It seems that journalists feel it’s mandatory every time they discuss either Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn to declare that they can’t win a general election. According to them, there is a simple rule of politics and those who stray from it are doomed to defeat. It is almost a motto that “Elections are won in the centre”. This piece of perceived wisdom is repeated constantly to the point that a great many believe it without even thinking about it. It seems obvious that elections can only be won by avoiding divisive principles and instead only proposing watered down moderate proposals. To listen to political analysts, it would seem that you could have principles or power, but not both.
However, this belief runs into rough ground almost immediately. After all, what is the centre ground? Frequently, what is moderate in America is extreme in Europe and vice versa. Secularism, public healthcare, education and transport is the centre ground to some but fringe utopianism to others. The abortion policy of America is practically socialism in Ireland and Irish gun laws would be slavery to Americans. A 40% tax rate could be unrealistically hard left, heartlessly hard right or balanced centrism depending on where you stand. Most times when people make an appeal for the centre ground they usually define the centre as “whatever I believe” and unrealistic extremism as “whatever my opponent believes”.
Nor does the record support the claim. If elections are won in the centre, then how did Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ever get elected? Not even their strongest defenders would call them centrists, in fact they were some of the most extreme leaders of their country, yet they won large victories. How did the hardliner George W Bush defeat the middle of the road John Kerry? If the majority of people are in the centre, then wouldn’t that make Barack Obama enormously popular? Almost all of his policies have been a pitch to the middle ground, from his stimulus which contained nearly as much tax cuts as it did spending increases, to his healthcare plan which didn’t even consider the possibility of state intervention but instead limited itself to the private healthcare market. His gun control proposal only dealt with assault rifles (which I defy anyone to claim is useful for self defence or hunting) and his bank bailout was a centrist policy far from the left (nationalise the banks) or the libertarian right (let them fail). If the majority of people are in the centre, then Obama must be soaring on a wave of popularity.
If elections are won and politicians govern from the centre, then how does anything get done? How is any major legislation passed or reform enacted? How does society progress? How do countries get public healthcare like the NHS? How is Church and State separated? How is the social safety net, care for the elderly, sick or unemployed, or simply the welfare state itself introduced? These reforms were considered bold and extreme at the time and not the actions of a moderate, centrist government. Centrism is not a plan of action, but the absence of one, and to govern from the centre, usually means to do nothing but maintain your grip on power. For most of Ireland’s history, we have had centrist governments who dared not change the way things were and so the political history is not a record of actions, but rather a history of inactions as various problems were ignored.
All new ideas seem bold and extreme, and there has been no new policy that has not been met with doubts as to its feasibility. It is also true that once a period of time passes, the status quo is accepted as the natural order of things and it would be only the extremists who would want to change it. Thus although America’s abortion policy or Ireland’s gun policy were radical steps at first, nowadays they are accepted as normal and even conservatives who would change America’s abortion policy would still be considered leftists in Ireland.
Even if elections are won in the centre, this tells us nothing as to whether the prize is worth it. What is the point in having power if have no aim to use it for. Many centrist politicians use all their time worrying about how to gain or maintain power and little about what to actually use it for. People like to point to New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 as evidence of the benefits of shifting to the centre but they’re a lot quieter on what happened once New Labour achieved power. Sure Tony Blair, had an enormous majority, but what did he use it for? With the exception of Iraq, not very much. To a large extent the country ran on auto-pilot, with few long term policies enacted. Inequality rose as much as it did under the conservatives. What’s the point in having power if you don’t use it for good? Power without principles can be as useless as principles without power.
Part of the issue comes down to different views as to how politicians and political parties should interact with voters. Many analysts believe that politicians should follow the voters and go wherever it is popular. However, another view is that political parties should lead voters and convince them of the merits of their policies. Elections are not merely sport or a game whose sole object is to win the most seats. Politics is about improving the country and the well being of its citizens. Elections are a great opportunity for changing people’s minds and how they interact with each other. Even in opposition, a political party can influence people for the better.
There is another problem with assuming that most voters are in the centre, it assumes that people read political manifestoes. In reality only a handful of experts do this; even most political junkies only skim a few sections. Ordinary people wouldn’t even dream of doing so and even if they didn’t how could an ordinary person know whether a political party’s tax policy was reasonably moderate or a lurch to the extreme? How could a normal voter know what is the most reasonable healthcare policy when even healthcare experts can’t agree among themselves?
It would be going too far to even ascribe much political ideology to the average voter. Most people I know, even those who studied politics with me in college, would not have many political opinions, least of all ones neatly distributed across a bell curve. The simple fact of the matter is that most people don’t give politics much of a thought except before an election so on most issues that they don’t hold particularly strong views. The largest block after elections is not the left or the right, but the people who don’t vote. These are the people politicians should be appealing to, not those who have already made up their mind.
Even when people do have political opinions they are rarely in a neat line from left to right. Instead most people have a jumble of ideas of opinions that makes it difficult to place them on the left-right spectrum. From my experience, it is only people deeply involved in politics who hold consistently right, left or centre beliefs, most other people have a scattershot of beliefs. For example, someone may support gun control, universal healthcare and tough punishment for crime but be opposed to abortion, higher taxes and immigration. Where do you put them on the political spectrum? In many cases it can be worse when people hold contradictorily views. Most people support higher government spending but oppose higher taxes, support helping the poor but oppose welfare for those too lazy to work or support some kinds of immigration but oppose other kinds. Often the way you phrase the question can lead to very different response.
Far more important is how the manifesto and policies are interpreted. People don’t read manifestoes, but some read newspapers. It matters little what the policies actually say, but it is hugely significant how they are reported. Extreme policies can be spun as common sense and vice versa. In fact elections are essentially a game where each party tries to present their policies as moderate common sense and portray each other party as delusional fanatics. Elections should be thought of less as of a clash of ideology and more a battle of spin.
People often consider other factors more important than ideology. Personality can often trump policy. Many people would vote for someone who they can trust, who seems honest or likeable regardless of their ideology. Ed Miliband certainly aimed for the centre in the last election, but despite (or perhaps as a consequence) many voters saw him as untrustworthy and as someone who will simply say anything to get elected, even if he didn’t believe it. Bernie Sanders may be a socialist, but a lot of people respect him as someone who stands up for what he believes in and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Centrist policies can also simply be wrong. Financial deregulation and a general hands off approach to the economy was widely proclaimed as a moderate approach all politicians had to take if they wanted to be in power. Yet, these policies lead to a devastating recession and financial crisis. The centrist response of balancing the budget only prolonged the recession and did nothing for the vast number of unemployed. It’s hard to be neutral on a moving train and when the choice is between reducing the deficit or reducing unemployment, the middle ground quickly shrivels up. Years of moderate politics has left much of the Western World with alarmingly high inequality and other ills that no middle of the road policies can fix.
So, no elections are not only won in the centre. Sanders and Corbyn have the opportunity to show an alternative way and to show that giving people something they can believe in is just as effective as having moderate policies. We have had our share of bland centrist politicians who have been too timid to deal with the country’s serious problems. Radical change is needed and it won’t be brought by featureless politicians whose only aim is power and a comfy pension.