Divided and powerless, centrists have their leaders to blame for the immense unpopularity of their ideology.
On 8 November, centrism was dealt its most savage blow yet, as Donald Trump was elected to serve as the 45th president of the United States. In doing so, he defeated his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton – although she ran on a left wing platform, it is well known that she is an archetypal centrist, with her husband being a leading proponent of the “Third Way”.
The other major rejection took place over the course of 20 days this summer, beginning when the British people voted to leave the European Union. The EU is a centrist’s dream – it combines social liberalism with fiscal conservatism, is run by experienced technocrats and has attempted to foster the sort of pan-European identity that “metropolitan liberals” adore.
Yet the campaign to stay in the EU, with David Cameron as its de facto leader, failed to convince a majority of Brits that remaining was in their best interest. This led to Mr Cameron’s resignation the day after the referendum, sparking weeks of political turmoil in the UK, which resulted in Theresa May coming to power. Largely seen as the continuity candidate in the Conservative Party leadership election, she has since proved herself to be to the left of Mr Cameron on economic matters and to his right on social matters. Her fledgling premiership marks the end, or at least weakening, of the centrist consensus that has gripped British politics since 1997, when Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on the back of a landslide election victory.
There are two things that all of these cases have in common – firstly, the centrists have allowed themselves to be portrayed as part of the “establishment”, before being attacked ruthlessly by somewhat charismatic far-right politicians, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage. Mr Trump successfully portrayed Mrs Clinton’s business friendly outlook as a sign that she was in thrall to corporations, while any organisation that backed Remain in the EU referendum found themselves accused of being funded by Brussels. Despite the fact that many of these far right politicians come from privileged backgrounds themselves, they convinced the working class people of their respective nations that it was the parties of the centre who had it out for them. They managed to achieve this by undermining the motives of their opponents at every available opportunity, with far-fetched, but fiery, rhetoric.
Although the specific reasons vary by nation, the second key factor in the decline of centrism is the same in each country – while it was once represented by those promising change and offering hope, those individuals now represent sleaze and corruption. Mr Blair has been greatly tarnished by the legacy of the Iraq War, as well as his business dealings since resigning as prime minister. Former US president Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has been faced by controversies of an entirely different nature – the Lewinsky scandal severely damaged his reputation during his time in office while he only featured in this year’s presidential election when being accused of rape.
However, although this inextricable correlation has led to losses for centrists in both the United States and the UK, it has also led to other centrist movements reaping the benefits of their leader’s personal popularity. For all the criticism she receives from foreign observers, Angela Merkel, the long-time Chancellor of Germany, still enjoys approval ratings that most Western leaders could only dream of. In light of this, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, is on course to gain the largest share of the vote in the next German federal election yet again, handing her a fourth term as Chancellor.
Mrs Merkel’s decision to run for another term is not the only good news centrists across the world have enjoyed in the past few weeks. In the French Republicans presidential primary, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, thought to be the candidate who’d perform weakest against National Front leader Marine Le-Pen in the upcoming presidential election, was knocked out in the first round of voting.
Although 2016 has been a rough year so far for centrists, the events of the last few days show that the tide could be turning, with buoyant news from France and Germany bringing hope to European moderates that our continent can resist the populist tide that swept across the US just a fortnight ago.
Centrism, having spent years in decline, hit a new low on 8 November, but we could now have reached a turning point. As time goes on, memories of the Clintons and of Tony Blair will fade away, regardless of their attempts to once again impose themselves onto the global political scene. As a result, a time will eventually come when the new generation of Third Way adherents can discuss their views without being weighed down by the baggage of the ideological predecessors. More importantly, it’s hard for the likes of Mr Trump to portray centrists as establishment shills if he’s the one leading the government – perversely, this means that the election of Mr Trump as president gives centrists a chance to distance themselves from the politically toxic labels they’ve gained in recent years. Whether or not centrists have the strength to take advantage of the limited benefits provided to them by their own misfortune is yet to be seen.