Over the last several decades or so, many countries in the so-called “developed” world (meaning, richest countries) have been governed by a position or outlook often called “centrism”. America, England, France, Italy, Sweden and others have been largely governed in this way, often through a coalition of parties combining their power.
The Word “Centrism” Sounds Good, as If It Were “Fair and Balanced”
The word “centrism” implies a balance between the two prominent political-economic philosophies of the last century or so, that have frequently fought each other -Right-leaning pro-business/pro-wealth ideas and policies (think USA in the roaring 1920s), and Left-leaning, socialist-oriented ideas and policies (in America, the FDR/New Deal in the 1930s/40s and LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s).
It is important to note that the term “moderate” has much overlap with “centrist”, and most politicians who wear the label of moderate consistently push so-called centrist policies.
For clarity in these matters, it is important to focus on policies, because policies are the actual embodiment of state power and purpose which effect peoples’ lives over the broad society.
Who Were the Leading “Centrists” and What Came Before Them?
We see an ideal example of political “centrism” at work in the USA in the 1992-2000 period of the Clinton Presidency.
But first, we need to remind ourselves of what came just before.
Leading up to the Democrats’ “Clinton 90s” were the GOP’s “Reagan 80s”.
President Reagan, who proudly claimed the label of “Conservative” was extremely pro-business, and openly rejected the left-leaning policies from the New Deal, while publically mocking the role of government in providing FDR-like assistance to the public in nearly all cases.
Reaganesque policies included massive tax cuts (especially for the rich), widespread deregulations on Big-Business, privatization of numerous public assets (land, especially), weakening of labor unions and lower wages, and hugely-increased military spending. Reagan pushed and got passed tough new crime and “drug war” laws resulting in greatly increased national incarceration rates, especially among people of color.
Reagan also vigorously promoted so-called “free-trade” policies, which involved cutting tariffs drastically, so major US manufacturing corporations could operate with far more freedom and impunity overseas.
Reagan was very successful in getting many of his policies put into place, except for “free trade” which lacked the necessary votes in both parties. Critics on both sides of the aisle were suspicious of the claims that free trade would, as predicted by its giddy promoters, spread wealth all around the society, instead of just making a small group of very wealthy corporate owners and shareholders even wealthier, as some analysts said.
Clinton’s “Third-Way” Policies of Centrism Were Actually Close to Many Policies of Reagan’s Conservatism
Once Clinton was elected in 1992, he went to work on his centrist “Third Way” agenda. This included pushing hard on Reagan’s dream of free-trade, and getting NAFTA passed in 1994, by persuading more Democrats to support free trade than ever before.
In 1994, he pushed the now-infamous Omnibus Crime Bill (written largely by Joe Biden), greatly intensifying the Drug War, and resulting in the imprisonment of millions of citizens, disproportionally people-of-color, similarly to Reagan’s policy.
For-profit prison companies expanded vastly during the years after the law’s passage, and also became major donors to both parties.
In 1996, Clinton helped push through a major deregulation of mass-media with the Telecommunications Act of that year.
As a result, within only two years, nearly all media outlets of all types went from being owned by about 65 companies (already a semi-monopoly, in the views of some analysts), down to just 6 huge media corporations, greatly consolidating control of nearly all media within a few powerful hands.
Our media has remained that way ever since.
Even Reagan was unable to accomplish a level of rapid deregulation of a major industry that was this intense and rapid.
Also in 1996, Clinton supported and helped push-through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, written by a Republican, and also pushed by hardline Conservative Newt Gingrich. This was a clear turn away from social welfare policies originating in the New Deal/Great Society years.
The new law cut or added time limits to benefits, and added work requirements to payments in many cases. Conservative Republicans claimed such a law would encourage better work ethics in the poor, and Clinton bought right into this assumption.
As a result, the plight of millions of poor American families got measurably even more difficult, and have remained so since.
In 1999, Clinton combined his influence with the Republican Leadership again to accomplish another stunning act of deregulation. Together they pushed-through a law (Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act) that eliminated the Glass-Steagal Act (passed in the early 1930s) that protected against risky “casino” investments by all except investment banks.
Analysts now explain how that deregulation, along with a few other factors, led directly to the Housing Bubble and the catastrophic crash of 2008.
Clinton certainly had other, different and lesser policies put into place. But the laws and policies described above are considered to be his biggest achievements. These were all part of Clinton’s so-called centrist “third-way”, which was basically, the Democratic Party turning to the right and endorsing policies extremely similar to Reagan’s GOP in the 1980s.
