Left, Right and the Creative Center: Understanding the Political Landscape in the Age of Obama

Amy Stuart in her reply to my response to President Obama’s speech on the deficit pointed out the need to clarify what the political left, right and center mean. I think she’s right. The terms have been used loosely and quite imprecisely. But on the other hand, their continued use suggests that there may be good reasons for the continued use of the schema.

I, myself, became convinced, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the terms left and right were obsolete.  I thought (it turns out incorrectly) that since it was becoming clear to just about everyone that there was no systemic alternative to capitalism, to the modern market economy, and since there really were simply alternative capitalisms, that we might best abandon the terms. Then we would pragmatically address the practical problems of the day, and express, identify and pursue various specific political commitments, e.g. individual freedom and social justice, and not put them in the large baskets of the left and the right. I thought that the terms hid more than they revealed, that it was too hard to find and consider specific commitments in these very large bins.

Yet, given the systematic polarization of our political world, I am convinced that I was wrong. These old categories still have life, helping illuminate distinctions and commonalities in the political landscape. And there is an additional benefit as it applies to the present American scene. The distinction between left, right and center provides a way to understand the creative political action of Barack Obama, who in this regard is a leader.

The notion of the political left and right has a history, dating back to the French Revolution: Monarchists, right; revolutionaries, left. It was used to understand the Manichean battles of the Twentieth Century: Communists and their sympathizers, left; Fascists and their sympathizers, right. And it also has been used to understand ordinary domestic politics: Republicans, right; Democrats, left, very conservative Republicans, far right, very progressive Democrats, far left (though I think this is a small group at best).

The notion of center is less sharp. Vaguely, it means in between left and right, but I think it can be more than this. It’s not only in between, but also what happens in between, in a meeting ground. In the sense of reading Elzbieta Matynia’s reading of bridges with kapias, it is a principled commitment to kapias. Obama is a centrist of this sort, and I don’t think he can be understood without keeping this in mind.

American rightists believe in the market. They follow Reagan. Government is the problem. American leftists believe in the power of the state. They follow Roosevelt and his descendants: government is a primary means to establish a sound economy and social justice. Centrists are agnostics, believing neither in the government nor in the market, pragmatically committed to one or to the other on instrumental grounds, whether or not they work to achieve given goals. Center-right then includes those who tend to think that on controversial issues the market is likely to work to the exclusion of the government, center-left tends to think that the government can play a significant role. Obama then on pragmatic grounds is center-left.

But he is, more creatively, primarily a principled centrist. He is not just in between, leaning left (or leaning right according to his leftist critics). He wants people with different convictions to come together, discuss their differences, find a way to agree to some common position and act on it. His desire for open debate and open negotiations is not instrumental. It is a fundamental commitment, very difficult to execute in these polarized times. He is more than willing to compromise on practical matters. He judges that on the grounds of social justice and pragmatic economic performance Republican policies advantage the rich, do not adequately address the needs of the middle class (this is the political mantra), but crucially the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. The state is needed for this. The market doesn’t do the trick. But he seeks engagement with his opponents.

His project, which I fully support, is to move the center left. I am torn between the judgment that he is sometimes not tough enough in executing this project, and an appreciation that he balances the most desirable with the possible and succeeds in the long run. I am not sure.

But I am sure that in order to make sense of Obama as a political leader, it is absolutely necessary to understand his principled commitment to the creative center, which is, as he puts it, not in the blue (on the left) states or the red (on the right) states, but in the United States, in the center.

  • Scott

    Of the main struggles in American politics, I believe the battle to define the political center is one of the fiercest. Republicans have called Obama a far-left progressive when in fact Obama’s political orientation is obviously center-left. Yet trying to brand Obama as something else might have the effect of creating the impression that right-wing policy initiatives, some perhaps far-right, are indeed center-right. Mitch McConnell has defended recent Republican proposals by denying that they are far right, but only meant to pull the political spectrum back to the center. I believe then that what is defined as the center might only be seem by the public as something relative to their current media-driven perceptions. I think this relates to Lippman’s distinction between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” What is actually there is not always at issue.

    And while a pure centrist could be considered one who makes decision based on pragmatics not politics;in actuality though, I think the center, be it center-left or center-right, will be continuously contested and relative to the political temper of the public.

  • darini

    one of problems is with categorical descriptions when leftists, also a disparate group of various shades get lumped into this kind of definition “American leftists believe in the power of the state. They follow Roosevelt and his descendants: government is a primary means to establish a sound economy and social justice.” Among this disparate group then there is the problem in that there are many among us on the left who share an infantile trust that our government will never actually turn on us. History shows that it has already called out the military to shoot down strikers and student demonstrators, sent agents to murder or frame up activists, infiltrate and disrupt our organizations and it continues through the current “disappearing” of our constitutional rights: government and the corporate interest it represents have always acted against our common interest. So when we think about the power of the state we also need to be critical of what powers we mean.

