Beyond (this) democracy I: The end of centrist politics

Hanno Burmester
7 min readApr 2, 2018


Centrist politics will regain legitimacy once it starts tackling the systemic challenges we face. It will continue to fall apart as long as it denies this responsibility, and basically acts as one conservative bastion. This is the first of five sketches on a new democratic purpose. These thoughts are drawn from a paper I wrote for Das Progressive Zentrum, and they will be part of a book I am currently writing.

A fundamental crisis

We are faced with an increasing understanding that the Western post-War model of organising democracy and the market is in fundamental crisis:

· The globalized economy has created an abundance of material wealth for Western democracies. At the same time, it is fundamentally altering the self-regulation of the eco-system. This is not only putting humanity’s survival at stake, but also leads to the extinction of thousands of species each year.[1] Despite some political efforts to curb in the emissions of CO2 and greenhouse gases, all industrialised democratic countries still significantly overconsume natural resources. This overconsumption’s consequences tend to be externalised outside the developed world, falling disproportionately on those parts of the globe that act in accordance with the ecosystem’s boundaries.

· In the second half of the 20th century, Western democracies have driven economic globalisation on an unprecedented scale. The economic transgression of national boundaries has not, however, been accompanied by the creation of globalised political institutions that are capable of effective governance, including a fair redistribution of wealth and opportunity among all countries that participate in the globalised economy. This failure results in a status quo where humans are more tangibly interconnected than ever by the interdependencies the globalised economy has created. At the same time, this interconnectedness enables everyone to see the unfair outcomes of today’s global order: In Western countries, citizens are born into a global aristocracy. Materially, they are comparably well off — no matter their talents and achievements. For those born in other parts of the world, the situation is starkly different. Even the most gifted individuals will find it impossible to redress the systemic imbalance we are consciously re-creating every day. Western liberalism, with its narrative of individual merit, sounds increasingly hollow in this context — even more so when you consider the West’s united efforts to maintain the imbalance as it is, especially via financial, agriculture and trade policies.

· In Western democracies, the limits of domestic growth and ratcheting economic pressure via the globalised markets have led to a reliance on growth via global expansion, the deregulation of financial markets, and management strategies to increase cost efficiency and productivity. These strategies have been accompanied by political measures aimed at maintaining competitiveness via the reduction of workers’ rights and stagnating wages. In countries like the USA, the UK and Germany, this has resulted in both continued growth and growing inequality. In countries like France, Italy, or Spain, the result has been economic stagnation or recession, a lack of possibilities for young generations and increasing poverty. Today, Western democracies’ narrative of equality and opportunity, in most cases, fails the reality check. In the United States, for instance, the inequality of material wealth has reached its highest point since the 1920s. At the same time, European social mobility is, overall, stagnating or decreasing.[2] The social status of one’s parents determines one’s material and social prospects.

All these challenges express a rising incapability of Western democratic governments to deliver on their key promises, nationally as well as internationally: equality, opportunity and sustainability. At the same time, centrist politics and centrist political discourse succeed in maintaining the illusion that these challenges are merely technical problems, to be solved through the existing political institutions. More importantly, there exists a wide-spread notion that the existential crises we face are unintended accidents of the existing order; that the democratic architecture has not fuelled their creation.

Both suppositions are false. The existential challenges we are dealing with are systemic phenomena; phenomena that are either — as with global inequality — integral to how Western democracies came into existence, or — as in the case of environmental destruction — have been deliberately accepted as sine qua non of the capitalist economy. The systemic crises of today exist because our democratic systems are the way they are. For these systemic phenomena to be effectively tackled, basic properties of today’s Western societies need to be altered, in parallel to the implementation of multiple new policies.

Transformative vs. incremental: An unseen rift divides the political landscape

Many analysts of today’s political landscape argue that left and right have lost their meaning in an increasingly volatile and fragmented political environment. Commentators now focus on the divide between cosmopolitan and communitarian. This perspective needs to be broadened, to encompass the rift between proponents of transformative versus incremental change. As in the case of communitarian and cosmopolitan worldviews, the perspective on radical versus incremental change runs counter to the lines of party membership, left and right.

Proponents of incremental change focus on reform within existing systemic parameters and see today’s challenges as something that can be solved within the means of the post-War democratic architecture. They tend to think in terms of policy proposals and dismiss broader ideas of system’s transformation as unrealistic. Proponents of radical change, on the other hand, do not believe that today’s challenges can be solved within the existing political frame, but require the building of a new one.

