As politics around the world pull apart, can the center rally?

Why We Wrote This

Amid the polarization of the world today, some are increasingly calling for a return to the moderate middle. But centrism’s definition, popularity, and practicality all depend on where you are standing.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting in Seattle on March 22, 2017. Schultz spent more than 30 years at Starbucks, growing a handful of coffee shops into a much-admired global brand. But now, as the billionaire mulls running for president as an independent, Starbucks will have to tread carefully.

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Around the world, politics are polarizing and leaders are ruling from the further reaches of the political spectrum. In today’s belligerent global mood, is there any fruitful ground for a moderate politician to plow?

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz thinks so; he says the U.S. two-party system is broken, and he’s planning an independent bid for the presidency. In London, 11 centrist members of Parliament who broke away from their mainstream parties last month think the same thing.

Polls suggest that a centrist coalition could unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next month’s general elections. In France, President Emmanuel Macron is still battling to justify voters’ faith in his brand of centrism.

Are these the tentative hints of a new direction, a sign that the populist pendulum may have swung its full arc? Or are they destined to be crushed by angry voters seeking radical solutions from demagogues?

“The problem with centrism is that its style of moderation and compromise is not in fashion at the moment,” says Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst. “But its strength is that it seeks solutions beyond the tired old left-right divide. One can imagine new political space emerging from the wreckage of the old system.”

Around the world, politics are polarizing. From Brexit to Brasilia, from the District of Columbia to the Danube, leaders are ruling from the further reaches of the political spectrum. In today’s belligerent global mood, is there any fruitful ground for a moderate politician to plow?

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz thinks so; he says the U.S. two-party system is broken, and he’s planning an independent bid for the presidency. In London, 11 centrist members of Parliament who broke away from the Conservative and Labour parties last month think the same thing as they consider founding a new party.

Polls suggest that a centrist coalition could unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next month’s general elections, while in France President Emmanuel Macron is still battling to justify voters’ faith in his brand of centrism.

Are these the tentative hints of a new direction, a sign that the populist pendulum may have swung its full arc? Or are they destined to be crushed by angry voters seeking radical solutions from demagogues?

“The problem with centrism is that its style of moderation and compromise is not in fashion at the moment,” says Pascal Perrineau, a veteran French political analyst. “But its strength is that it seeks solutions beyond the tired old left-right divide. One can imagine new political space emerging from the wreckage of the old system.”

The American moderate

That seems to be Mr. Schultz’s hope. He says that the two-party duopoly that has long ruled the United States is now a broken system and that “it’s time for a centrist candidate not affiliated with either party to be president.”

Given the intensity of partisanship in today’s America, and the structure of the Electoral College, his chances of success look slim. But a moderate running on the Democratic ticket, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, might be better placed to capture and harness the middle ground.

“There’s certainly a place” for moderates in national politics, says Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, in an email.

“Between Trump’s behavior and the progressive policies of many of the leading Democratic candidates, more moderate voters may feel they don’t have great options, and they might see someone like Hickenlooper providing one,” Dr. Masket says.

Both parties have been pulling away from the center for a number of years. Conservatives dominate the Republican Party at all levels, and it is liberals such as new Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York who are providing the Democrats with energy and policy ideas such as the Green New Deal.

Three-quarters of Republican voters call themselves conservatives, and just over half of Democrats describe themselves as liberal – up from 38 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president.

Moderate candidates in both parties are few and far between, says Danielle Thomsen, author of “Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates.”

“They’re just not running for office at the same rate” as liberals or conservatives, her research has found. “That’s really changed dramatically,” she says. “Now they’re only about three or four percent” of each party’s candidates.

When they do run, they face the sort of challenge that a presidential candidate such as Mr. Biden would be up against: how to fashion a campaign platform that appeals to all the diverse types of moderate in the U.S. political landscape.

Polling by Pew Research Data has found that white voters without a college degree make up 30 percent of Democratic moderates and conservatives, black voters comprise 22 percent, Latinos 21 percent, and white college graduates 16 percent.

Mr. Biden appears potentially capable of appealing to a wide range of demographics, but his main asset as a moderate – and an asset just as important as any particular policy – is his avuncular, genial style. In today’s America, moderation of demeanor and rhetoric could be the key to any centrist presidential candidate’s chance of success.

Blue and White

As general elections draw near in Israel, there is clearly a growing appetite for such an approach in that country, where the tone of political discourse has grown increasingly bitter over the 10-year rule of hard-line, right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For the first time, the principal division in the country is not between Jews and Arabs but between left-wing and right-wing Jews, according to a recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading think tank.

Seeking to bridge that gap is the new “Blue and White” party, created by a merger of two centrist parties and named for the colors of the Israeli flag. The latest polls put the newcomer ahead of all rivals in the elections next month, as the leftist camp shrinks and moderate right-wingers desert Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Blue and White is tapping a sentiment that Mr. Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric, such as his attacks on the media and the criminal justice system, has gone too far, say analysts.

