The Death of Centrism

In 1988, the Democrats had lost their third consecutive election with George H. W. Bush Snr. defeating Michael Dukakis. Shortly after a small group of Democrats decided to modernise the party in a manner that would go on to change the rest of the world for many years to come. Enter “New Democrat” candidate Bill Clinton.

Bush’s re-election in 1992 was seen as inevitable. In 1991, after the Gulf War where he removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, massive parades and celebrations led to Bush’s approval rating being over 90% leaving the Democrats facing a number of questions. There was talk of whether the Democratic Party could ever win a presidential election again.

With the country in an economic slowdown, and Clinton being able to bring his once split party together he mounted a strong push for the election. A strong centrist record in his role of Governor of Arkansas was appealing to many democrats as was his strong connections to the African American community. The Baby Boomer generation voted heavily in Clinton’s favour and he was able to win a hard-fought election in 1992. Right from the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term, a young English man named Tony Blair had representatives taking notes in the White House. By the time Gerhard Schroeder of Germany was installed as the SPD new chancellor, together with Tony Blair they issued “Europe: Third Way/Die Neue Mitte” which clearly states its main concepts. “Most people have long since abandoned the world view represented by the dogmas of Left and Right. Social democrats must be able to speak to these people.”

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With the economy moving away from manufacturing to services, it was clear that changes would be needed. A wave of leaders with different views on culture, gender and the environment was beginning to shape the world we live in. A change was required.

Centrism centres around comprise. It avoids the hard extremes of the left and right to find a middle ground so that politics and markets meet. There was a great deal of optimism from the “Third Way” that the new world emerging would move towards democracy. The Soviet Union was disbanded and the Berlin Wall collapsed, it was assumed (rather naively) that the world would adopt similar governments and economic structures. We assumed that China would enter into the market rules that the UK, USA & much of Europe was proposing. We also believed that governments would be able to manage globalisation and the technology boom in a way that would improve our economy and reduce the “Boom-bust” economic cycle. We assumed that this would then enable different ethnic groups and classes merge together, increase diversity and help remove racism.

Today, it is evident that these assumptions were inaccurate. They never fully came into fruition and now there is an angry emergence of populism and nationalism. Russia arguably moved even further away from democracy, China’s economy grew incredibly without adopting democracy and radical Islam is at war with the West. Not only are there troubles across the world but even domestically, a decline in entrepreneurship had occurred with growth slowing and inequality rising. The financial crisis showed the level of poor governance. The disparity between highly educated, hugely populated urban areas compared to less educated, smaller rural area is huge both economically and culturally. People are rebelling over the European Union and U.S. politicians with particular distaste to the flow of immigration.

Not all of the third way has completely disappeared. Globalisation and the surge in technological reliance is not going anywhere. In order to minimise social and economic disruption, market regulation must be changed. The Third Way failed to predict a lot of the economic, political changes and it now further struggles to answer for the rising economic inequality and division amongst society. There must be greater focus on how immigration affects the cultural and economic spectrum of cities. If the practices work in New York that does not mean it will work in Texas. Same goes for northern parts of England in comparison to London. China being able to enter the WTO (World Trade Organisation) without accepting the same practices of a market economy has created huge differences.

The Third Way had peaked in the 1990s and 2000s but it has been clearly on the decline in recent years. The financial crisis sparked questions about its economic policies with right-wing populism growing more popular. The same can be seen on the left, with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being highly popular politicians. Emmanuel Macron becoming President of France in 2017 demonstrated a rare centrism win but his presidency has been largely unpopular and has now been marked by the yellow vests movement.

We have entered a new age, where for the good or bad, new leaders and solutions are required.

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© The New Briton 2020