  • Amy Stuart

    I would say that leftists and rightists differ in the ends they promote as well as the means to achieve them: leftists generally aim for an egalitarian distribution of power, while the right is pro-hierarchy. And I agree with Darini that the relationship to the state is complicated. There is an anti-authoritarian left that is suspicious of state power, and a militaristic right that is quite happy to wield state power in the service of war and imperialism.

  • Christian

    He wants people with different convictions to come together, discuss their differences, find a way to agree to some common position and act on it. His desire for open debate and open negotiations is not instrumental. It is a fundamental commitment, very difficult to execute in these polarized times.


    Obama has made great speeches promoting civil, open-minded politics, but I believe that, as president, there is still much more he can do. There are many organizations out there promoting civility (many of them belong to this coalition: If he would team up with them, the impact could be great.

  • Lisa Aslanian

    Jeff, I think this dovetails with your reflections on whether or not an “intellectual” president (I use the quotes because I am not sure I see Obama as an intellectual in the tradition of Havel). I think that Obama is a deeply pragmatic man and I believe that he is center left, or a pragmatic leftist (as a politician). As a human being, or a private being, I think he is more socially liberal than he owns in public (for example, he would support gay marriage if it were not so divisive).

    I feel sure, perhaps cynically so, that he cannot make the two sides speak, or engage in constructive dialogue. In fact, I think he wasted at least a year thinking he could do this—- this is when I decided, I think like you, that he may be too mature (or too nuanced and evolved) for American politics, or politics period. And I also wonder if that first year was not just a case of him misunderstanding his genius— he did not know where his own talents were. I thought he was in his element when he was working to reach people— on a community level an on a national level, when he gave his deliciously nuanced speech on race.

    I think he has always been right that most people hold views that are left and right and that there is more overlap than the beltway understands. But on the level of national discourse, the right is dedicated to a really myopic goal: anything Obama says, even if they said it first, is wrong. So, for Obama to be effective, I think he needs to accept the immaturity— even infantile—- nature of the beast, and lower himself a bit.

    I see signs of it and I would like to see more— why? Because I think, if he can find it in himself to let them have it again and again and again with strong rhetoric and a strong bearing, he can again hold the center left of center, and he can start pushing real change through. He really has the power to reach and persuade and the savvy to pull of what he pulled of with OBL.

    Let him not waste his time getting the right to engage in real debate. It is a fool’s wager— and he would be playing with fools. Not everyone on the right is a fool but there is too much of it out there. Do you really think Palin or Bachmann can debate anything? They just cannot. Until smart Republicans jump ship or join forces with Obama (seeing him as a centrist), or at least engage in real debate with him— I will read and listen to David Frum for example—-there is no chance of any real engagement— and I think it needs to be left behind as a goal—- it is too lofty, too accomplished, etc. and it is going to leave him kind of spinning his wheels— and the status quo (or the center) will remain intact.

    And the following is a subject for another time: there is also a real friction between liberals and democrats. We are not the same. As I get older, I have more tolerance for real politics. But Obama has a more interesting relationship to the left than to the right, I think. His policies have generated some intensely intelligent criticism.

  • Rawipas Klamthawee

    It’s very much clearer for those who are still confused of what is right, left and center politics. I agree with this article writer that president Obama is relatively centered, not much on the right or left.

  • Nathan Smith

    Honestly, I would put Obama as either a centrist or a center-rightist, with American liberals being center-left or centrist. (As a liberal, I’ve conversed with socialists–”true leftists,” who vary from left-of-center-left to far-left–who would back me up on this definition.) American economic moderates I’d put at center-right; conservatives, varying from right-of-center-right to far-right; and economic libertarians far-right (given that far-rightism is by this definition the epitome of separation between government and the economy, just like far-leftism is the epitome of economic collectivism, regardless of the presence or absence of a state).

    Social issues are hard to honestly put on a left-right scale, and I like the left-right and authoritarian-libertarian axes used on their grid, where the authoritarian-libertarian scale measures how someone thinks social standards (including the economic system) should be enforced.

    As an example, I follow social liberal (center-left) economic philosophy (which is what “liberal” in the United States refers to, vs. right/center-right neoliberalism and classical liberalism) and a moderately libertarian philosophy in regard to social issues and application of a social liberal or social democratic economic system. As a reference, I would be at around (-2 , -6) on the Political Compass. So I’m in the libertarian left quadrant, but I’m not as far left as socialists or as far libertarian as anarchists: Basically, I think we should decentralize the federal government while progressively moving towards center-leftism applied on a state and local level and mostly libertarian social policies. Capisce?