The centrist conundrum


Mike Crowley considers the past and future of the Liberal party.

Take the first two attributes: centrist and moderate. By definition both of these mean that the Liberal party is really defining itself by positioning itself relative to policies advocated by others and is, therefore, reactive. To be centrist or moderate, some other party must first define what is left and right. This is hardly the basis for bold, visionary leadership. As far as “progressive” goes, it is one of the most broadly used and ill-defined political terms. Many provinces have Progressive Conservative parties advocating right of centre of policies, whereas the Progressive party of the 1920s and 1930s promoted free trade but was also aligned with some socialist ideology. The least that can be said is it is very difficult to be both reactive, at the core of the centrist and moderate monikers, and progressive at the same time.


The centrist conundrum

  1. I really don’t understand his problem here and he contradicts himself in the end.

    Left v Right has been around for a long time, having it’s high point during the Cold War, so the Lib party was seen as middle ground….not as extreme as the left-wing NDP nor the more right-wing Cons.  [Although PCs were never as right-wing as the Cons] 

    Also as he goes on to say….Libs brought in a lot of things, so that’s certainly leadership and progressive to boot.

    If Libs want to be ‘innovative and bold’….that’s fine with me. I think Canadians would like some new ideas and directions.  As things stand we’ve worn out all the old topics, yet we go over them again and again.

    The only real problem is regionalism….Quebec going one way,  Alberta another….and the rest of the provinces have 5 parties to choose from so our make-up varies from time to time.

  2. Mike Crowley does identify the evolution of the ‘nanny state’.

    “Third, the Liberal party began to distinguish itself from the rebounding Conservative party by presenting that Liberals saw government as a force for good. To create electoral contrast, this became twisted into thinking that every problem could only be solved by a new government program.”

    • Outside of places like Somalia, all countries are ‘nanny states’.

      It’s why Somalia etc are also ‘failed states’.

      • In his 1999 book Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life, economist William Watson points out that virtually every major incursion by the state on a free economy was implemented first by the United States, then mimicked by Canada much later …. 

        Other Canadian politicians and opinion-makers of the New Deal era likewise deplored the idea of social programs, preferring to foster the traditional culture of individual self-reliance. Laissez-faire, far from being alien to the Canadian scene, was actually the predominant philosophy for most of the country’s first century.


        AJP Taylor ~ Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission …. 

        • a) there is no such thing as a ‘traditional culture of individual self-reliance’, and certainly no laissez-faire

          b) the English have centuries of laws and govt institutions behind them

        • Economist William Watson needs to learn his history, then.

          He might try looking up “usury” for a start.

  3. One could just as easily say “To be left or right, some other party must first define what is the centre.”It would be more useful to advocate dropping the whole left/centre/right terminology from everyone’s lexicon altogther. These terms are simplistic and misleading. Left/center/right; blue/red/orange; up/down/sideways; brand A/ brand B/brand C….none of it matters. What matters are people and ideas.Liberals will say “we are the party of Laurier, of Pearson, of health care, of the charter, of Trudeau.” Person. Person. Idea. Idea. Person.

    • And it’s good to have some people who aren’t dead on your list. :)

  4. “Only once since 1980 has the Liberal Party of Canada defeated a united Conservative party. In the last 37 years, Canadians have just once elected a majority Liberal government when a unified Conservative party was an option …… Liberal governments introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, created a Canadian flag, brought our Constitution home, created the foundation for a bilingual nation ….. The common denominator in all of them is that they were bold, innovative and impactful on the country. Nobody would call these initiatives “moderate.”

    The problem for Libs is that they are snobs who always want to be in charge. Crawley writes about how poorly Libs have done since Trudeau era and yet looks back on Trudeau years fondly. Liberal party is lost because they are a party of technocrats when party should be proponents of allowing people to organize their own lives. 

    People know what is best for themselves and their families, not faceless bureaucrats.

    • Lol!  Couldn’t agree more.  They even high-jacked the term “elite” to mean more intelligent, better educated, etc. when the basic definition is, a small group who think they know better than everyone else and cannot understand why they won’t do as their told.

