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Are centrists a threat to democracy?

Credit: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

Credit: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

June 1, 2018   3 mins

One of the most disturbing trends of our time is the long-term decline in democratic values – as documented by Yascha Mounk, among others.

It’s not that everyone’s gone full fascist all of a sudden. However, the research does indicate that popular support for democracy is not as solid as it used to be.

Given the rise in support for populist parties of the right and left, one might assume the problem is one of polarisation. Voters drifting towards either extreme of the political spectrum are embracing ideological absolutism at the expense of democratic give-and-take.

However, in a fascinating piece for the New York Times, David Adler argues that disillusion with democracy appears to be most severe at the centre of the political spectrum:

“I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions…

Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures…”

This is counter-intuitive, indeed Adler calls it the Centrist Paradox. So how do we explain his findings?

It could be that liberals and moderates are so appalled by their fellow voters’ recent choices that they’ve lost faith in the democratic process. Over the last year, we’ve seen self-declared liberals seeking to overturn the Brexit referendum; entertaining overblown conspiracy theories about foreign interference in election campaigns; turning a blind-eye to Spanish police violence against Catalan voters; and showing extraordinary disrespect to Italian voters this week.

However, I’m not sure that that Adler’s findings can be entirely blamed on elitist disdain for the restive plebs. For a start, his data was collected before the big populist shocks – Brexit, Trump, Italy etc. Moreover, if this was all about liberal anger at electoral success of populism, then we would expect centrist opinion to be even keener on things like civil liberties:

“What about support for civil rights, so central to the maintenance of the liberal democratic order? In almost every case, support for civil rights wanes in the center. In the United States, only 25 percent of centrists agree that civil rights are an essential feature of democracy.”

Adler also found that “support for a ‘strong leader’ who ignores his country’s legislature” was especially strong among self-declared centrists. Clearly, a big part of what’s going on here isn’t a backlash against populism, quite the opposite in fact.

Things become less confusing when one realises that the political centre ground isn’t just home to latte-sipping liberals. Centrism is also a default position for those who don’t much care for party politics (‘a plague on both your houses’) and for those whose economically leftwing, but culturally conservative, views don’t fit easily into conventional party systems.

When the governing establishment was still delivering economic progress and cultural cohesion, the contradictions of centrism somehow held together. Protest votes went to third parties that were, if anything, more liberal than the dominant parties. But with the breakdown of confidence in our politicians, the centre-ground has become a battleground – between establishment and anti-establishment factions. Neither see themselves as ideological, which is why they both recoil from the confused and fractious state of our politics and, by extension, democracy itself.

By contrast, those who readily identify as either left-wing or right-wing have, by definition, picked a side – and thus recognise there are arguments to be had and settled at the ballot box. They are, therefore, better disposed towards democracy in a time of deep divisions. 

For the various kinds of centrist – whether they see themselves as uninterested in, unrepresented by, or somehow above, the argument – democracy is not much fun right now. Which is why some of them wish it would all go away.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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