I've heard a lot about how centrist parties are losing ground in countries all across Europe. It also seems that in the United States, the two parties are becoming more and more polarized.

I am curious if anyone can identify the main forces that are causing the decline of center, in both Europe and the US. It would help if anyone could point out any insightful readings on this topic.

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    The basis of the question is false. Political parties have always been polarized. Throughout history and have caused wars, fights in the assembly room, executions, long term feuds. Polarization has not changed. What has changed is the perceived acceptance of the polarization. It used to be ok to have a different point of view. Lately, thanks to technology, strangers can now opine on politics and that prevents face to face discourse as it was in the past Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 20:10
  • This question seems to be somewhat a duplicate of politics.stackexchange.com/questions/12302/… Also, if you visit that question, please see my answer in particular?
    – John
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 20:47
  • There is a deeper level of breakdown happening along class lines and the political divide is "downstream" from that divide as far as I can tell.
    – blud
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 2:54

7 Answers 7


Define "centrism"

It's a word that comes up a lot, but what is it? It's not an ideological package of its own. My own expression of it would be something like Blairism and "triangulation": explicitly picking popular points from left and right and trying to find a fusion to appeal to moderate voters from both poles. So for Blairism the compromise was tax rises but never touching income tax; leaving the welfare system fairly generous, but charging students more; retaining public health and education, but leaving more of the implementation to PFI schemes to keep it off the public balance sheet.

Centrism seems to be associated with "liberal" ideas of free trade and free movement of people, as well as a technocratic process of cost-benefit analysis and consensus decision making. This makes the EU the ultimate centrist body. The ne plus ultra of centrism is reducing everything to a cost-benefit analysis.

Centrism is also associated with the post-Berlin Wall consensus and the "end of history" view.

Iraq war

To me the beginning of the end of centrism was the first plane strike on the World Trade Centre. The consequent war was widely supported by the political class and widely opposed by a section of the public - but crucially the discussion of why and how it was being done was inadequate and informed by misleading reports on Iraq "weapons of mass destruction". The absurd cost of the war was the first nail in the coffin of cost-benefit politics.

Economic Crisis

The second dent in centrist consensus was the end of a long-running housing and mortgage bubble. This took out a number of old banks and forced the bailout of many more, at taxpayer expense. The vast majority of the money was eventually recovered - you will see huge figures quoted, but they were loans not gifts. But the fact that huge amounts of money could be committed to the stability of the financial class while ordinary people suffered or were bankrupted has left a big mark on public trust. Especially the treatment of Greece and Ireland by the EU.


The war in Iraq and Afghanistan spread throughout the Arab world; Syria and Libya have collapsed resulting in people fleeing in huge numbers. Many of these people have been coming to Europe. The west is faced with the choice of allowing a lot of Muslims to immigrate, who will require public support in the short to medium term, versus letting them die (or, as some far right commentators have suggested, actively murdering them).


The internet has greatly contributed to the collapse of boring centrist journalism and its replacement with sensationalism, clickbait, and incitement to racism. Although plenty of the papers were quite capable of printing trash on their own initiative. The press likes conflict, which centrism does not provide. UKIP, for example, have been given far more media coverage than one would expect for a party which wins so few seats at Westminster elections.


This is right at the bottom, because it's so overstated, but needs mentioning: a mixture of thinktanks, foreign intelligence agencies, and bored teenagers are inserting all sorts of fake news into public discussion. A number of the non-centrist parties have opaque funding.


It is the interaction of multiple factors, started by the development of 24/7 media and catalyzed by the rise of social media. The shift in politics is symptomatic of the shift in the perception of the populace. For the US, two recent academic studies have captured the possible cause.

The Hidden Tribes of America

This More in Common study viewed the actual distribution of political opinions in the US populace. The large discovery was the existence of an exhausted majority in the middle that was upset by the polarization.

A majority of Americans, whom we’ve called the "Exhausted Majority," are fed up by America’s polarization. They know we have more in common than that which divides us: our belief in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the American dream. They share a deep sense of gratitude that they are citizens of the United States. They want to move past our differences.

