Define extremists in terms of centrists, not the other way around

Why are those in the political center defined in terms of those on the political extremes? Those in the middle, at least in the United States, are typically called “centrists” or “moderates.” To be a moderate is to be someone who does not take a purest line. One can be a moderate Democrat or a moderate Republican or just a plain moderate.

Although there are practical reasons (and historical reasons related to the French Revolution) why those in the middle are defined in terms of the purists, is there a theoretical reason? That is to say, although we define those in the middle in terms of those who are the most extreme in the political parties, those who control the redistricting process, and those who run for political office, is there any theoretical reason why we define those in the middle in this way?

{mosads}This question is worth raising because the term “moderate” is not just a classificatory term. It also carries some negative connotations. Pure Democrats and pure Republicans are believed to have strong convictions. They have passion. And they have organizations and money behind them.

Moderates, on the other hand, are usually described as “lite” versions of their respective parties, and even as people who can’t make up their minds. So they sit in the middle on many issues.

But why can’t the extremists be defined in terms of the centrists?

What if we defined the centrists first as those people who do not see politics or the world generally in black and white terms. They see nuanced distinctions. They favor compromise over confrontation. They see the importance of progressive and conservative values.

Let’s call this group the “sentrists,” replacing the tainted and unfit word “centrist.” Even more important, we simply do not have language that effectively characterizes the group of people who want to see our politics move beyond left and right in creative and exciting ways. Any word would do — so we’ll use the word “sentrist.”

What do we call those who are not sentrists? Call them the Extremists, those who see simplicity rather than complexity. They see politics and the world in black and white terms. They do not see nuanced distinctions. They are firm progressives or firm conservatives.

When you divide up the three groups — progressives, moderates, and conservatives — in this way, recognizing that each political party has its own factions, you get a different picture of the political spectrum.

Millions of Americans, 4-in-10 according to a recent Gallup poll, do not identify with either major party, and yet are thoughtful, knowledgeable citizens who see the need for compromise, who see the complexity in public policy debates, who favor compromise over confrontation. Many of them identify as pragmatic moderates, eschewing the conservative and liberal labels.

Bill Clinton reengineered the Democratic Party in this general direction a generation ago. It is time again for some reengineering.

As we see in practice, many of those on the left and the right, are ideologues, immune to compromise, deeply passionate but incapable of working with the other side. Add to this picture that many in the middle want exciting new policies that unite left and right concepts in creative ways. They are not melba toast moderates, but shrimp scampi new sentrists, chicken asian salad sentrists, you name it.

Those who do not side with the pure Democrats and pure Republicans include millions of Americans who are innovative, who are tired of old paradigms, and who would vote for candidates who present an array of vibrant, creative policies that do not occupy one side of the political spectrum.

The consequence of this analysis of political language is that the deck is stacked against those who are not purists. The very language that is used to characterize those in the middle is unfair.

Politicians who are looking to create the new center for America would do well by starting with new language to describe the entire political spectrum, language that defines the extremists in term of the “sentrists,” as we have renamed them, and not the centrists in terms of the extremists.

The sentrists are the future of American politics — citizens and politicians who take seriously the values of the extremists on the left and the right but who place country over party, unity over division, and complexity over simplicity.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of “Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of “The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).  He has taught at The George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University.

Tags Bill Clinton Centrism Conservatism Extremism Framing Ideology moderates Political ideologies Political philosophy Political spectrum Political terminology Politics Thought

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