Happy Independence Day! Gil Troy on Centrism


Happy 4th to my readers in the U.S.A.! I hope the weather is better in your neck of the woods than NYC. It’s overcast and raining. Not the greatest weather for a bbq or fireworks. If the weather clears up I’ll post some pictures of the fireworks tomorrow.

Last year I wrote a post about one of the battles of the War of Independence, the Battle of Brooklyn as well as the tension between classical liberalism and social liberalism. This year I want to focus on centrism because I had an opportunity to see Gil Troy last night on CSPAN 2’s “Book TV” program. Troy is a professor of History at McGill University. He was discussing his recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents at the New America Foundation.

As is evident by the title, Troy is a centrist, and this book is part history and part centrist manifesto. His argument is appealing to me and I suspect for other centrists as well. Troy seeks to identify the “rich, vigorous tradition of muscular moderation in America” and he focuses on three elements or themes:

1. Pragmatism

2. Incrementalism

3. Romantic Nationalism

Why romantic nationalism? In a highly partisan political system, how do you deal with political passion and intensity without driving Americans apart? Troy argues that true centrism is built on a love of country and a desire to bring Americans together in a substantive way. Perhaps a better term would be rational patriotism.

My main disagreement was when Troy identified Obama as a centrist. At the beginning of the primary, Obama’s rhetoric was solidly centrist. His voting record proved otherwise as did his bases of support. Rather than being the candidate who would somehow “transcend race” his campaign operatives labeled Bill Clinton a racist.

Here’s Troy at the History News Network:

Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.

Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.

Troy rightly dismisses the notion of centrists as fence-sitters who lack conviction. However, by identifying Obama as part of this tradition he does his thesis a great disservice. In the past month we’ve heard Obama twist to and fro and a variety of policy positions from trade to the war against Islamist extremism. Obama is not a centrist, he’s a typical politician who will say anything to any audience in order to get elected. This is not principled centrism.

Gil Troy blogs here. I look forward to reading his book.

You can watch the “Book TV” program below:

7 responses »

  1. ” Perhaps a better term would be rational patriotism.”

    I agree completely. I habour deep suspicion about romanticism. It is too closely alllied to, and easily sides into, sentimentalism and nostalgia, which, when applied to, or simulated by, politics, are in danger of turning all too easily into the more dangerous type of nationalism.

    What was Nazism if not the romantic sentimentalizatin of the idea of the pure and untainted “volk”? These emotions, once awoken, can breed some powerful movement towards exclusion and glorification of violence. Look at Palestinian nationalist narrative, and its reliance upon the romantic fantasies about a pastoral past rudely interruped.

    No. Patriotism should remain a tender but clear-eyed attachment to one’s homeland and a shared responsibility for a imorally-centred society, pride in its achievements, and acute concern for its more abiding weaknesses,

  2. Sorry. The last sentence should read:

    No. Patriotism should remain a tender but clear-eyed attachment to one’s homeland and a shared responsibility for a morally-centred society, pride in its achievements, and acute concern for its more abiding weaknesses.

  3. Great comment, Noga. It definitely seemed like a strange choice of words on Prof. Troy’s part. Romanticism and extremism seem to share a common thread among people across the political spectrum, from anarchists to fascists.

    Orwell’s comments on the difference between nationalism and patriotism from “Notes on Nationalism”:

    By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’(1). But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.

    Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved.

    By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

  4. Hi! Thanks for your kind comments and effective summary regarding my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.” Two quick responses, if I may:
    First, I often refer to Obama as a hologram. I think that he rose to prominence as a lyrical centrist, articulating a compelling new vision that could make him a muscular moderate, but I also note that he has legislated from the left and that many of his most passionate backers are harsh partisans. I think there is a struggle for Obama’s soul — and strategy, and that those of us from the center have to figure out how to push hard from the middle.
    Second, I know that nationalism, and especially romantic nationalism can be a dirty word to many — that’s why I want to take those terms back — I have an essay in Newsday today addressing those issues: see

  5. Dear Professor Troy,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I enjoyed your presentation on CSPAN. We need more intelligent, committed, vocal centrists like you. I have not had the opportunity to read your book but I look forward to it. My short post was based on what I heard you say on CSPAN.

    When I was listening I realized you were not advocating a blind and uncritical form of nationalism but I was still puzzled by the choice of words. For someone who does not know you, or is unaware where you are coming from, romantic nationalism can conjure up some very non-centrist images.

    I read your Newsday article. Perhaps “cautious nationalism” or “egalitarian nationalism” (how you identify President Lincoln) might articulate your position a bit more lucidly than “romantic nationalism”?

    Looking forward to reading your book and thanks again for linking to my blog.


    The New Centrist

  6. This whole centrism thing has been getting a lot of press lately. The LA Times just wrote about the issues that Obama and McCain see eye to eye on (or almost). Perhaps Prof. Troy is onto something?

    Then again, given that the polls show Obama’s lead over McCain down to a mere 3 points, perhaps the Ariana Huffington’s missive to Obama: “Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers” is prescient. You can read that at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/memo-to-obama-moving-to-t_b_110026.html

    By the way, I first saw Huffington’s article on Troy’s interesting and timely Web site: http://leadingfromthecenter.com where Troy responds by encouraging a more centrist and less partisan approach to American presidential leadership – which he believes has historically lead to better Presidents.


  7. Thanks for the comment and links, Mia. Please come back again and check it out.

    What is most interesting to me about Ms. Huffington’s article is the similarity with Karl Rove’s strategy (actually Vic Gresham’s) i.e. make a strong ideological appeal to the base(s) of the party rather than attempting to woo the middle.

    The problem with this strategy for “progressives” is the sorts of policies people like Ms. Huffington want to implement do not have a lot of appeal outside of large cities. In most of the south, much of the rust-belt, and even parts of the West, the sort of social issues that mobilize wealthy urbanites do not hold the same weight in the rest of the country.

    Obama and his team see that Clinton won in parts of the country where the progressive base is largely absent. Obama needs to win these middle-American states if he’s going to win the general election. He doesn’t need to worry about California, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts or other places where progressives impact the political scene.

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