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Today’s issue, in three points:

  • America’s growing political polarization means the country has fewer moderates. Their role in politics is uncertain.

  • Our Masthead debate about campaign strategies—seize the center or shore up the base?—produced a wide range of definitions of the political “center.”

  • Those competing definitions suggest that while some voters might wear the badge of a centrist, it isn’t a very useful identification in analytics.

Who Is a Centrist?

By Karen Yuan

Which is a more effective way to win an election: Rally the base, or appeal to centrist voters? As America’s midterm elections approach, this question was the focus of a debate in the Masthead forums. As the debate made clear, the matter is complicated by the absence of a unifying definition for centrists. “The only issue that ignites all moderates is not being extreme,” Nels stated. “Not a great rallying cry.”

The numbers back up many Americans’ sense that the country is more divided than ever. A new poll conducted by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found sharp splits in public opinion on major civic issues, such as the perception that the media is biased and that voter fraud is a significant problem. Increasingly, voters find particular issues to be deal breakers when they consider candidates. The number of moderates in both political parties has dwindled in the past few years.

So what does it mean to be moderate in 2018? Members came up with characterizations to help clarify who a centrist is. Below are a few, drawn from members’ forum posts with permission.

The compromising centrist

One self-described centrist hopes for compromise “through divided government.” He has voted Republican and Democrat in the past, and plans to vote Democrat in the midterms in order to break the Republican majority and balance the House. “I would like to believe in a Jurgen Habermas–like vigorous contest of ideas that leads to an acceptable solution, hopefully the best solution, to shared problems in the pursuit of common goals.” Habermas, a German cultural theorist, argues that the best communication aims to understand rather than gain.

But the prominence of social issues in today’s political environment makes that kind of compromise more challenging. Consider the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, in which the Supreme Court recently allowed a bakery to refuse service to a gay couple. An issue like that is designed to force voters to choose between competing values, in this case religious liberty and civil rights. “How does one compromise on cultural issues, especially when they are explicitly based on belief?” David asked.

The apathetic centrist

Centrism can also signify a failure to closely engage with vital national issues. On this view, centrists have more quotidian concerns: “They want good schools for their kids, homes they can afford, good neighborhoods to live in; they don’t want to pay too much taxes or pay too much for goods and services,” wrote a member who goes by Jazzaloha. “I don’t think they care so much about how that’s achieved.”

Centrists are in the middle, Donna said, because they’re not only uncommitted, but also generally inattentive. “The remaining latent voters are only persuadable at the end of the general campaign cycle, because it is only then that they start to pay attention.” Research by FiveThirtyEight has shown that uncommitted voters broke last minute toward Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Donna posited that apathetic centrists’ decisions are largely binary and based on how they feel about the status quo: Is it bad? Then vote for change.

In studies, the Pew Research Center has found that the more partisan someone is, the more politically active she is. The reverse may be true, as well. A centrist, in this telling, is someone too apathetic to vote.

The ambivalent centrist

The political scientist James Stimson argues that ambivalent, or weakly opinionated, individuals make up a huge part of the American electorate. These voters are genuinely on the fence and potentially drawn to the policies of both parties. Cindy defines those weakly opinionated voters as centrists. “They are highly influenced by facts,” she said, echoing Stimson, “as long as those facts are repeatedly and clearly communicated throughout the election cycle.” Unaffiliated with either party, they can often be persuaded by information, true or not, about a strong candidate or policy.

But “opinion is not infinitely malleable,” Stimson wrote. Even ambivalent voters can commit, Jay added: “There are no people who are ambivalent and undecided about Trump.”

The impossible centrist

Some centrist organizations, including the Third Way think tank, have traditionally presented centrism as a perfect balance between left and right policies. “A true centrist would be someone whose top priorities are met by both parties,” David mused.

Does such a person, who sits evenly in the middle of the spectrum, exist? “I think it’s best to avoid words like true,” Jay hedged. “The idea that some people are closer to the center than they are to the poles seems more than adequate to describe centrism.” As a moderate voter, Jay says he has seldom found that either party meets his top priorities.

That suggests the problem in finding the center lies with the visualization of the political spectrum as a left-to-right line. A more accurate visual would be a plane, David said, that depicts how a voter might lean right on some issues but left on others. In other words, the problem with defining “centrism” isn’t so much that the two parties are polarizing, but more so that the idea of a “center” between the left and the right never made much sense to begin with.

The Ever Elusive Center

The Atlantic has attempted to describe centrists in a number of ways over the years. They don’t all line up. Here are a few of our writers’ takes on centrists.

  • They’re popular. “The press loves centrists. Any self-styled moderate who bucks their party is sure to get good play and generally centrists aren’t shy about letting you know it,” Matthew Cooper wrote.

  • They’re trouble. “Thanks to the centrists, we’re getting the cheapskate version of the gargantuan version” of the 2009 stimulus package, Ross Douthat wrote. “This means that if the damn thing doesn’t work, we won’t even know whom to blame. But it wouldn’t be crazy to start by blaming the centrists.”

  • They’re principled advocates for a bipartisan republic. “Moderates, according to the poll, aren’t tuned-out or ill-informed, but they tend to see both sides of complex issues … They see both parties as overly ideological and wish politicians would compromise more,” Molly Ball wrote.

  • They couldn’t care less about bipartisanship. “If only centrists would come over to the left and deplore Republicans more vigorously, all would be well? Right now, I would be willing to help out—but would this do much to reduce the House Republican majority? It’s flattering, but surely we feeble soggy centrists have nothing to offer,” Clive Crook wrote.

  • It’s a vanity term, according to Philip Bump. “Centrists love being centrists. In all things, really, but particularly in politics, there’s an allure to being a member of a group that’s not beholden to prefabricated opinions.”

Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s Question: This debate is the most popular thread in the forums. Do you have a burning question you’d like sorted out in a Masthead debate? Reply to this email to let us know.

  • What’s Coming: On Friday, the Atlantic culture writer Megan Garber will join us in the forums to discuss her popular piece on Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and “partisanship over patriotism.” Drop a thought for her here. Or feel free to email us a question, and we’ll relay it to her.

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