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When Will the Media Learn? Conservatives Are NOT “Centrists”!

From Chris Christie to Third Way, the political class mislabels the political center. Here's why it's so dangerous.

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That word. They used it again this week. In coverage of the new, tentative budget deal, the term “centrist” was used to describe political opinions that are far from the center of public opinion. Even as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray were finalizing the deal,  Roll Callwas reporting that “Three Blue Dog Democrats and three Republicans from the centrist Tuesday Group have co-signed a letter … with a simple message: They’re ready to work together” to pass whatever Ryan and Murray agree upon.

Politico ran an interview with former Republican Rep. Steven LaTourette, who is described as “a chain-smoking Ohio centrist” who wants to promote more deals like this one. In Slate, Dave Weigel covered the political implications of the agreement and described Gov. Chris Christie as “a popular, centrist-looking figure.”

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on “a rift between centrists and leftists in the Democratic Party” and lamented that this prevented stronger steps to reduce the deficit. The Star Tribune even included a quote from the co-chair of Third Way, which it described as “a centrist think tank.”

Third Way was in the news last week too, in a story that had media outlets tossing out the “C” word like candy.

“Elizabeth Warren Fires Back at Centrist Dems on Social Security,” read the  headline in liberal Mother Jones. “Coalition of Liberals Strikes Back at Criticism From Centrist Democrats,” said the  headline in the New York Times. “Elizabeth Warren and Centrist Democrats Are Already at War,” read New York magazine’s  header.

The Huffington Post wrote of “A Monday op-ed by the centrist think tank Third Way.” National Public Radio’s  website wrote of “The latest flare-up came between centrist Democrats at the Third Way think tank and liberals.”  The Democratic Party-friendly Talking Points Memo website wrote of “centrist group Third Way.” The Washington Post wrote that “Centrist Democratic think tank Third Way came under fire from some liberals.”

If we are to live in a world where words have meaning, they really should stop doing that.

The generally accepted definition of “centrism,” found in the Free Dictionary and elsewhere, is “The political philosophy of avoiding the extremes of right and left by taking a moderate position.” Similarly, a “centrist” is defined as “one who takes a position in the political center.”

The polling data is clear: If anybody should be called a “centrist” in last week’s conflict, it’s Elizabeth Warren and those who agree with her.

The issue that triggered last week’s controversy was Social Security, and Sen. Warren’s support for a bill designed to increase its benefits. That move convinced Third Way’s leadership that things were getting “ out of hand.”  We won’t relitigate the merits of each side’s argument here, since  we and many others have already done so. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the specific issue before us: the use of the word “centrist” to describe Third Way’s position.

“Left” and “right” are relative terms in any society. Deng Xiaoping was considered a “centrist” when compared to the Gang of Four during China’s Cultural Revolution. Dwight D. Eisenhower was considered a right-leaning centrist when he boasted in 1956 about increased Social Security enrollment and union membership in his first term. President Richard Nixon was seen as taking a “centrist” approach when he proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.

The word “centrist,” therefore, applies to a person or organization whose views roughly correspond to the midpoint between the left and right poles of political opinion in a society at any given time.  What do the polls tell us about political opinion today?