won’t commit to anything.”
“Believe it’s o.k. to kill , as long as you only kill half.”
There may well be as many definitions as there are Centrists themselves.
Such an incohesive history and culture makes explaining any potential party or movement difficult. The biggest recent effort to do so is the book, The Centrist Manifesto (2013), by Charles Wheelan. Centrists being Centrists, there was a lot to Wheelan’s book to discuss and debate, and therefore a lot to agree or disagree on and to decide to get active behind or not.
Maybe predictably, within a couple of years the first steps laid out by Wheelan devolved into The Centrist Project, no longer calling for the formation of a new party and instead pursuing a plan of simplistic activism and collecting money on the pretext of trying to get independent candidates elected to Congress. This effort devolved further recently, seemingly stripping all association to the term “Centrist”, into its current “Unite America.” The stated goal of Unite America is, “electing independent candidates to narrowly divided legislatures, like the US Senate, where they can deny both parties an outright majority and use their enormous leverage to forge common ground solutions.” However, it doesn’t seem the playbook changed much, as the focus still seems to be primarily on raising money.
While Wheelan’s presumed initial goal of forming a Centrist Party (from the top down) behind the strategy that now defines Unite America has disappeared, his manifesto still offers a solid philosophical base for other efforts. In that, 3DC is not an attempt to reinvent the 21st Century Centrist wheel, but rather an effort to build off of an established, albeit abandoned, foundation.
The current value in Wheelan’s work is that, to some extent, it should be familiar and relatable to many if not most of today’s American Centrists. While there will be points on which to agree and to disagree (Centrists being Centrists), The Centrist Manifesto is the closest thing we have to a contemporary, common conceptual language to bring us together.
The primary goal of 3DC is to organize and activate Centrists. For that to work, and to make that contemporary, common conceptual language functional as efficiently and quickly as possible, much of The Centrist Manifesto must be stripped away. For a book that makes such an immediate (page 2 of chapter 1) and heavy point for forming a Centrist Party, there is incredibly little in the way of how to go about doing that.
Yet building some form of activist Centrist organization needs to be done. To take that next logical step, the parts of the book about our county’s problems and challenges are irrelevant. We, along with most of the rest of the country, should all have a pretty good handle on them anyway. More relevant, but just as useless when it comes to getting organized, are the parts about policies and platform points. While the book’s take on these subjects are acceptable starting points for when those conversations begin to happen within the organization, they are equally useless on the path to organization. Finally, since it remains the proclaimed bread and butter of the Centrist Project/Unite America, the parts of the book about the congress-targeting “fulcrum strategy” would be redundant and bear no importance to a new organization.
A lot of what is left is a theme that runs throughout the book, that solidly redefines “centrism”, and that should be the true ideological takeaway for Centrists wanting to make positive change. As the problems, challenges, policies, and platform points have shifted since Wheelan wrote the book, they will continue to shift between now and when the new organization is operational. For this reason, it is more important for us to concentrate on how we think and how we operate, and what we will eventually offer the country regardless of any specific problem or issue. This is the almost hidden, overriding theme of The Centrist Manifesto, and the basis of 3DC.
On the same page where Wheelan first calls for a Centrist Party, there is this:
“…every major issue facing the United States can be reasonably confronted the way the rest of us approach challenges everywhere else in life…”
Wheelan refers to a process that most reasonable and stable people use to navigate issues in their daily lives which includes identifying the problem, evaluating the problem and possible solutions, and then doing something responsible according to the findings. This is generally a pretty basic framework for handling just about anything. Yet, as Wheelan goes on to point out, “Our dysfunctional two-party system has lost its ability to do that.”
The divisive and destructive way the “two parties” go about our nation’s business offers the rest of us the greatest opportunity to get our foot in the door to change it. As Wheelan writes, “Given a choice between political victory and fixing real problems, our politicians have consistently chosen the former.” Like entrepreneurs looking for what will set them apart from the established competition, Centrists should grab the opportunity to do something the established competition refuses to do and no ideology driven “third party” would even consider.
Centrists need to be the party of reason, collaboration, and pragmatism. We need to build an organization that values diversity of thought to foster the broadest and most comprehensive conversations towards a set of reasonable and workable potential solutions to whatever issue is put in front of us. As with searching for workable solutions in our personal lives, the more options we have to choose from the more likely we are to have at least one that will be favorable to the broadest possible audience AND do the most good for the most Americans, not just an ideological base, wealthy donors, or self-centered special interests.
In the case of evaluating the proposals of others, for each issue, each discussion, each debate, each vote, the other involved parties may not know right away where the Centrists stand. But, more important, they can be confident that our focus is on good information, reasonable proposals, and realistic and workable solutions. While others may play the role of attorney, trying to convince the audience of their argument, playing on emotion, and selling their version of the facts, Centrists play more the role of jury, whose decision is based on supporting evidence, logic, and the right decision, not necessarily the most popular one. Such a standard requires all participants to collectively raise the bar on how they come about proposals and how they communicate them. Grandstanding and name-calling may convince partisan supporters, but Centrist votes are not to be taken for granted and must be earned.
And so, without a single policy proposal or platform point, the foundation of a Centrist political organization is hereby offered. As many or most readers may agree, conventional political wisdom sees such an approach as overly simplistic. Not enough effort has been put into what we are going to do about foreign policy, abortion, gun control, or corruption. But, as previously stated, we have to do something different.
Countless attempts to unify and excite a “Centrist base” into action have failed because time, effort, and patience has been squandered trying to play the game perfected by the “two parties” and trying to sound just enough like both parties to be able to pull people away from them. The resulting platform points are useless because, after weeks or months formulating them, each position taken inevitably places the organization into a pot already occupied by some other party anyway. We cannot compete by trying to somehow be a combination of the positions and dogma of the “two parties” .
We have to do something different.
Behind the simple principle of bringing back respectful collaboration and discussion towards reasonable workable solutions, Centrists will set themselves apart from not only the divisive “two parties” but from every other potential party trying to get into the game by playing by the divisive two-party playbook.