I Asked Centrists Why They Love Compromise So Much

Diving deep into the "radical center."

by Eve Peyser; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Feb 20 2018, 7:30pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

In these highly divisive times, moderates seem like an endangered species who mostly inhabit think tanks and op-ed pages. Donald Trump's rise was a product of decades of extremism rising on the right, while a growing contingent of lefties, up to and including Bernie Sanders, are trying to push the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction because they think the way to fight Trumpism is to offer people an ideology that is just a powerful and strident. Activists on both sides demand politicians who are prepared to fight.

Centrists say this is all wrong, that partisanship itself is the problem and moderation and compromise is the solution. The most prominent centrist organization is probably Third Way, which acknowledges that we are "in a time of polarization and populism" and believes that "Americans deserve better than what they often get from the extremes" and we should focus on reforms "that empower the middle."

But what does "the middle" mean these days? The Republicans in charge of government are full of extreme right-wingers, and the Democratic Party includes everyone from centrists to social democrats. When debates over everything from abortion to guns inspire apocalyptic rhetoric, what compromises are actually possible?

I spoke with five centrists in an attempt to figure out what exactly they would do that isn't being done already. Spoiler: A lot of them are effectively Democrats who think they'd be able to foster bipartisanship if they got into power.

Neal Simon, businessman running for Senate in Maryland as an independent

"Electing more non-partisan moderates to a divided Senate will tip the balance of power away from the partisan extremes and into the hands of independent leaders who will get the job done," Simon said in a press release announcing his run.

VICE: How do you define your political philosophy?
Neal Simon: I view myself as a moderate independent. I am in the big middle of the country, politically, where a lot of people today feel homeless because they feel like the leaders of the two parties have pulled them to the extremes.

It seems like the Democratic Party is more open to having centrist members, why do you feel like you don't want to be a part of that?
Both parties have been pulled to the extreme. I think the Democrats may be interpreting some of the recent election results as a movement towards Democrats, but I think a lot of it is just anti-Republican. The number of unaffiliated voters has doubled in the last 15 years. It's increased by 46 percent [in Maryland over] the last ten years. A couple of weeks ago, Gallup had a poll that says now 42 percent of America self-identifies as independent, up from 39 percent [in 2016].

Younger voters are the ones being hurt the most by this partisanship, because the partisanship means we have a dysfunctional government. We get very little done, and we're not investing in our future. We don't shore up social security for them, we don't invest in infrastructure, we don't improve our education system, we're sticking them with a healthcare system that costs too much, [as well as] a ton of debt. A lot of these things are not too hard to solve if the two parties would focus on working together instead of just arguing with each other.

I'm curious about how someone who identifies as a moderate thinks we should solve issues like our healthcare system. Do you have any ideas on how to do that?
The parties have spent an incredible amount of energy and created a ton of disdain by arguing about how to pay for an inefficient system. We spend double the costs of what the average industrialized company spends. What we need is a system where we are incentivizing wellness. Our politicians don't spend time thinking about how we are going to reduce those costs, they're really just arguing over how are we going to pay for it.

An argument for Medicare for All is that it would decrease costs by putting everyone into a big pool. I imagine you don’t support that. What do you think the government's place in healthcare should be?
I'm not a proponent of a single-payer system. I believe in the private sector and I think they should be able to [make] healthcare more efficient. At the same time, the government needs to play a role because every American has a right to basic healthcare. We have a moral obligation to provide that to people. The government needs to play a role in creating, in structuring the system so that everyone gets covered. The Affordable Care Act brought another 20 to 25 million people into the system that needed to be in the system. It was the biggest piece of social legislation in decades and because it was a straight party-line vote, it just contributed to this partisanship and divisiveness that has gotten even worse since the Affordable Care Act passed.

Do you think that the partisanship that happened during the debate over the ACA was just the Republicans' fault? Or do you also blame the Democrats?
I blame them both. Listen. The United States Senate is only a 100 people. It's a hundred human beings. If these guys cannot develop relationships and trust among each other so that they can have civil conversations and reach reasonable solutions to things like healthcare, then we don't have the right people in that body, and we certainly don't have the right leadership there.


Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way

Third Way, a centrist organization, was labeled the "radical center" by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2011.

VICE: What does it mean to be a centrist to you?
Jonathan Cowan: Like with liberalism and conservatism, there are many different strands and brands of centrism. We are centrist Democrats, which is very different than other strains of centrism.

I would say that our ideology is a very good mix of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They were Democratic centrists, though they dealt with different issues obviously because they were presidents decades apart.

Why shouldn't the Democrats move further left, as so many people want them to?
Every single time Democrats have run someone for president who was perceived as not able to speak to the center of the country, not able to speak persuasively speak outside the base of the Democratic Party, they've lost. The answer, the response to Trumpism, which is basically a backward-looking right-wing populism that says it's going to take America back to the 1950s, the best answer to that is not a left-wing version of nostalgia.

We have to be adamant and angry about our opposition to Trump, and give no ground on that, but we also have to offer the country a modern economic vision of where we want to go. The fundamental problem that concerns most Americans is how are they and their kids going to have the opportunity to earn a good life. "Earn" being the most important word. People want work to pay off for themselves and their kids so that they can earn a good life, and that is in deep jeopardy now, in as much jeopardy as it was during the Progressive era.

Robert Levine, columnist for the Moderate Voice

Robert Levine is a doctor who advocates for centrism in his spare time, and has self-published multiple books calling for a centrist third party. You can read his columns on the centrist website The Moderate Voice.

VICE: How did you become a centrist?
Robert Levine: I used to be a New England Republican, but the Republican Party has been taken over by Texas and the Deep South and they no longer meet my standards, in terms of the way they want government to operate. The Democrats just don't seem to have any leadership, and I think a new party that's not enthralled with lobbyists and special interests could really be very successful. The two-party system, which is called the duopoly, really doesn't work.