While today’s political landscape favours the incremental approach, thinkers on the future of democracy emphasise the need for a transformative approach to doing politics. In his book Democracy Realised, Robert Mangabeira Unger argues for transformation by implementing radical reform: “reform is radical when it addresses and changes the basic arrangements of a society; its formative structure of its institutions and enacted beliefs; It is reform because it deals with one discrete part of this structure at a time”. Unger proposes the undoing and remaking of the political system via current ways of decision-making — by taking one radical step after the other, instead of aiming for one systemic overhaul. “Today the idea of revolution has become a pretext for its opposite. Because real change would be revolutionary change, and revolutionary change is unavailable.” [3]

Considering the gravity of today’s challenges, this approach seems essential for centrist parties to consider. Western democracies are contested from the outside, whilst increasingly faltering from the inside. Questions of how we distribute opportunity and wealth, nationally and globally, are omnipresent. There is rising awareness that the capitalist understanding of freedom, based on cost-externalisation, undermines the eco-system as a whole and needs to be overcome if we want to sustain democracy’s legitimacy (See Part IV). This challenges the post-War democratic model at its core — after all, Western democracy has been intertwined with the logic of capitalism from its beginnings. The Western post-War democratic model has reached the end of its history, albeit differently than many predicted in the early 1990s. In this moment in time, defending our democratic model as we know it is a flawed choice. Rather, we should think about how we can rebuild democracy in a way that preserves its benefits, but overcomes the structural flaws we are struggling with today.

Systemic change is a logical prerequisite if we want to start altering some of the basic dynamics that cause the existential crises we face. If we leave the fundamental structures of our system untouched, the fundamental dynamic of the environmental and social crisis cannot be changed to the better. Undertaking this task, we must acknowledge that centrist politics in all major Western democracies seem inexorably caught in the incremental paradigm of doing politics. The centre-left and the centre-right effectively act as conservative forces. Their political actions serve to maintain and strengthen the fundamental logic of today’s political system. Take the financial crisis of 2008. No major party on the centre-right or the centre-left, neither in Europe nor the US, has articulated alternatives to the existing failed financial system. Both sides have focused on re-establishing unchanged basic dynamics of the financial markets. Centre-left and centre-right actions regarding climate change, to take another example, lack the effective implementation of measures that have the potential to systemically reduce the permanent overconsumption of natural resources.[4]

Transformative politics will become centrist politics

Considering the global ecological, social, and economic environment, it seems reasonable to predict that centrist politics cannot stick to this approach. Either, the global political dynamic will drive centrist parties to include transformative thinking and doing into their repertoire. Or, as the last years’ events illustrate, new political forces will replace parties of the political centre at an ever greater pace. At the same time, political newcomers usually have neither the systemic capability nor the voters’ trust to implement the far-reaching measures it takes to replace the current, rapid disintegration of Western democracies with a meaningful democratic reintegration that systemically addresses the challenges sketched out above. The inclusion of transformative perspectives into the centrist political agenda thus seems absolutely vital. After all, it is the knowledge and expertise of centrist parties that is needed to efficiently implement radical reform. This expertise could be key for the transformation of democracy.

Check out Part II, Making Sense of Illiberalism. Part III focuses on the confusion of democratic structures and processes with its purpose. Part IV looks at our misconception of liberty. Part V explores on the future potentials of self-organisation and our individual lever to drive systemic progress.

[1] According to the WWF, the extinction of species that is happening today is estimated to be between 1000 and 10000 times higher than the extinction rate that would occur if humans were not around.

[2] Eurofund (2017), Social mobility in the EU, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg

[3] “The idea of revolution, when used to denote the total substitution of one indivisible system by another, describes nothing but a dangerous limiting case of transformative politics, seen under the lens of an illusion about how history happens. (…) Today the idea of revolution has become a pretext for its opposite. Because real change would be revolutionary change, and revolutionary change is unavailable, (…) we are left to humanize the inevitable. Such is the project of a pessimistic reformism resigned so often, especially through compensatory redistribution by tax-and transfer, what it despairs of challenging and changing.” Unger, Roberto: Democracy Realised. The Progressive Alternative, London 1998, pp. 20 f.

[4] Arguably, even far-reaching international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement have led to the passage of reform measures that follow a mechanistic solution approach and do not interfere with basic market dynamics.