“There is an agreement among those on the left and some on the right that the incitement has to stop, that it is not OK to call left-wingers traitors, as has been legitimized by this government,” says Gayil Talshir, who teaches politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Pollsters have found that while Israeli voters still care about security and peace, they are increasingly concerned by more day-to-day matters. Blue and White, led by a retired general, has serious security credentials but is also focusing on education, health care, public transport, and the cost of living, says Asaf Zamir, one of the new party’s parliamentary candidates: “We have to speak about bread and butter issues.”

The Independent Group

Those are just the sort of issues that moderate Conservatives and moderate Labour Party members in Britain are longing to get their teeth into whenever the Brexit debate is over and politicians can get back to normal life.

“The vast majority of people … want answers that improve their daily lives rather than angry, adversarial rhetoric,” says Will Tanner, the young founder of “Onward,” a reformist Conservative Party think tank in London.

The leaders of both main British parties “are setting people against each other,” says Stephanie Lloyd, deputy director of Progress, a centrist pressure group within the Labour Party. “The two-party system works if both are broad church, but they are hardening into singular ideologies.”

Does this mean there is room for a new party in the middle? That is what The Independent Group is betting. Its 11 members – three former Conservative and eight former Labour members of Parliament – are united by their fears that their parties risk being dominated by extremists. Having broken away from their old parties, they are currently considering creating a new one.

Polls show that, between them, The Independent Group and the Liberal Democrats (a traditional centrist party) command more electoral support than any party other than the ruling Conservatives.

It is very early days, but Nora Mulready hopes that the new grouping will inject “more of the moral and pragmatic essence of centrism” into British politics. Ms. Mulready, a former Labour party activist, is making a series of films designed to stimulate moderate debate of controversial issues to generate ideas to challenge extremist viewpoints.

If centrists are to seize the time, they need to go on the offensive, agrees Ms. Lloyd. “The center left has ignored a series of challenges for a long time,” she says, notably the question of immigration. “We never made the argument that it is a good thing because we were scared to do so, and that created a vacuum that the extreme right filled.”

Whether The Independent Group has a future may depend on how the Labour Party and the Conservative Party react, says Sheri Berman, who teaches European politics at Barnard College in New York. “Sometimes breakaway groups remind established parties that there’s a problem, and they recalibrate,” Professor Berman says. But such a recalibration would nonetheless put more political weight in the center.

Vying for the center ground

That is not, however, the way that traditional centrist parties in Germany are behaving.

The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have been hard to distinguish recently, wedded as they are in a “grand coalition” government that ties them to the same policies.

Voters, dissatisfied with the lack of choice that the two mainstream parties are offering them, have been flocking at recent elections to more extreme groups, notably the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and to a lesser extent The Left party, which sits at the far left of German politics.

The CDU and the SPD are now seeking to stanch the flow with firmer policies appealing to their traditional supporters. The CDU is taking a less tolerant attitude to immigration than it did when Germany welcomed over 1 million migrants in 2015-16, while the SPD is proposing hikes in the minimum wage and in pensions.

As they harden their identities, the Greens are proving the big centrist success story.

Once dismissed as pacifist tree-huggers, the Greens have found political strength in centrism as they have moved to the middle with new policies while keeping their environmental principles intact. Greens are as firmly opposed to Russian aggression in Ukraine as anyone, support armed intervention abroad to defend human rights, and have pushed for more spending on infrastructure and education.

“From the left, the Greens have moved to the center to make themselves attractive to CDU and SPD voters,” says Gero Neugebauer, a politics professor at the Free University of Berlin.

The move has worked; the Greens are seen as reliable coalition partners by both the CDU and the SPD, and they are members of nine regional governments.

At the same time, a third of German voters say they sympathize with anti-establishment views. That trend clearly benefits the AfD and the Left party, but the Greens appear to have enough “alternative” street cred to profit as well. After all, populism is not an exclusively extremist phenomenon.

Centrism as populism

Take French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful 2017 campaign at the head of the brand new En Marche! (In Motion!) party, for example, which betrayed more than a hint of Donald Trump-style populism. Both Mr. Macron and Mr. Trump ran as outsiders against their respective political establishments and won.

Mr. Macron campaigned on a resolutely centrist platform based on a strong European Union, a social market economy, and a culture of compromise. Sometimes he described it as “neither left nor right” and sometimes as “both left and right.”

His platform clearly contributed to his victory, but it was not the only factor. “Eighteen months on, I realize that people did not necessarily vote for Macron because of his ideas; … they voted for change,” acknowledges Delphine O, an En Marche! member of parliament.

“Macron’s strength lay as much in who he was not as in who he was,” says Professor Perrineau. He won because the French public was fed up with the two main parties – the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right – which had alternated in power for decades.

It is because voters have not yet seen the results of the changes in economic and social policy that Mr. Macron had promised that his government is facing so much social unrest, says Professor Berman.

“He said he would reinvigorate French capitalism and strengthen social protection,” she says. “But he cannot yet claim success on either part of his program.”

That bodes ill for Macron’s brand of centrism. “If European governments cannot reinvigorate their economies and also take care of those citizens who have fallen behind,” she says, “that could be very dangerous for democracy.”

• Peter Grier in Washington, Clifford Coonan in Berlin, and Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed reporting to this story.

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