Saturday, 7 April 2018

Some reasons centrists continue to fail

Simon Wren-Lewis has a good blog up on Social Europe on the mistakes that centrists make. I've been thinking along similar lines, albeit with the aid of other people...!

1. Centrism is failing because is attacking its opponents morally rather than politically.

I'll be honest, I don't have a clear idea what many self-described centrists really believe in beyond the "wrongness" of others. While this may help as a way of forming an identity, I genuinely think this is a problem, not strength. Chantal Mouffe is very good on this:

"[T]he weakening of the discourses  constructing political identities in terms of left and right has not meant the disappearance of the need for a we/they distinction. Such a distinction is still very much alive; however, today it is increasingly established through a moral vocabulary. We could say that the distinction between left and right has been replaced by the one between right and wrong. This indicates that the adversarial model of politics is still with us, but the main difference is that now politics is played out in the moral register, using the vocabulary of good and evil to distinguish between 'we the good democrats' and 'they the evil ones'.
"This can be seen, for instance, in the reactions to the rise of right-wing populist parties, where moral condemnation has generally replaced a properly political type of struggle. Instead of trying to grasp the reasons for the success of right-wing parties, the 'good' democratic parties have often limited themselves to calling for a 'cordon sanitaire' to be established in order to stop what they see as the return of the 'brown plague'.
"To construct a political antagonism in this way is what I call the 'moralisation of politics'. This is something that were can see at work in many different areas nowadays: the inability to formulate the problems facing society in a political way and to envisage political solutions to these problems leads to framing an increasing number of issues in moral terms. This is, of course, not good for democracy because when the opponents are not defined in a political but a moral way, they cannot be seen as adversaries, but only as enemies."
It's hard not to think of the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton in particular, when reading this, though the interview is from 2007. I would also add that centrists also attack political opponents to their left, not just to the right, in moral terms. It is very striking that most of the attacks on Labour are focused on the "wrongness" of Corbyn or McDonnell in moral terms. Even now there is very little attempt to understand why they, and specifically the policies they articulate, are popular.

And finally what sort of message does the discussion, coming primarily from centrists as far as I can seen, of "open" and "closed" approaches to politics send? I am yet to see anyone using this division identify themselves as "closed", nor is there much suggestion that the "open" can learn from the "closed".

2. Centrists can look like populists on policy

It's pretty unenlightening to point this out, but populists simplify and deny complexity. Certain things are obviously "wrong" and the solutions are equally obvious. But centrists can often do this too, and in quite unattractive terms. Whereas populists invoke the people's will (which only they can represent), centrists will tend to invoke the superiority of technocracy - "what matters is what works". The impression is that there is a very narrow channel within which policy can operate. There are "right" ideas and "mad" ones. There is a frequent implication that you have to be pretty stupid to not accept the technocratic position on issues.

Jan-Werner Muller has made this kind of point recently:
"[A]t least as far as the current wave of populism is concerned, I would say that it is the particular approach to the Eurocrisis - for shorthand, technocracy - that is crucial for understanding the present-day rise of populism.
"In a curious way, the two mirror each other. Technocracy holds that there is only one correct policy solution; populism claims that there is only one authentic will of the people... For neither technocrats nor populists is there any need for democratic debate. In a sense both are curiously apolitical. Hence it is plausible to assume that one might pave the way for the other, because each legitimises the belief that there is no real room for disagreement. After all, each holds that there is one correct policy solution and only one authentic popular will respectively."
This really resonates with me. One of the things I found dispiriting about the dog end of the Labour government was the rigidity of much centre-left thinking on policy in my area (capital markets, corporate governance etc). But more recently this has really hit home in respect of foreign policy. It is really something to see the herd instinct of the commentariat whenever there is a conflict or possibility of one. Basically the opposition is expected to outsource its position to that of the government, otherwise it is betraying the country. As if there are only ever obvious and "correct" positions to adopt in foreign policy.

3. Centrists still can't tell us what they got wrong

As I've blogged etc before, one of the biggest problems for centrists is not being able to come up with a good explanation of what was bad in the Blair/Brown/Cameron/Osborne era. The ability of some people to switch directly from Labour to the Tories during that period (Dan Hodges even hilariously named David Cameron "leader of the British left" in one article) shows that they didn't really perceive much difference between what was on offer or believe that much needed changing.

Very broadly, social liberalism plus leaving the economy alone was ok. For many centrists, the financial crisis didn't challenge any beliefs, and hence they were quickly signed up to austerity and cutting public services to pay for private sector failings. When even people like Dominic Cummings identify the impact of the crisis as a major factor in Brexit, you might think that people whose only interest is in "what works" might pay more attention.

Yet even now, despite the rise of Corbyn, Brexit etc they really struggle to articulate what might have gone wrong. And certainly austerity and the excesses of the finance sector do not form a significant part of their analysis. Many clearly believe that the rejection of centrism is what has gone wrong. So the crisis is really that the public have lost the "right" answers that were already obvious, the idiots. In fact, according to one recent piece, the obvious answer to the current crisis can be located back in the 2010 Labour leadership election: David Miliband. Ho hum.


To state the obvious, a mixture of moralising, denial of alternatives and an inability to reflect on failure is perhaps not an attractive mix. Yet barely a day goes past when opponents are not described as morally reprehensible, or implied to be idiots for diverging from obvious policy solutions, all the while giving of a strong whiff of superiority. It's no mystery why they aren't winning.

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