The study demonstrated the distribution of the populace is largely arrayed as a bell curve, below, but the vocal nature of the tails of the graph have over emphasized their importance. A simple Bell Curve

The Perception Gap

This Heterodox Academy study highlights that there is a significant overestimation in how people view those on the other side of the ideological divide. These perceptions are the result of the over emphasis of the tails of tails of the bell distribution, skewing how people see the spectrum. Instead of the bell curve, the appearance is a barbell curve, below. barbell curve

Since the extremes are more vocal, largely when their objectives aren't being met, those hearing them (companies, politicians, governments) take efforts to satisfy their wants to solve the problem. Media benefits by catering to the far edges, because drama, scandal, and agitation get more views than mediocrity.


Try this column "When Normal is Insufficient" by Canadian conservative pundit Mark Steyn, for example, particularly the part beginning "Some of us can claim to have seen this coming." Relevant excerpt:

Another old line of mine: If respectable politicians are forbidden to raise certain subjects, the voters will turn to unrespectable ones. The people are telling their rulers something important here. The longer the ruling class - in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere - refuse to listen, the worse it is going to be.

A lot of today's "centrist" parties

  • (1) have no actual principles of their own, just what they think will please the electorate

  • (1a) their view of who the electorate are is often badly skewed - cf. (paraphrased) "No one I know voted for Nixon");

  • (2) tend to try to rule certain topics out of bounds, even when those topics are of interest and concern to the voters;

  • (3) often hold said voters in contempt for not having the "right" views (cf. "deplorables," "ignorant people with “zero understanding” and low moral standards"

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    Can you elaborate a bit?
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 17:05
  • 3
    @JJJ A lot of today's "centrist" parties (1) have no actual principles of their own, just what they think will please the electorate (and (1a) their view of who the electorate are is often badly skewed - cf. (paraphrased) "No one I know voted for Nixon"); (2) tend to try to rule certain topics out of bounds, even when those topics are of interest and concern to the voters; and...
    – Meir
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 17:39
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    ... (3) often hold said voters in contempt for not having the "right" views (cf. "deplorables," "ignorant people with “zero understanding” and low moral standards" (jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-arrogance-of-the-old-elite/…), etc., and nowadays increasingly do so publicly.
    – Meir
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 17:41

Mixture of factors, warning EU-centric answer:

  1. Lack of seducing ideas

    How exactly the mainstream parties differ from each other when the main right wing party and main left wing party have no problem to form a coalition? Works in the EU on "federal" level, works in Germany. British Torries are introducing homosexual marriages while German economy is quite competitive thanks to cruel welfare cuts implemented a while ago by SPD (their left wing). I'm not saying that's all necessary bad thing (big part of such technocracy may actually be considered as very reasonable) but all this stuff is not exactly a source of fanatic voter support.

    Simple question: which great project they have to offer? (If nothing specific, then they don't have much to write on their banners)

  2. Legacy of the crisis

    Some countries were severely hit by the economic crisis and are barely recovering. As usual after such event there can be plenty of people with some "simple" solution. We may say that crisis is over... except that ECB is still keeping negative interest rates to keep economy (and overtly indebted govs) afloat. The situation is stable but in most countries stagnant, thus people are less forgiving to their elites.

  3. Elites preoccupied with climate change, voters worried about migrants

    What's the top priority of left wing leaning elites? Fighting climate change. What long term issue makes voters most nervous (except a few countries which border Russia and have their own worries)? Migrants from ME and Africa. Actually there are some people who are indeed worried about climate change, but judging from last Europarliament election they eschew classical elites too and vote Greens.

    While ex. Germans are very disciplined about climate change (unless they close nuclear power plants in panic) in France the Yellow Vest movement started as a protest against fuel tax increase, while in Poland gov become really creative with EU regulations to avoid increase of electricity prices and subsequent voters vengeance.