Something I've been struggling with in my interviews with other centrists is understanding what it even means to be a centrist when we live in such highly partisan times, when the Republicans are on the extreme right while the Democrats encompass a wide range of center-left political thought.
Centrists, or moderates, are really people who are willing to compromise. They are pragmatists, common-sense people that you don't find on either side. Part of the problem is the primary system. Only the active Republicans and the active Democrats participate in the primary system, and they're the ones who pick out the people running for office. So the most extreme people on both sides have a leg up in terms of running for office. When decisions are made, politicians try to assuage their bases, and their bases are the extremists in both parties. Even in the regular elections, only 60 percent of registered voters vote in presidential elections, and in off-year elections, only 40 percent vote. That's awful. People don't want to vote because they feel their votes are meaningless and there are no candidates who represent them.

How does your philosophy of moderation plays into like the biggest political questions facing our time? What about an issue like abortion rights or gun control, where it seems impossible to not have a partisan view of those issues?
A majority of the population, when questioned about guns, wants a lot of common-sense laws passed, in terms of a waiting period and background checks. Republicans are afraid of the NRA, even the moderate Republicans are afraid of the NRA. You start off slowly, and by starting off slowly you have background checks and a waiting period before people can get guns. Abortion is a more difficult kind of thing because it's really based on religious values, but once abortion is allowed, it's really hard for women not to have control over their own bodies.

It seems like a lot of the policies you’re advocating for is the same as the Democratic Party.
The Democrats are more rational. I mean, how can the Republicans reject climate change when 95 percent of climate scientists believe that it's absolutely what's happening and it's a danger to the planet?

Nick Triano, executive director of the Centrist Project

The Centrist Project is an organization that “aims to reshape and reform our political system—not as a traditional third party, but as America’s first Unparty.”

VICE: Can you tell me about your personal political philosophy? How do you define centrism and what does that actually mean?
Nick Triano: I consider myself a centrist because I am willing take the best ideas, no matter where they come from. Often times, centrism is confused with being in the middle, or splitting the difference between both sides. Centrism is about using reason and logic and common sense to evaluate policy on its face and to make a determination of what pragmatically is the solution to any given problem.

During the Obama years, the Republican party made it very clear that they would not compromise at all, and I hear a lot of centrists say, "If we were like in power, unlike the Democrats, we would compromise and get things done." So I’m wondering how that would play out in reality?
The Republicans weren't [compromising] under Obama and the Democrats aren't under Trump. It is very much seeing what George Washington warned about—he said the ultimate domination of one faction over another sharpened by the spirit of revenge is a frightful despotism, and that's what we have today. What both parties do not want, under any circumstance, is to give the other side a win.

Returning Democrats to Washington would be the sort of definition of insanity because we know how that goes, we've tried every combination of party control over the last decade between the White House and both branches of government and it's only trending in a more dysfunctional state. That's why we think some new competition is needed to actually disrupt that.

Charles Wheelan, author of 'The Centrist Manifesto'

Wheelan's Centrist Manifesto is what prompted the creation of the Centrist Project in 2013. He is a senior lecturer in economics at Dartmouth.

VICE: What’s your definition of a centrist?
Charles Wheelan: Being a centrist means that I do not fit neatly into either current political camp. The word centrist isn't great, I wish we had a different one. It is not because I find myself directly between the two parties, it's because I'm much more attracted to some ideas from the Republicans, and some much more from the Democrats.

How do you think we should solve some of our biggest issues facing our nation, like healthcare, taxes, and our wars abroad? I've talked to a bunch of centrists now and I'm still having a hard time understanding the difference between being a centrist and being a more conservative Democrat.
So part of it is just your approach to problem-solving. Are you empathetic to other people's views, are you willing to compromise? In this environment that's every bit as important as having views that are less extreme than the two parties.

There is no healthcare problem. There are about 57 different problems related to the unique nature of delivering something where most people don't have the capability of determining how much quality is being provided—do you really think you can tell a good heart surgeon from a bad heart surgeon? That's married to the fact that someone else is paying the bill. My approach would to listen to the various constituencies, study what we know about what drives healthcare costs, and then begin making the necessary compromises. There just aren't two flavors of healthcare. There's not simply, Do you like the ACA or do you want to scrap Medicaid? Those are bizarrely superficial, potentially ignorant approaches to something as complex as healthcare.

In The Centrist Manifesto , you write, "Our two political parties are increasingly dominated by their most vocal members, leaving little room for compromise." Do you think that's as true for the Democrats as it is for the Republicans?
Currently no. But part of that is because Republicans are governing. When you're out of power, you don't really have to do much.

In your book, you say that the answer is a third centrist party—
We've moved away from that. What we do with [The Centrist Project] is support independent candidates, we do a lot of things that parties do. So we recruit candidates, we try to find their messages, but we are not a party.

What made you change your mind on the idea of a third party?
Part of it was this remarkable hostility to political parties. People view the parties as the problem, and I'm persuaded that may be the case, so then creating just another third interest that would create its own interest above kind of politics didn't seem consistent with what we're trying to do.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A lot of your questions are rightfully skeptical, but I think that anyone looking at the situation is obligated to ask, What happens if we don't course correct? What happens if we continue between this enormous division between Republicans and Democrats?

Either they can't get anything done, in which case problems like climate change, the explosive debt, some of our foreign policy problems, just continue marching along and we can't act, or we just careen from the Republicans to the Democrats, and Democrats pass the ACA with no Republican votes, and the Republicans repeal it, and the Democrats and win it back and reinstate it, and neither of those is a functional way to govern.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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