How do centrists differe in multi-party democracies?
July 12, 2006 10:39 AM   Subscribe

A centrist in American politics takes positions between two opposing views, the two views espoused by the leaders of the two major parties. But what do centrists do in contries with actual (not just rhetorical) multi-party systems?

Do they triangulate neutral positions among several opposing views? Do they just pick the two most powerful or most extreme views and find a middle group between them? Do they not exist? Ideally, I'd like specific examples.
posted by scottreynen to Law & Government (14 answers total)
Assuming as you apparently are that "centrists" are centrists because of a conscious decision to triangulate among the various parties and not because they, you know, happen to hold views in the center, I would imagine that the centrist is pulled in the direction of each party in direct correlation to either the size of that party or their influence in the system.

Here's an example straight from the States. Libertarians often angle for a great degree of privatization of the functions of government, but it wasn't really a very popular sentiment. Then along comes Ross Perot with a fairly sizable voter base behind him, and all of a sudden you can't turn around without running headlong into all that "Reinventing Government" pap of the early-90's.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 10:47 AM on July 12, 2006

There is no such thing as a centrist, because policy choices aren't a linear scale. What's a centrist viewpoint between people who like chocolate and people who like strawberry?

"Centrist" is a term used to describe one's own viewpoint, whatever it may be. Claiming that everyone believes the way you do is desirable, since humans don't like to challenge the will of the majority. Place your views on the "inside", place opposing views on the "outside" - classic framing.
posted by jellicle at 10:56 AM on July 12, 2006

I may be mistaken, but I was under the impression that a centrist took moderate, restrained positions, rather than taking positions that are spaced precisely between the views of the two major parties.
posted by box at 11:01 AM on July 12, 2006

In Canadian poli-speak we use the left, right and centre lables to mean a) someone who wants to save the world, b) someone who wants to save your money, and c) someone who wants to do both.
posted by tiamat at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2006

No, there is, in fact a two-dimensional grid on which you can map political ideas.

Check out the graph at the bottom of this page, and the associated test as well...
posted by baylink at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2006

In states with multiparty parlimentary systems, parties are generally classified as left, right, center-left, and center-right. The center parties are generally the ones that get the most votes, and they might form coalitions with the more extreme left or right parties if doing so is necessary to obtain a parlimentary majority.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:33 AM on July 12, 2006

"Centrist" simply has more useful meaning in one-dimensional politics like those of the USA. It is still used in multi-party systems, but in the same lazy way that left and right are used - all of those terms are used, but pretty sloppily. Eg a traditional-family-values plus big-government party is likely going to be called left or right or centrist depending on a) which platform seems the most important to it's leaders, b) which other parties it is courting for coalitions, c) where it stands on the big issues of the day, etc. Centrist might be applied even if it's kind of radical, but radical in both platforms :-)

It's sometimes also used as a substitute for "moderate", and likewise sometimes (though less often, and less acurately) as a euphimism for populist.

Basically, it's just becomes and even more lazy sloppy uninformative descriptor that hangs around because plenty of people oversimplify their politics even with a true multi-party system, or perhaps especially with a true multi-party system. (Though those that do tend to get easily walked over by those that don't if they're actually involved in the politics).
posted by -harlequin- at 1:01 PM on July 12, 2006

by populist, I really meant demagogue :)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:06 PM on July 12, 2006

Do they triangulate neutral positions among several opposing views?

Yes. One example is coalition governments.
posted by frogan at 1:12 PM on July 12, 2006

Response by poster: Apparently I didn't explain my question very well.

For the purposes of this question, I don't really care about centrists' motivations or intentionality, nor whether there is an objective definition of the word "centrist." I'm interested in what positions someone takes to be considered a "centrist" in the public discourse of multi-party politics.

