On two propositions most good-hearted civic-minded people agree: It is good to have centrist politics, and it is good to have high turnout in elections. But what if it should turn out that the two are in fundamental conflict?
For that is what political history, here and abroad, suggests. Consider the 2004 election in the United States. George W. Bush, his opponents contended, with some justice, governed as anything but a centrist. Installed in office with a bare majority of the Electoral College, he pushed successfully for massive tax cuts, for conservative positions on cultural issues, for military action not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq. You can make an argument that Bush has governed as a centrist, but it is not an argument that is widely believed.
As for his opponents, the Democrats in 2004 emitted rhetoric that was extravagant in its denunciations of Bush and all his works. The Democratic candidate who set the tone in the primary, Howard Dean, has told us that "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for."
Yet this polarized politics, far from deterring Americans from going to the polls, produced huge voter turnout. 2004 total turnout was up 16 percent from 2000; John Kerry's vote total was up 16 percent from Al Gore's; George W. Bush's vote total was up 23 percent from what it was four years before. Rarely in American history has turnout risen like this between two presidential elections. Non-centrist politics, whatever else you may say against it, brought voters to the polls.
Contrast this with the British election that will be held May 5. There, the government is in the hands of Tony Blair's New Labor Party, a self-consciously centrist operation if there has ever been one.
Since taking over as leader of his party in 1994, Blair has jettisoned Old Labor's policies of nationalization and government superintendence of the economy (one of Labor's first actions was to free the Bank of England from government control). Little effort has been made to roll back the privatizations and reforms of Margaret Thatcher's Tory government. Spending and tax increases have been, by the standards of Labor Party history, modest.
But Blair's centrism has not produced increased turnout. The popular vote for the Labor Party in the 2001 election declined from 1997. Labor Party strategists this year identify as their main problem low turnout from core Labor voters. Their Conservative opponents have taken care to promise relatively small cuts in government spending -- a Conservative MP who promised more was ruthlessly dropped from the ballot. Yet the Conservatives, too, worry, with reason, about low turnout.