A political cliche almost as popular as calling subsidies “investments” is the prattle about governing “from the center.”
Too many think that means always going to the middle and governing by “consensus” and “compromise.” Few grasp the difference between the absolute center and the relative center. The former is reasonably static. The latter is constantly in flux.
Another major mistake is believing “the center” mandates making everything negotiable. One of the biggest reasons so few of our elected officials at all levels are incapable of governing adequately is their failure to fully grasp what “the center” really means.
It is possible to separate right and left and today’s red and blue, but terribly difficult. It leaves too much purple. Hardly anyone will qualify as completely anything. Even hard core ideologues will differ on details and fight to the death on issues others find microscopic. There are not just conservatives and liberals, but libertarians and populists, progressives and pragmatists, in actuality or self-definition. The theoretical absolute center that too many seek can be charted on a political map, but the problem is that hardly anyone inhabits it.
Most people are not politically coherent thinkers. They often harbor logical inconsistencies that result in conflicting beliefs. Despising Congress while simultaneously wishing to increase its power is one obvious example. This helps make the center relative. The relative center is functional, the absolute is not. Pols going back to ancient tribal chieftains knew this by instinct.
Governing from the absolute center is not only near impossible but undesirable. Constituencies give a lot of leeway on most issues. Governments can be hard right or left over (beg ital) some (end ital) issues but not all. President Obama and a Democrat Congress will govern center-left, while Arizona under Gov. Brewer and a Republican legislature will govern center-right. Both can fail by either tacking too far to their own side (beg ital) or (end ital) by losing their base by cautiously hovering to close to that vaguely defined middle.
Governing from the ever-changing relative center is accomplished by two primary methods, persuasion and coalition. Too many so-called leaders are driven by opinion polls and are afraid to attempt to change the opinions they catalog. Classic examples of those who did range from Patrick Henry and Sam Adams to Lincoln, TR, and Churchill.
Great leaders can also forge unlikely coalitions. FDR led a Democrat party filled with both southern racists and big-city black machines. These examples required more than average political ability and leadership, and tell us why in the two millennia separating Alexander from Frederick, few others were known as the great. While Alexander and Frederick weren’t elected, they still needed the same skills as a Chicago alderman to wield and keep the power they acquired. They knew where their respective centers were and where they were shifting.
The principle difference between the American electoral system and the parliamentary system used almost exclusively in the rest of the democratic world is that coalitions are formed here before the election and the parties are broad based enough to be able to govern without allowing small minorities to demand more than they represent. Israel suffers from that structural flaw, and Canadians are now facing that problem with the three lesser parties forming a coalition to keep the party with the most votes from governing.
We need to be thankful that our Founders understood the dangers inherent in purer forms of Democracy and opted for strengthening representative government.
That’s why we can be governed from the relative center. Those who chatter about governing “from the center” should be asked to define it and tell us where it is.
Listen to Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI-690 AM.