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.