On Liberal Centrism

Politicians meeting in congress

This article on centrism appears in the second issue of The Vital Center, which can be read here. Read other essays on our blog here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect Project Liberal.

If we can build a centrist caucus within each of the two major parties, then the stakes of each election will go down substantially. We might not like it when the other party takes control, but we will feel more confident that they will at least promote policies and reforms everyone can live with. Most importantly, this will preserve America’s beautiful experiment for our children and grandchildren.

The Cold War is back, and the American people are divided. Radicals on both the left and right support America’s enemies, and some even call for national divorce. Amid this intense division, liberalism finds itself under attack. Although there are many on the left and right who still love America and would like it to be there for our kids and grandkids, polarization seems like an intractable problem. And sometimes it seems like we do not have enough true adults to respond to it.

But it is not too late. America has survived foreign invasion, slavery, civil war, reconstruction, and two world wars, and still it stands. And there is a feasible path to survival. But it will take people on both the left and right working together to expand the sensible center of our political communities. This means working to make both political parties more intelligent and competitive; it means accepting short-term imperfection for long-term sustainability; it involves public figures modeling civility and reciprocity, showing respect for processes and norms, and always putting country and moral principle ahead of tribalism. It means embracing what I call liberal centrism.


Liberal centrism, as I defend it here, is not so much an ideology as an approach. It is “liberal” in the old sense that connotates both liberty and generosity. This was how it was used by Adam Smith when he wrote of a “liberal plan” for the economy, and by George Washington when he referred to America’s “liberal policy” of religious liberty. Centrism, moreover, is inseparable from liberalism. Among other things, it is an attitude in the context of disagreement that looks for solutions that everyone can at least live with. Thus, according to this conception of liberal centrism, “liberal” and “centrist” are mutually reenforcing terms. To be centrist is to be liberal, and to be liberal is to be centrist. And there have been plenty of self-described liberals and centrists who see themselves in this way.

The United States is a model context for what I call liberal centrism because it was founded with an emphasis on the basic equality of people, and governance by consent. Moreover, its form of governance, with its separation of powers, checks and balances, and rule of law, provides time-tested tools for resolving conflict peacefully and fairly, and in a way that everyone can live with.

Liberal centrism, in sum, is an approach to politics that is attentive to the health of a political community comprised of equals, and thus it is attentive to respect for the implicit and explicit rules that govern our political relationships.


Any good government is a just government, but as the Duke of Albany puts it in King Lear, “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” The approach I defend recognizes this and seeks to prevent the many injustices that arise from pursuing progress inattentive to the reality of politics. A liberal-centrist approach is also more careful that the tensions of political disagreement are properly mitigated. Sometimes stability requires progress, and other times restraint. In extreme cases, radical measures are necessary to preserve what is worth preserving, as happens in justified revolutions. But often, we give up too much of the health and stability of our political community for gains that can soon enough be wiped away. Liberal centrism looks for progress that is sustainable.

Within a nation, there are frequently strong convictions for policies that are imprudent and that experts find ignorant. This happens, for instance, with economic policy, and populists love to exploit it. A liberal centrist must, however, take into consideration these misguided but strongly held convictions. As scholastic social contract theorists already understood, no one person has natural political authority over others, and all legitimate political authority arises from the implicit or explicit social pact of the community of equals. A wise statesman and a well-designed constitution can temper the community’s irrationality, limiting the chaos of daily politics, but they cannot—and should not—ignore the community’s will completely if the polity is to be healthy and sustainable. This is not only a moral demand but a practical one. Idealism and impracticality also take away one’s opportunity to make the improvements that are politically feasible.

For example, although I am inclined to disagree with Franklin Roosevelt’s reforms in the New Deal on economic grounds, the best argument for them was that they might have prevented the more radical politics of Roosevelt’s rivals. If this is true, then it is perfectly consistent with liberal centrism—at least a more center-left form of it—insofar as it looks to make things better in a context of imperfection, attentive to political limitations and other constraints. To be a part of a community of equals requires us to persuade others and often to make compromises. Unfortunately, both leftwing and rightwing radicals often have little faith in persuading their fellow citizens. When they do not get what they want, they abandon the cause of constitutional democracy altogether. But if America is to have a long future, we need more patience and a renewed faith in persuasion. There is no better alternative.


Our political culture lacks leaders who behave like adults. And today’s consumer demand for political entertainment produces something that looks closer to professional wrestling than intelligent discourse. What entertains us are the follies of our political opponents more than any positive and thoughtful alternative. And rather than challenging ourselves to learn, we prefer those who tell us what we already think. On the side of leaders, rhetoric as a tool for truth-sharing has been abandoned and replaced by flattery. Of course, this was always the case to some degree. But there is a growing sense that it has become worse in recent years.

That the importance of leadership goes beyond policy is manifest in the behavior of Donald Trump, whose policy preferences are often shared by center-right Republicans. Yet I doubt even Trump’s supporters would call him a centrist. Even before his efforts to pressure officials to overturn the 2020 election, and before the events of January 6, his behavior was a constant source of political chaos. His supporters downplay this, saying Trump’s opponents are overreacting to “mean tweets,” but he clearly sows division.

We want the USA to survive, and for that reason we need leaders that bring people together, not ones that stoke the flames of animosity and resentment. Instead of Trump, we should look to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who carried himself not as the president of his supporters, or even the Republican party, but of the United States of America. Indeed, his public behavior was directed at unifying the country rather than dividing it. And for this he is fondly remembered.


