Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Bringing the 'Centre' Centre-Stage: Defining the Centre in Ideological, Organisational and Policy Terms

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Bringing the 'Centre' Centre-Stage: Defining the Centre in Ideological, Organisational and Policy Terms

Article excerpt

i Introduction

Success in politics, whether at the ballot box or in government, is generally associated with occupying the 'centre' and pursuing policies that are 'centrist'. The centre is portrayed as the mainstream, by occupying the 'middle ground' or following an agenda supported by a majority of the public. By contrast those who pursue non-centrist policies tend to be portrayed as extreme and politically beyond the pale. Beyond such rhetoric though, this suggests a spatial dimension within politics, where electoral, ideological or political advantage may be located. At the same time though, the notion of the centre has been challenged, especially where politics is perceived as a binary struggle, i.e. politics as consisting of two themes, concepts or forces which are contrary to each other and therefore adversarial. The implication of this suggests that the 'centre' is arguably more of a rhetorical tool than a practical or analytical one, in which the term centre is used to delineate an 'us and them' dichotomy.2 The effect of this is that relational distinctions become important between different concepts and actors. Such differences are present in both quantitative and qualitative forms of analysis, where assessments are based on a 'more than' or 'less than' approach. The result is that there is arguably little evidence of a political 'centre.'

Given these differences, this article presents and analyses the general themes associated with the centre as a modern phenomenon, with particular emphasis on the experience of the global North. This is due largely to the fact that many of the ideas associated with the centre - the predominant ideological families since the Enlightenment and their implementation in public policies, the emergence and development of electoral democracy, and the formation of political parties - mostly had their start in Europe and North America.

In examining the centre, the paper not only presents the way it has been portrayed in the past, to include both those which support and reject it, it also seeks to ask if the 'centre' continues to be relevant or not. To achieve this, the paper focuses on three main areas where the notion of the 'centre' has been relevant: in terms of (1) ideology; (2) electoral competition (voters and parties); and (3) public policy. Each section considers both the evidence, which points towards the existence of a 'centre' in relation to that dimension along with the limitations and challenges associated with them. The article concludes that there is a need for greater clarification of the concept. This may be done in a number of different ways, including greater interrogation of the themes associated with the centre (e.g. whether the centre can necessarily be equated with reformism and moderation and their exact relationship) and a shift away from conceptualisation of the centre as historically and geographically bounded (especially in Europe between 1945 and 1989) to include other notions and experiences. Of particular importance is the need to recognise the power of language and the way that the 'centre' is largely associated with certain social, economic and political groups to present themselves and their objectives as inclusive, while excluding other groups and their aims as 'extreme'.

2 Locating the 'centre* ideologically

What constitutes the 'centre' in ideological terms? Ideology is a set of ideas, views and beliefs concerning how politics, economic and society should be constructed and organised.3

In the case of centrism, there are at least two ways that it may be perceived. One draws on the historically predominant ideological forces since the Enlightenment (conservatism, liberalism, socialism). A second way is to apply the features associated with them to a less context-specific environment (left and right). A third is to consider their morphological dimension; that is, the different meanings and concepts can be applied to them.4 This point is significant, since it accounts for the varied way in which different ideologies both overlap and diverge from each other with regard to particular concepts; for example, the idea of 'equality' illustrates the difference between communism (where the collective dimension is emphasised) and neo-liberalism (where the focus is on the individual and property rights). …

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