    Moreover, some people started seeing that part of those awkward issues are not being properly covered by media in order not to fuel the rise of (mostly mythical) Nazis. So for example issue of mass sexual attacks on women in Germany on New Year was being desperately silenced by media for a while. Perfect paranoia fuel, isn't it?

  4. Structural reasons for stagnation, which makes voters less forgiving

    Even without any disliked migrants to be blamed for all ills, there would be some simmering dissatisfaction. People are used to idea that they can tolerate [insert some true or perceived injustice here] but have significantly better life than previous generation. And there is a problem, at least in the old EU (former EU-15). Hard to increase productivity from using more capital, as companies seek some cheap countries to invest. Hard to increase productivity through more skilled labour force, as people are already reasonably trained, and giving them a few more diplomas is facing awfully diminishing returns. Oh... And there is an increasing number of retires who should be taken care of and would require squeezing some extra money.

  5. Fade of mass media, rise of internet

    In the good [or: bad] old days people were being educated by mass media which tended to be moderate with some left-wing lean. After being told what to think people were neatly voting some mainstream politicians. Right now market offer is wider and everyone can pick their own echo chamber, which would perfectly reinforce his views. While in theory it should be celebrated as victory of freedom of speech and people no longer being told to think by some big business, I have to admit that mass media tended to silence also the most freakish conspiracy theories. So right now this is gone and much more fragmented political and ideological landscape is evolving.

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    The mass assaults issue is one of those things that had to be reported carefully to avoid reprisals; Germany better than most countries understands that demonising a group for the actions of criminals can lead to mass murder.
    – pjc50
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 10:54
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    @pjc50 I mentioned what's the official explanation. The problem is that such policy is destined to backslash as when viewers are being treated as irresponsible kids who should not be told whole truth they unsurprisingly start to abandon such media in hope for more credible information sources and are likely to get sources which are biased in the opposite direction.
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 11:22
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    No 4 often gets over looked, jobs are less secure, houses are harder if not impossible to buy, the main parties say everything is fine and ignore your concerns then along comes a fringe party who agree that there is a problem and they have a magic solution that will definitely work. Which party would you vote for? the ones that ignore you or the ones that offer to make all your problems go away
    – mgh42
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 0:18
  • Point number 3 is utter rubbish. If you look at the recent elections in Brandenburg and Saxonia, number one priority for most voters was social security. (In Brandenburg, climate was tied first place, although in Saxony, more voters made their choice under an immigration pretext.) Now your first paragraph of that point show that you don’t count the Greens as elites – but then I ask you which elite is actually doing anything about the climate? Certainly not CDU/SPD in Germany.
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 7:59
  • As for the third paragraph of that sub-point: media bias is a favourite claim of some on the outer half of the right-hand side of the political spectrum but that still doesn’t make it factually accurate. Nobody was ‘desperately trying to silence’ the New Years Eve events in Cologne and other cities although the relevant media did state that they distributed airtime poorly. The ‘awkward issues’ I can only assume to be the collection of local news from all over the country that is amplified by some although in reality it is not nationwide news-worthy.
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 8:02

What has caused the decline of parties in the center?

Dilution and a change in definition of what the centre is.

The parties in the centre decline, but the centre itself does not. Voters are actually far less radical than they were 60 years ago.

In the 1950s, and 1960s, social democratic parties in (for example) West Germany wanted to nationalise major industries, and the conservative party still considered that not only East Germany but also the lost territories should return to Germany (at least the ones lost after WW II, not sure about the ones lost after WW I). Today, not even Die Linke promotes the former and only the neonazi NPD (0.3% in last elections) still promotes the latter. Policies that used to be mainstream are now fringe. Over the past 60 years, both social-democrat and conservative parties have moved to the centre, to the degree that in the 1990s, social democrats and greens spearheaded privatisations, major reductions in the welfare state, and offensive warfare.

There has been some rise of parties to the left of the social democrats or to the right of the conservatives, but mostly the points they are proposing are less radical than what used to be mainstream in the past. So one could argue that centrist policies today are spread over more different parties, that are closer to each other than 60 years ago, which means each of them gets a smaller vote share than before on average.

