The Centerpiece

By Matthew Hennessey

Not long ago, someone sent me a link to a website,, which claims the ability to plot your true political personality. Your answers to fifty-odd questions are charted on a Cartesian coordinate graph, with the Y-axis representing your social views and the X-axis representing your economic views.

The questions betray an obvious bias. (For example: It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society. Agree or disagree?) Leaving that aside, taking the test was strangely satisfying. And, in the end, I scored exactly where I expected I would.

As you can see, I land on the X-axis, making me a social centrist. However, in the eyes of the makers of this test, my economic views fall to the right of center. Then again, according to the Political Compass, every major candidate in the last U.S. presidential election—from John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to John McCain and Ron Paul—is a right-wing authoritarian.

This got me thinking. I hear a lot about the “center” in American politics. But what is it? Who is a “centrist”? Is Barack Obama really a centrist? Am I?

Most people think a Republican or Democrat who supports policies of the opposing party is a centrist. In practice, however, this often only applies to Republicans. When Susan Collins embraces Democratic legislation, a happy press rushes to label her a centrist. By contrast, a liberal reaching across the aisle is frequently referred to as a “conservative Democrat.” Get the difference? The conservative who moves left is moving toward the center. The liberal who moves right is moving away from it.

The word “center” indicates a kind of midpoint. However, the positions of conservatives and liberals are not fixed in stone, so the midpoint between them must be moveable as well.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton gained a reputation as a centrist by tacking left and right according to his reading of the political headwinds. This was dubbed “triangulation.” It always seemed to me like the strategy of a cynical politician who held nothing higher than his own political survival.

All of this begs the question: Shouldn’t the center of American politics actually be a real thing, a genuine point of reference? Doesn’t it mean something  to be a centrist?

I think so, and I suspect that many moderates reject the notion that their political identity is a mere average of two constantly shifting extremes. In fact, I’m willing to go further and state that there is a set of concrete ideas at the true center of our civic life and that, historically at least, most Americans would find these ideas noncontroversial.

So what are they? Free expression. Limited government. Individual liberty. Equality. That’s it, really. Everything else is endlessly debatable.

However, these uniquely American ideals, once celebrated as the pinnacle of human progress, are now considered the domain of extreme conservatives.

Do you suspect that the recently-passed health care bill violates constitutional limits on the scope of government power? Gosh, you are sooooo conservative. Think that people ought to actually be able to keep most or all of their paycheck? Typical selfish Republican. Think affirmative action institutionalizes the judgment of people by the color of their skin? Racist.

Taking the Political Compass test confirmed the obvious for me: The “center” is no longer the center. It has been redefined leftward.

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