• The Wilberforce Society

Non-partisanship and Centrism in Policy Today

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

Haley Rice

The “missing middle” has been a popular term for a decade now, bemoaning the lack of centrist parties or moderate candidates first in America [1], and later in the UK [2]. With record levels of political partisanship and animosity in America [3], and rumours swirling of a new centrist party to replace the lacklustre Liberal Democrats in the UK [4], perhaps now is the time to ask: in an increasingly polarised world, what is the role of non-partisanship and centrism in policy? What do we risk when these concepts lose ground?

Let us consider centrism as the embrace of moderate positions and avoidance of political extremes. Centrism can thus describe an ideology or a group of people who hold that ideology, such as a centre party, or centre-leaning members of parties to the right and left. Non-partisanship is the lack of being influenced by, affiliated with, or biased towards a particular political party. Non-partisanship as an attribute can thus describe a group of people (those unaffiliated with a political party), or a behaviour (behaviour that is not influenced by or biased toward a political party).

Considering the latter meaning of non-partisanship, we can begin to tease out an important difference between these two ideas: centrism is an ideology (held by a centrist), whereas non-partisanship is a behaviour (possible to be practised by partisans and non-partisans alike).

Non-partisanship as a behaviour describes the ability to implement policy impartially – to behave neutrally in a professional context, even if one is not neutral. Non-partisanship among civil servants has long been understood to be one of the linchpins of a stable and functioning democracy. This was the principle behind the 1883 passage of America’s Civil Service Reform Act, which stipulated that federal government offices should be awarded on the basis of merit, not political affiliation and patronage. [5]

Max Weber, the German sociologist and political economist, wrote in his 1918 seminal work “Politics as Vocation” about the transformation of American politics effected by this act. Before the act, the “amateur administration through booty politicians in accordance with the outcome of presidential elections resulted in the exchange of hundreds of thousands of officials, even down to the mail carrier.” He paints a subsequent picture of the “development of modern officialdom into a highly qualified, professional labour force,” a bureaucracy based on integrity and a sense of honour, without which “the danger of an awful corruption and a vulgar Philistinism threatens fatally.” [6]

This sense of honour – fulfilling a technical role according to one’s expertise, regardless of whether one’s political affiliation matches the government in power – is behavioural non-partisanship in action. This should be the philosophical backbone and guiding principle for governmental civil servants responsible for delivering a country’s most basic public services, from education, public health, policing at home, diplomacy abroad, defence, and – to borrow Mr. Weber’s example – even delivering the mail.

Seen in this light, centrism and non-partisanship represent two different ideas, and the loss of one or the other represents two distinct – but not unrelated – threats. Erosion of centrism makes it more difficult to find common ground, to cross the aisle and make policy, but it is not necessarily an existential threat to democracy. In such a scenario, policymaking may be born more of political necessity to compromise than overlapping centrist tendency.

On the other hand, failure of non-partisanship among individuals or entities charged with executing policy impartially indicates a more fundamental breakdown that, if widespread or left unchecked, would indeed pose a grave threat to democracy. Either non-partisanship gives way in favour of the ruling party, thereby effectively eliminating all checks and balances and opening the door to abuse; or non-partisanship breaks down against the ruling party, and an elected government official enacts policy or a parliament passes legislation that is simply not adhered to or not implemented by the rest of government. Either way, a serious breach in the democratic process has occurred.

Because of the seriousness of the threats outlined above, even the perceived loss of such non-partisanship is quite damaging. America currently provides abundant examples of this erosion in public trust. Take the investigation by Special Council Mr. Mueller (a fellow Republican) into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Mr. Trump has decried this probe as a partisan “witch-hunt,” many dozens of times [7], in an example of a political player seeking to exert partisan pressure on government officials carrying out their professional mandates. One member of the investigatory team, having sent personal texts with anti-Trump sentiment during the 2016 campaign, was fired by the FBI [8], providing an example of checking inappropriate partisanship where it occurs. An example of partisanship left unchecked, however, is a September op-ed penned in a national newspaper  [9] by an anonymous senior Trump administration official admitting to purposefully undermining the president on ideological (though still Republican) grounds.

These two issues – loss of centrism and loss of non-partisanship – form a feedback loop of sorts. The more partisan (less centrist) a country’s populace, the more likely individual civil servants are to harbour personally partisan views, thus requiring greater discipline to achieve the requisite standard of non-partisan behaviour in official capacities. However, even a perceived loss of non-partisanship in the professional ranks of government can fuel partisan rancour and mistrust of government at large.

Centrism and non-partisanship are key ingredients in a political atmosphere conducive to effective policymaking and policy implementation. Though these are related ideas, centrism as an ideology and non-partisanship as a practiced behaviour are distinct concepts, and the erosion of either presents distinct risks.

Hayley Rice read for a Master’s Degree in Public Policy, graduating in 2019. Her essay was the winning submission for the Lord Wilson Essay Prize 2018.


[1] See e.g. William Swann’s 2008 book “The Missing Middle” or related articles in The Economist, 2011 and Foreign Affairs, 2012

[2] See e.g. The Economist, 2017

[3] Pew Research Center polling in 2016 and 2017

[4] The Economist, 2018

[5] Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (“Pendleton Act”), 1883

[6] Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation,” 1918 (paras 37-38)

[7] See e.g. tweet by Mr. Trump, 2018; related article in The Atlantic, 2018

[8] The Washington Post, 2018

[9] Article available from The New York Times, 2018


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