      • I’m going to assume you’re joking with that daffynition.

        Please don’t fall into Tony’s habit of Humpty Dumpty English.

  5. Canada has no proper liberal party. We have two reactionary parties – Con and NDP – and one technocrat party – Liberal.  All of our elites want to be in charge of society and how it develops but that is ridiculous goal. No one is ‘normal’, everyone is unique individual yet here we have elites claiming to know all the answers to world’s problems.

    It is anti-human, anti-progress because bureaucracies stifle any progress society tries to make. 

    Virginia Postrel ~ One Best Way: 

    Technocrats, by contrast, are less likely to emphasize the problem of social instability when they criticize the unruly vitality of contemporary life. They do not celebrate the primitive or traditional. Rather, they worry about the government’s inability to control dynamism.

    Across the Atlantic, the French bureaucrat-turned-consultant Jacques Attali warns that “the market economy today is more dynamic than democracy” and that its dynamism is dangerous. Abetted by the decentralizing power of the Internet and the mobility of “high-tech nomads,” he argues, the dynamic marketplace erodes the ability of political elites to enforce collective decisions—a power he equates with “democracy”: “Under such circumstances, Western civilization is bound to collapse.” 

    What terrifies technocrats is not that the future will depart from a traditional ideal but that it will be unpredictable and beyond the control of professional wise men.


  6. There is a difference between being moderate and centrist, and continually caving on the principles you claim to stand for.

    • Caving on the principles you claim to stand for is not exclusive to centrist or moderate – human rights in China and elsewhere come to mind.  Reality will stand in the way of principles. Or sometimes, in politics, principles are just used as a good selling point.

      • Well thanks for the Politics 101, but my contention is that Liberals haven’t lost the confidence of Canadians because they are stuck in the middle, it’s because they have been adrift morally and politically ever since they decided to abandon Stephane Dion on the green shift. He was undermined because the party didn’t have the courage of his convictions, wouldn’t fight back, and they eventually replaced him with a right wing leader who just didn’t resonate with anyone.

        • I totally agree with you regarding Canadian liberals and Dion! And maintain that  caving in on principles is not exclusively liberal.

  7. What ridiculous nonsense. Logical tomfoolery as it were.

    What makes a party moderate, centrist and progressive is the ability to be inclusive and build consensus on issues amongst disparate groups, solving problems in a proactive way that keeps everyone’s interests in mind, while working to remove traditional social barriers that don’t make sense in a modern context.

    Whether there even exists far left or right parties is irrelavent to that equation. In fact I’d say that for a long time Canada had essentially two main parties that were only slightly left and right of the center, and things worked quite well.

    However, at this point what I’m looking at is two main parties originating from far left and far right positions stretching and straining toward the center where most voters actually sit. I must admit that this bothers me a lot given the lack of transparency and accountability our governments exhibit. Those driven by ideology have a tendency to sudden and illogical decisions such as those represented by the census debacle, and without accountability to the people in these matters, their ideology will win out whenever it suits them. So now we get to ride the ideological see-saw for a few years unless or until a centrist option re-emerges. Whooppee.

    Seems to me the reason left or rightwing partisans hate the centrist, moderate and progressive labels so much is that it implies they have to compromise with people they “hate”, can’t cling to traditional prejudices against people they “hate” and more or less have to accept not getting their own damn way on everything but instead are forced to accept societal input from people they “hate”.

    In case you missed it, it seems to me that ideological parties are the ones driven most by what the other extreme is doing and saying, rather than the center being influenced by either, as is suggested in the passage above.

    Simply by insisting on reasonableness and accomodation, the center knows its position by consensus, not what the radical idiots are doing.

    • Shorter version:

      Centrist parties are those I agree with.
      Partisan extremists are those I disagree with.

      • Yes and I suppose a shorter version of most modern cosmological models would be:

        Something blew up. Here we are.

        Not very insightful though is it?

        You do bring up at least one excellent point however: ideological extremists love to dumb things down so they can minimize the apparent size of the political spectrum and therefore just how far they really are from reality.


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