If multi-party democracies still consider politics as a line from left to right, as mr_roboto suggests, does that mean the notion of a "centrist" is pretty much the same in such countries as it is in (effectively) two-party systems?
posted by scottreynen at 4:23 PM on July 12, 2006

Yes. My studies of politics have always led me to understand 'centrist' as meaning 'at the centre of the scale'. To simplify it in the extreme (which is what you usually get from politicians, anyway) there is left wing, centre or moderate, and right wing.

Please note that while two-party systems have often considered one party to be left wing and the other as right wing, increasingly they are both moving to the right (Look at the UK, Australia and, yes, the USA). If you're at the middle of the political spectrum in any of these countries, chances are you're to the left of the major parties. So you're not in the centre at all!
posted by Lucie at 4:47 PM on July 12, 2006

What's a centrist viewpoint between people who like chocolate and people who like strawberry?

If you spent more time studying neopolitan ice cream, you'd know the answer.

Seriously, you're right: the concept of a two-dimensional scale upon which people's ideoligies can be pinned is horseshit.

But to touch on the original question, centrist usually refers to the point on the "left vs. right" line. It's silly.
posted by raider at 9:32 PM on July 12, 2006

Best answer: If we use the UK example, we have 2 major parties and one party which gets a significant share of the national vote - though less than the other two - but which is comparatively underrepresented within Parliament. The two major parties, the Conservatives (or Tories) and Labour are traditionally on the right and left respectively. It used to be (1980s) that Labour was pretty far left, however this made them unelectable, through the 1990's they shifted towards the Tory party position, this was effectively done by taking on board the perceived benefits of free market economics, a focus on middle-class welfare as opposed to the working class focus that had previously been the party's power base. (It also needs to be understood that there had been a cultural shift in numbers in these classes in this time). The result of this shift was to reduce the differences between the parties considerably. It has frequently been suggested that Labour stole the Tories' clothes. This change, combined with the general staleness of ongoing Tory policy made Labour electable and they have been in power since 1997. The Tory response was to try to establish 'clear blue water' between their positions and the Labour position, with limited success. This brings us to the centrist position - during the 1980's there were 2 main centre parties, the Liberal Party had historically been the second party but had been marginalised by Labour during the 20th Century, in 1981 the Social Democrat Party was formed by defecting Labour Party members who felt Labour had gone too far left. Their position was thus somewhere between the two polls of the main parties. In 1988, the Liberals and the SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party, again maintaining a position fairly central to the two established parties. However, as already mentioned the Labour party began to move towards the centre following the adoption as Labour leader of first Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally Tony Blair. This move to the right over time effectively meant greater convergence of Labour policies with those of the LibDems and Conservatives. In some cases, the Libdems have held positions in some debates which would usually be regarded as further to the left. For example, debates have been held over more liberal drug laws, on the need for a continued monarchy, and policy positions have included opposition to fees for higher education and more environmental regulation (amongst others - this is off the top of my head). Additionally, the Labour government has adopted some law and order measures which might be regarded as rather right wing and which ave been opposed by both Conservatives and LibDems, further confusing the matter. Within the last year we have also seen the appointment of a Conservative leader who seems to be trying to take the party to the left in order to take back votes from the middle classes.
Thus we have a situation where possibly the whole basis of UK politics has both narrowed over a 30 year period and at the same time the centre has shifted to the right. The narrowing has made a cohesive centre position difficult to identify specifically, the Labour Party is still to the left of the Tory Party economically, but Labour is itself far to the right of its historical position for most of the 20th century. The LibDems seemed to move fairly left on economics, possibly further left than Labour but their new leader has also recently changed their position on income tax which may signal some change again.
Socially, Labour has gone right to some degree, especially law and order where they have historically been regarded as politically weak, they have however maintained programmes to reduce poverty and to return funding to health.
In terms of political positioning, the LibDems were squeezed by the shift towards the centre, there have been accusations that they adopt policies aimed at appealing both to disaffected members of both Tory and Labour Parties, by being socially liberal and economically more to the right, and there is likely to be some truth in this.
posted by biffa at 3:00 AM on July 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the extensive, specific example biffa.
posted by scottreynen at 4:34 PM on July 13, 2006

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