A popular theory of constitutional interpretation on the right is called “originalism”; it takes different forms, but in its most common form it treats as authoritative the original public meaning of the amended Constitution. One strength of originalism is that it recognizes that the judiciary’s role is limited and, when dealing with any written law, the judge’s role is presumptively to identify the original meaning of that law, not to make a new one. That is compatible with the liberal centrism I have defended. But originalism can be applied in a rather non-centrist way when it is not combined with epistemic humility or sufficient respect for settled procedures and precedent. What is decisive is what is called the “role morality” of the judge, who should be attentive to his or her part in the political community. This requires prudence and cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a technique of historical interpretation. But ultimately it is about showing respect for the judge’s own limited authority within the community, a community whose written law and unwritten norms and customs are binding on the judge outside extreme cases that warrant civil disobedience. This is because, as noted already, the judge only has limited authority over others and the authority he or she has is delegated by the community and the social pact that binds it.

During the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol, a gallows erected by the crowd loomed near the Capitol building. (Photo credit: Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia Commons)

The difference between centrist and non-centrist judicial decisions comes out in cases in which the Court exercises judicial review to strike down laws. When text and precedent come together to form a more certain basis for the judgment to overturn democratic majorities, it is one thing, but when there is a good deal of discretion and uncertainty, judges should recognize their own limited place. Trusting one’s own judgment is important in life and poker, but even in the latter one must balance one’s certainty against the gains or losses of being right and wrong, and when it concerns the livelihoods of others, one should be even more cautious. As Judge Harvie Wilkinson III argues in his criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark Second Amendment case, District of Columbia v. Heller, when it is a close call and there seems to be an element of discretion to a ruling, judges should show deference to other branches of government, if they do not want their own policy preferences to ultimately determine the case. Both conservative and liberal Justices have been guilty in this regard.

Judicial restraint, as it is called, represents a crucial element in a more centrist judicial philosophy. It involves both deference to other branches of government and to the Court’s own precedent. There is often ambiguity in the law. James Madison understood that such ambiguities in the Constitution would have to be resolved over time. Sometimes the Court must provide tests and interpretive lenses for lower courts so that the law can be functional and applied consistently. And occasionally corrections must be made. A centrist approach errs on the side of precedent and restraint while still faithful to the law according to established and impartial rules of interpretation. It does not look to replace the roles of other branches of government.


Finally, a liberal-centrist approach takes on another form at the level of the citizenry and public discourse. An important desideratum for political culture is a shared attentiveness to promoting the health of the political community. This entails giving the “other side” their due, showing reciprocity and civility. A healthy political community is ultimately the responsibility of citizens. In the long run, the way they treat each other will be reflected in their leaders. That is why the effort to build a liberal center starts at the level of political culture.

The “national divorce” some radicals advocate would have disastrous consequences. Part of what makes the United States great is its ability to secure freedom of movement and trade over a large geographical area and to provide domestic peace and security for the same. Thus, America’s union is our greatest strength, and our best hope for preserving the union today is by expanding the liberal centers of our federal, state, and local political communities. Moreover, these liberal centers will always include center-right and center-left perspectives. But for both, it requires creativity in improving things without dividing people further. It involves a balancing of decentralization and centralization, of individual liberty and self-government; it also involves commitment to reciprocity and civility, to compromise and prudence, and to taking our losses with patience and our wins with mercy. That is what I mean by liberal centrism, and that is what we need today.

What can be done in the short term? I suggest that the center-left and center-right develop their own caucuses for reforming the major parties. This is much more feasible than most people realize, because only 20 percent of the population votes in primaries. If people from each side produce an effective centrist caucus, that could reduce polarization significantly.

Some partisans will not like this because an improvement to the opposing party makes winning elections more difficult. They hope that their party will continue to win indefinitely. But a one-party system is unsustainable. In 1950 the man who wrote the book The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., explains why:

The Republican party, after due meditation in the wilderness, a while ago came forth with a statement of principles […]. A leading Fair Dealer was soon after heard to remark, “What this country needs is an intelligent opposition.” Now this wish should not be dismissed as a pious but insincere genuflection to the two-party system. The hard fact is that, while the Democrats may gain short-run benefits from the present absence of competition, thoughtful members of that party understand the long-run dangers from absence of competition. An essential function of a party in our system is to secure the concurrence in our political processes of that part of the community which it represents; and, if a party becomes so feeble and confused that it turns into an object of public pity or contempt, it can no longer assist in securing that concurrence. As a result our whole political fabric suffers; the party itself disappears; and there is no guarantee that any new party which rises in its place will have a basic respect for constitutional processes and public order.

Others hope that a third party, more ideologically based, is the best hope to put a check on the two major parties. But we are de facto a two-party system and that is not changing anytime soon. Without substantial reforms, it is simply baked into the system. At the very least, it would take a long time to develop an alternative. It is therefore much easier and more efficient to build a centrist caucus within each of the two major parties. I would call the rightwing one the Eisenhower caucus [Author’s note: I have since decided to call it the Reagan Caucus]. Since only a portion of each side vote in primaries, it would be less difficult than many realize for such caucuses to substantially affect the kinds of candidates that each party promotes.

If that succeeds, then the stakes of each election will go down substantially. We might not like it when the other party takes control, but we will feel more confident that they will at least promote policies and reforms everyone can live with. Most importantly, this will preserve America’s beautiful experiment for our children and grandchildren.

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