Plus, where parties are not loyal to their ideology they should not be surprised that their voters aren't loyal to the party.


In Britain it is certainly the case that the principal "left-of-centre" and "right-of-centre" parties are being dominated by their extremes - the Conservatives through the emergence of an anti-EU force, now embodied in the Brexit Party, which appears to be driven by a tabloid news media. The Labour Party is in the grip of a left-wing leadership.

In both cases the earlier rule changes which put the election of party leader in the hands of "members", has had the effect of promoting the interests of activists who represent the extremes, and can achieve influence simply by purchasing an inexpensive party membership. The parties have to some extent become in thrall to "entryists".

However this polarisation has now resulted in a re-emergence, in popular esteem, of the centrist Liberal Democrats, which one opinion poll last week had winning the largest number of seats, were there to be a general election.

My guess is that whilst other European countries are experiencing a good deal of political fluidity and change, with extremes gaining ground, that the detailed circumstances are rather different from country to country. What seems consistent is that the voting public, across the developed world, seem considerably more ready than hitherto to experiment with new ideas and changes.

  • Entryism is about small number of non-representative extremists dominating meetings. The UK Labour Party has had massive numbers of people join, most of whom with no previous political engagement. This cannot be compared with entryism. And in a historical perspective, the manifesto is not at all particularly left-wing.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 14:07

Increasing wealth concentration is one cause. Modern political parties are expensive, (in the 2018 US election cycle the two major parties had openly raised about one billion dollars each), and it is improbable that party policies could ever fail to reflect the agendas and opinions of their biggest sponsors.

Extreme wealth brings the real world equivalent of what online we might call resilient filter bubbles. For servants and handlers and bodyguards and rented friends and concierges et al, "The customer is always right", "no sad news, no bad news", and messengers are blamed while yes-men are rewarded. Servant hierarchies behave similarly amongst themselves.

The resulting lives of servant-filtered input can lead to extreme opinions, but not through any personal fault of the wealthy. Weird impractical architecture is built, too helpful doctors harm their patients with therapies, overzealous lawyers make mountains of molehills, accountants make virtual foreigners of them, children are abandoned to servants and seldom see their own parents, and so on, but most politically significant, PACs, Lobbies, PR firms, and Think-Tanks are empowered to indiscriminately propagandize their sponsors' sheltered prejudices.

On the flip side, scarcities of wealth put the struggling middle-class and the newly poor in their own filter bubble -- wherein they cannot see far, since they're overworked and too tired to spare much leisure time for contrasting the merits of political options. Fatigue makes them excellent targets of the politically significant propaganda of the wealthy. Then they vote.

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    I've downvoted this because in America, political parties have actually gotten weaker instead of stronger, and that is a likely cause of the extreme positions becoming more prevalent; parties in America have had a moderating influence on extreme voices in order to achieve the goals of the coalition they represent. Also, the richest people's views aren't the ones that are winning; Donald Trump raised very little money compared to all of his opponents (Hilary Clinton outspent him 10:1!) and has views on immigration that directly contradict what most rich donors want, yet he still won.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 16:14
  • @Joe, That's an ambivalent example, since DT himself was, (and presumably shall remain), a wealthy filter bubbled extremist political donor. Please source the "10:1" figure, a cursory web search suggests it might be more like 2:1, but given enough dark money floating about even that seems uncertain.
    – agc
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 19:28
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    @Joe, Whether or not political parties are purportedly growing weaker would be irrelevant to this Q. which asks about polarization within those parties, whatever their strength. If you believe, or know of evidence showing, that the present polarization may somehow be correlated to weakening parties, please post this novel theory as an answer, not a comment.
    – agc
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 19:37
  • Actually, I stand corrected on the 10:1 value; it was an older figure; Trump eventually did reach a 2:1 disadvantage by the end. And weakness of parties is directly relevant, because the polarizing leaders are more likely to be selected when parties are weak. I probably will give an answer later, but this by no means a novel hypothesis; various commentators have made similar observations in the Trump era.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 21:23

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