Fringe political movements like the Tea Party in the United States, or Golden Dawn and the National Front in Greece and France, are actually evidence of the strength of the political centre.
Political-science textbooks usually present the political spectrum as going from the extreme right to the extreme left. According to this schema, you have the libertarians on one side who believe in a small state whose responsibility should be to ensure the rule of law and safeguard contractual obligations. For these people, the world is an agglomeration of self-interested individuals in an open market and, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no such thing as society.” For the extreme left, meanwhile, everything is social, because, well, no man is an island. From the property we own and the pay we earn to the air we breathe, everything is affected by, the result of, or contingent upon, social relations. These two extremes largely direct our thinking about political affairs.
Then, there is everything in between.
But it’s precisely this muddled middle that we should begin thinking about as one of the defining poles of the contemporary political playing field. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, political consciousness has redefined the right-left paradigm opposing “right-of-centre” and “left-of-centre.” In a way, the political spectrum has been clipped on both ends. And banishing both extremes from the playing field has, in the past few decades, resulted in redefining what an “extreme” position is. Just look in our own backyard: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly referred to the NDP as “socialist,” while his own party has, in some circles, been summarily described as “fascist.” The same can be said of, say, left-of-centre governments of South and Central America, which – all rhetoric aside – are still far from socialist.
For most democracies, the political history of the past few decades can be reduced to a sort of pas de deux around an elephant in the room called the political centre. This usually leads to ideological parties betraying their base in the hopes of actually getting elected. But the centre is a moving target. Today, there are right and left wings in Communist China, just as there were in Soviet Russia. In the context of a liberal democracy, the centre is a general popular appraisal, at a given time, of what should be left to markets and what should be administered by the state.
One of the things the “Great Recession” of 2008 has revealed is just how interchangeable the centre-right and centre-left can be. In Canada, the Conservatives have run the biggest deficits in Canadian history. In the United States, a Democratic president used state coffers to bail out the country’s biggest banks. In Spain, it took a right-wing president to take control of troubled Bankia. These would be considered cardinal sins in normal times.
But these actions show that, in the end, centrist parties share the same inherent goal. The common denominator here is that the financial system must be saved at all costs. The economy is proving to be the ultimate social good that cannot be sacrificed. From big bankers to suburbanites, and from small-businesspeople to pensioners, most people are still on board despite enormous long-term sacrifices. Little does it matter that future generations will bear the brunt of the costs of bailing out the financial system, or that economic growth will perhaps still stall for 20 years, despite the extreme measures that were taken.
This is still the majority view, as evidenced by recent elections in the West. Most people just want their familiar points of reference back – to have a decent-paying job, an eventual retirement, and maybe some opportunities for upward mobility along the way. This sentiment is what got Obama elected at the dawn of the crisis. Ironically, it’s the same sentiment that, barely two years later, sent a wave of Republicans back to the House and Senate. The same frustration got the social-democratic parties out in Spain just before they gained power back in France. It got Labour out in Great Britain and would get David Cameron and Angela Merkel out in the U.K. and Germany, respectively, if they were up for re-election today. Even in Greece – the most fertile ground for western radicalism – centrist parties still came out number one and three when all the votes were counted in the most recent election.
The constant in this revolving door of centre-right/centre-left substitutions is the misplaced hope that “the other guy” will somehow right the ship. A decade ago, it looked like the right was sweeping Europe. Now, it just looks like a lamentable game of musical chairs.
True: This informal centrist coalition is being shaken. The Pirate Party has surprised many in Germany, even sending representatives to state parliaments this month. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn garnered an alarming seven per cent support in the most recent election. About half of National Front supporters in France decided not to bother voting, this time, for what would normally have been their compromise candidate on the right in Nicolas Sarkozy. These are parties that profoundly challenge the rules of the game.
Closer to home, there’s the Tea Party in the United States that sprouted in opposition to the bank bailouts while yearning for the good ol’ days of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Occupy protesters, for their part, put the blame squarely on Wall Street. But in the end, aren’t the Tea Party and the Occupy protesters really opposing the same thing – a state-sponsored corporatocracy whose members refused to fall on their swords after placing a fatal bet? Does freedom from taxation to support bailing out the ultra-rich not amount to about the same thing as more equitable distribution of wealth to the 99 per cent?
In other words, the common enemy here is none other than the conflated centre. And the emergence of this mixed bag of fringe movements all over the western world has not only created new political forces, but has also revealed the centre as the dominant pole in the global political arena. Only time will tell if the muddled middle will ride out the general malaise. But as long as the centre stays strong, the new aristocracy will comfortably prevail.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.