ER Editor: The date of this piece is May 23, 2016, but the topic of authoritarian centrism is still relevant. The relatively new French government under Emmanuel Macron is ‘centrist’, and Fabians like Tony Blair and others are calling for a one-party system in the UK. Recently, a small number of defections took place from within the Labour party, with a few from the Conservatives joining them, to form the Independent Group. The Blair government back in 1997 aimed to lead from the centre, with the Gang of Four in the ’80s pulling away from Labour and the Liberals to form the SDP. The trend of centrism, while having been around for quite some time, is still trying to stay alive.
Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists
The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.
These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.
On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.
Is it true?
Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.
I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions. (A copy of my working paper, with a more detailed analysis of the survey data, can be found here.)
Centrists Are the Most Skeptical of Democracy
Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures. These include views of democracy as the “best political system,” and a more general rating of democratic politics. In both, those in the center have the most critical views of democracy.
Centrists Are Least Likely to Support Free and Fair Elections
Some of the most striking data reflect respondents’ views of elections. Support for “free and fair” elections drops at the center for every single country in the sample. The size of the centrist gap is striking. In the case of the United States, fewer than half of people in the political center view elections as essential.
Centrists Are Least Likely to Support Liberal Institutions
Of course, the concept of “support for democracy” is somewhat abstract, and respondents may interpret the question in different ways. What about support for civil rights, so central to the maintenance of the liberal democratic order? In almost every case, support for civil rights wanes in the center. In the United States, only 25 percent of centrists agree that civil rights are an essential feature of democracy.
Centrists Are Most Supportive of Authoritarianism (Except for the Far Right)
One of the strongest warning signs for democracy has been the rise of populist leaders with authoritarian tendencies. But while these leaders have become more popular, it is unclear whether citizens explicitly support more authoritarian styles of government. I find, however, evidence of substantial support for a “strong leader” who ignores his country’s legislature, particularly among centrists. In the United States, centrists’ support for a strongman-type leader far surpasses that of the right and the left.
What Does It Mean?
Across Europe and North America, support for democracy is in decline. To explain this trend, conventional wisdom points to the political extremes. Both the far left and the far right are, according to this view, willing to ride roughshod over democratic institutions to achieve radical change. Moderates, by contrast, are assumed to defend liberal democracy, its principles and institutions.