Many of Clinton’s key policies can now be seen as the epitome of corporate centrism.
Clinton brought in unprecedented amounts of corporate campaign contributions to the Democratic Party as a result of his corporate-centrist governance. But this giant pool of money locked the party into corporate centrism even more strongly, and has made change harder ever since.
Obama Continued in the Spirit of Clinton’s Centrist Policies
Obamacare (the ACA), with its lack of a Public Option and being market-based and built around Health Insurance Company profits, is anything but a New Deal/Great Society-type policy.
Most of the ACA plan was actually written by the Conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s.
In addition, Obama reversed his campaign promises to veer education policy away from George W. Bush’s pro-privatization 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Instead, he put a corporate man (Arne Duncan) in charge of the Education Department, and imposed a new grant-based policy with billions of dollars behind it called Race To The Top, which was just as intense a pro-privatization education policy as Bush’s 2001 law had been.
Obama generally pushed relatively mild financial regulations that Wall Street didn’t seem to feel very limited by.
Obama also pushed hard and nonstop for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a radical new trade agreement that had sections which actually would limit the sovereignty of the 12 countries that were signees to the deal, and would surely, as NAFTA had done, lead to another mass-exodus of manufacturing jobs to overseas (but American-owned) factories.
Obama was unable to get the deal passed during his term, but he certainly tried.
All of these so-called “centrist” policies actually furthered the cause of what were formerly seen as Conservative, pro-big business priorities, as Reagan had pushed.
There Is Little Actual “Compromise” in Corporate Centrism
So where is the “compromise”? Where is the “center” in these policies? They are all, basically, pro-corporate. Therefore, the term, “centrism” is a scam and a deception. There is a much better and more accurate term to use for such policies, whether (in America) they come from Democrats or Republicans –Corporate Centrism.
Corporate Centrism means policies that are sold by politicians and pro-business operatives as “centrist” and “balanced”, but are actually very pro-corporate at their core and in their effect on the society.
In America, these corporate-centrist policies, pushed by both parties, along with even farther right-conservative policies pushed recently by President Trump and the GOP, are what has produced the current American malaise.
The Corporate-Centrist Malaise Falls on the Masses
This malaise is expressed in: Long-depressed wages (even as corporate profits soar); weakened labor unions and worker rights; dangerous Wall Street speculation; inadequate pensions; attacks on and privatization of Public Schools; oppressive healthcare costs; mass-incarceration of large numbers of people-of-color (many with non-violent offenses), often for profit and exploitation; millions of manufacturing and related jobs lost to overseas factories and work mills; and an ever-widening gap between the few rich, and increasing numbers of both working and non-employed poor.
As a result, citizen anger and suspicion of the political system is widespread, and seems to be increasing, which can be dangerous for a democratic society with a supposedly representative government. Corporate centrism is clearly the biggest contributor to this society-wide feeling of dissatisfaction and malaise.
Journalist/analyst/author David Sirota debunks centrism, and explains how it is actually pro-corporate.
Don’t Be Confused by the Term Neoliberalism -It Basically Means “Top-Down” Pro-Corporate Policies and Is Very Similar to Corporate Centrism
The academic term, Neoliberalism, is frequently used by analysts, and it’s meaning should be clarified, since it often creates confusion.
In terms of it effects on citizens, Neoliberalism has been embodied in the policies of Reagan, Clinton, George W Bush, Obama, and yes, Trump as well. Tax cuts, deregulation, empowered corporations, privatization of public resources, austerity (cutting social services for citizens to pay off debts to banks and investors), maintaining low wages, pushing trade deals, and other pro-wealth policies are just as corporate-centrist as well as they are neoliberal.
The two terms, while not synonymous, are close in meaning.
The best way to relate the two terms is to see corporate centrism as the political philosophy which is dedicated towards working to achieve a neoliberal society.
Trump Joins In
Trump has given us loud rhetoric against things like trade deals and job-losses, but has done little to actually change the situation, and may even be exacerbating it.
Trump seems to lack the depth of understanding to address and remedy these problems, and has been ineffectual in solving them, as much as he has complained to his supporters about them.
The Trump/GOP tax cut was a textbook example of neoliberalism and corporate centrism, as have been the many recent cuts in corporate regulations, more privatization efforts, and Trump’s touted pushing of “revised” trade deals that, in the case of the “new” NAFTA, are relatively little changed from before.