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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre greet each other as they gather in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth in Ottawa on Sept. 15.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In the immortal Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror VII, the identical twin space aliens Kang and Kodos run for president of the United States, disguised as Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. Exposed by Homer, Kodos stares down the terrified public. “It’s true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system.”

Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre are far from twins, or (so far as I know) space aliens. Yet they, and the parties they lead, present the voter with much the same predicament: a choice limited to two wholly unappetizing options. Both parties, it is widely acknowledged, have strayed far from their traditions, to the point that each has become unrecognizable to large numbers of long-time party members.

Each, in its own way, has lost contact with the vital centre of Canadian politics. Rather than practical approaches to questions important to the average voter, each offers a mix of doctrinaire policy and irrelevant hobbyhorse issues. Which may explain why, for the first time in Canadian history, neither party can attract the support of more than a third of the voters.

Yet the one thing that can never be suggested is that this situation should not continue: that it is anomalous in any political community that the middle ground should be deserted soil, unrepresented and uncontested; and that, so long as the two main parties continue to court the fringes, the broader public interest will remain ignored.

An attempt to give voice to this concern, a conference organized by a group that calls itself Centre Ice Canadians (I was a panelist), excited equal parts ridicule and incomprehension from members of the political class. Who were these people from outside politics to find fault with their handiwork? Wasn’t this all just a lot of sniffing about “style”? Besides, what were they going to do about it? It’s a two-party system.

Centrism, to be sure, can seem hard to take seriously as a political philosophy. There is no point in aiming for the middle just for the sake of being in the middle, even assuming anyone could define where it is. If it means half-way between two other positions, it amounts to steering by other people’s lights, defining yourself by what you are not rather than by what you are. If, on the other hand, it is shorthand for “wherever we happen to be now,” that may or may not recommend it. Sometimes – often – the right policy will involve a sharp departure from the status quo.

Even in purely political terms, it fails. It is true that elections are decided by the median voter – as a matter of arithmetic. But the median is not some fixed meridian. It moves, in response to the push and pull of political debate. The party that tosses aside everything it ever believed in pursuit of the middle may find the middle simply recedes before it. Success in politics, rather, goes to the party or the candidate who moves the middle to them – sometimes by redefining what “the middle” means.

Which is to say: A party need not aim for the middle, and yet still end up there. Centrism ought in this sense to be considered much like the other “isms” – conservatism, liberalism etc. – not as something to be pursued in its own right, but as the indirect result of a number of more fundamental choices.

It is striking how many people decide first that they are a conservative, or a liberal, or what not – or, worse, a Conservative or Liberal – and only then decide what they believe. Their reaction, on encountering an issue for the first time, is therefore to consult their chosen belief system, as if it were an all-explanatory guide, and not a mere tendency.

Surely the reverse makes more sense: figure out what you think about things first, then see which ism most closely resembles the result. Start from first principles. How absolute are individual rights, and in what circumstances might these be overridden? Is everyone equal? Should they be? In what ways, and in what ways not? How far would I go to make them more equal, and by what means? And so on.

A serious effort to think these through might well find that none of the isms fully answers these questions, on its own; each gives a part of the answer. In which case the wiser approach might well consist in taking from each what it has to offer, striking a balance between them. That begins to look like centrism.

Centrism, then, need not and should not imply an aversion to ideology. Ideology is simply the set of principles by which we make sense of the world. Centrism is the realization that a useful ideology is not necessarily contained within the limits of the conventional isms – in fact, probably isn’t.

Centrism does not mean coming down in the mushy middle on every question. It can mean a set of quite radical policies, depending on the issue – just not all drawn from the same point on the political spectrum, or reflecting only the priorities of its adherents.

On the broad question of market versus state, for example, that does not mean adopting policies that are sort-of market-based and kind-of state-directed. It means having a clear sense of which sorts of social questions are best solved by either, and letting each get on with it.

Generally speaking, questions of allocation – what gets produced, in what quantity, at what price, etc. – are best left to the market. Distributional questions – how much each of us should get to keep of the result – are best left to the state. It’s when we try to solve one problem with the instrument appropriate to the other that the trouble starts.

A commitment to distributional equity, then, need not imply any less commitment to free markets, and vice versa. A centrist would simply insist that redistribution should be carried out via the tax and transfer system, not by fixing prices

More broadly, centrism is a rejection of false choices. It ought to be possible, for instance, to accept the need to fight climate change while insisting it should be fought at the lowest possible cost; to avoid the excesses of identity politics and still accept the need to address the concerns from which it springs; to be appalled by the grinding mediocrity of so many Canadian public institutions, without wanting to trash them altogether.

For that matter, centrism is not only a matter of policy. The opposite of centrism is not radicalism, but extremism, which is more a matter of temperament than ideology. Of the two, moderation of temperament is the more important. It is not enough to know what kind of change is needed, but how much, and not just how much change is needed, but how much is possible. All these require judgment, a balancing of competing considerations, which is to say moderation.

Is this all just a wish for an unattainable ideal? Ultimately politics is about choosing between imperfect alternatives. “Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good” is wise counsel. But that does not require us to be complacent about the choices in front of us. Let not the mediocre be the enemy of the good, either.

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