Mollifying centrism

Posted: Apr 18, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 Or consider the American election of 1996. Bill Clinton governed, mostly, as a centrist, especially after Republicans won control of Congress in 1996. His Republican opponent, Bob Dole, took pains to distinguish himself from the Gingrich revolutionaries in Congress. Yet overall turnout dropped from 1992 to 1996. It dropped even more as a percentage of eligible voters going to the polls.

 All of this is not out of line with historical experience. Surges in turnout occur not when parties hug the center, but when they strike out to the extremes. William Jennings Bryan's populism produced a spike in turnout in 1896, as did Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in 1936.

 Look at record turnout years, and you will see voters motivated more by something like hate than something like love. The highest turnout as a percentage of eligible voters in the United States since 1908 came in 1960, when very many voters went to the polls determined to keep a Catholic out of office and very many went there determined to put one in -- the same impulses that produced the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

 Or look back at the huge turnout of eligible voters in the years after the Civil War. These were the years when Republicans were accused of "waving the bloody shirt" and Democrats were accused of disloyalty to the nation. Politicians were in effect refighting a civil war that cost 600,000 lives in a nation of 38 million.

 The point is that you cannot have all good things at once. Enthusiasm in politics usually contains a large element of hatred. You could see it in 2004 in the rants against George W. Bush and in the surges in turnout in central cities and university towns. You could see it as well in the surges in Republican turnout in exurban and rural counties, surges produced partly by affection for Bush but also by a hatred of cultural liberalism and moral relativism.

 High turnout is produced usually by fighting faiths, not by mollifying centrism.