Is the era of centrism over, or does it just need a new face? Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow Alexandru Filip considers.
John F. Kennedy once described to himself as “an idealist without illusions ”. The term is often used as a stand-in for radical centrism, a political philosophy that advocates pragmatic, moderate policies. While Kennedy was an idealist, he also stressed the importance of aiming for the feasible. A bit of that wisdom has gone missing in these times of discontent with traditional parties. Everyone from left-wing progressive populists to far-right leaders advocate strong and urgent change to our national and international institutions—each in their preferred policy direction. At the same time as policy entrepreneurs on the fringes of the political spectrum capitalise on public dissatisfaction, the sclerotic, lethargic centrist political tradition in Europe grows only to further resemble the mainstream parties’ ageing leadership. What if that which Europe is missing is not new, radical policy solutions, but instead new leadership at the political centre?
Writing for The Washington Post at the time of the recent French election, Anne Applebaum noted  that France seemed to be pioneering the ‘ditching’ of the centre-right/centre-left political-party structure that has long dominated European politics. “Neither Emmanuel Macron nor Marine Le Pen, the two candidates who emerged from the first round of voting for the French presidency, belongs to the old gauche or the old droite.” Among the major selling points of Macron’s En Marche! campaign was the party’s centrist political orientation. Its support for European integration and labour market reform demonstrate the party’s essentially moderate, centrist position.
In addition, En Marche! argued it was a new force in politics, an alternative to the ossified moderate parties. While Macron did not originate outside the political mainstream, a large number of people whom En Marche! put forward in parliamentary elections with did. The party has branded itself as a movement of ‘newcomers’ and ‘outsiders’ to the political scene, offering the promise of a rejuvenation of the political class. Macron’s success in winning a plurality of votes in a hotly contested four-way race between the far right (Le Pen), the far left (Melenchon), the old centre-right (Fillon), and the new centre (himself) showed that there is a constituency that wanted to cast a centrist vote, but which was alienated by the perceived cartelisation, corruption, or ossification of the Republican and Socialist parties. All that seemed to be missing was the leadership to capitalise on it.
A similar tale can be told in southern Europe. In the 2015 Spanish elections, the two parties that had traditionally dominated Spanish Politics in the centre of the spectrum (the centre-right People’s Party (PP) and the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)) suffered heavy losses, resulting in the most-fragmented Spanish Parliament since 1977. Neither the PP nor the PSOE managed to generate a majority, and coalition talks failed. At the same time, two new parties entered parliament and became the third- and fourth-largest parties, accounting for a combined 34 percent of votes. The poster-child of the elections was the Podemos party, which used a left-wing populist approach that capitalised on the dissatisfaction of the anti-austerity Indignados Movement. The Ciudadanos Party also made an impressive entrance, winning the fourth-largest share of votes. As a liberal political party that describes itself as centre-left, and post-nationalist, it combines social-democratic and liberal-progressive positions.
In Spain, Ciudadanos functions similarly to En Marche!: it is a party that favours European integration, market solutions, and careful reform rather than sudden policy shifts. Even in Germany, where the green party, Greens, recently scored their second-best electoral result ever, the outcome seems to have arisen not only on the back of anti-systemic voting but also as a result of a more centrist, socio-liberal, pro-European constituency that felt alienated by the power-sharing cartel of the large Volksparteien.
From a mere policy perspective, parties such as En Marche! and Ciudadanos are eerily similar to the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties of Europe. What sets them apart is their ‘pitch’ that they are new political actors. They seem to advocate not for new ideas or change but rather for staying on the same path, but under new leaders: young, energetic political centrists. Given how fashionable it is these days to promise fundamental change in European politics, such ‘keep the ball rolling’ messages are surprising. They fight radical messages with strong advocacy for pro-European, moderate paths.
The fact that such political actors perform relatively well at the ballot box in this age of political discontent and polarisation may give us hope. Perhaps we needn’t attribute the disastrous results for established mainstream parties to electoral polarisation and appetite for more-extreme, decisive politicians. Not all discontent that fuels the growth of the far right and far left is ideological. If we can understand some of the popular discontent as being not with policies but rather with the established political class and its ageing leadership, we may be able to see some hope for consensus and moderation in Europe.
One thing that John F. Kennedy did well was to offer people a model of practical idealism behind which they could mobilise. There seems to still be large appetite for reform over revolution, for a moderate political discourse in Europe. A new political movement with young leaders such as Emmanuel Macron or Ciudadanos’ Albert Rivera at the helm may be what European politics needs to revive trust in compromise, moderation, and mature reform.
Alexandru Filip is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance.