A few months ago, I saw two little kids — a boy and a girl — playing on a see saw at the park. I'd been pretty sure see saws were obsolete, but not at this park. Here was a see saw in high gear.
I watched the kids go up-and-down, up-and-down for at least five minutes until the little girl abruptly stopped. Her eyes brightened. Clearly, she had a brilliant idea — or so she thought. Promptly, the little girl slid all the way from the far left of the see saw — splinters be damned — to the exact middle of the board.
Nothing happened. As the little girl’s anticipation turned to disappointment, the board not only didn’t move but was more firmly entrenched on the right side than ever. The little boy, for his part, erupted with the broad smile of a bragger across his face.
If you listen closely this election season, you can hear the sound of Democratic candidates scraping their bottoms in a hasty rush toward the center. But the reasoning is unclear. In a political climate where once-preposterous, archconservative ideas are now the status quo, shifting the political center of balance to the middle would only aids that Right-wing tilt. As the center of politics is masqueraded as the new left, the right becomes the new center.
If Democrats seem generally allergic to articulating moral convictions and standing up for what they believe, election season exacerbates this condition. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans support a balanced and humane approach to immigration reform. But neither principles nor polling have stopped Democratic candidates from running in the Right wing direction on this issue.
“I voted for the toughest anti-illegal immigration bill in Congress,” bragged Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee Harold E. Ford, Jr. (Incidentally, asked why he voted against similar legislation the year before as a member of the House, Ford said something about this year’s bill being “more comprehensive.”)
In Arizona, Democratic candidate for Congress Bill Johnson has paid for campaign billboards with the tag line, “Stop the Invasion!” Senator Bill Nelson, incumbent Democrat from Nebraska, once opposed crackdowns on undocumented immigrants but, just in time for the election, has introduced his own harsh, anti-immigration measures. “Not a day goes by where one of my Nebraska neighbors doesn’t ask me when we are going to get tough on immigration,” Nelson said in his newsletter to voters. “My bill will provide tougher penalties and give law enforcement the tools they need to stop the flood of illegal immigration.” In fact, Nelson was among the 80% of Democrats in the Senate who voted to support building a medieval, anti-immigrant fence along the border with Mexico. They voted for the bill, and dropped their push for more sensible immigration policies, as the election neared.
But trying to govern with your finger in the air, instead of true convictions and moral leadership, means that political winds can blow Democrats into dangerous waters. Upon appointment to the education committee in the House of Representatives, Right wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Co.) revealed his intention to ultimately eliminate public education for all. “It’s a lot easier to kill the beast when you get in the cave,” Tancredo said. Centrist Democrats might take note. It’s far easier for the Right to “kill the beast” when its voluntarily delivered on a silver platter.
Centrism not only alienates the Democratic base but also plays into the Right wing’s ultimate agenda. Charter schools are just one step to abolishing public education. Parental notification laws are just one step to banning abortion. And an anti-immigrant wall is just one step to banning all immigration. In supporting these measures, centrist Democrats don’t seem conciliatory and strategic. They seem short-sighted and spineless.
Centrism is not a “third way”, it’s their way — taking Right wing ideas and trying to pass them off as enlightened Democratic compromise. If centrists really think that plagiarizing conservative principles will somehow turn the country in a better direction, they need only study the science of see saws. Maybe centrism expediently wins a few elections, but in the long term, moving to the center only helps to cement our country’s future on the Right, helping conservatives win in the longer-term contest of ideas and leaving the progressive coalition with nothing but splinters. What we need now is brave and visionary progressive leadership and ideas or the political debate will remain imbalanced and our country will remain stuck in the mud.
As a tactical strategy, moving to the middle didn’t help the little girl on the see saw. What makes us think it will help the nation?
Sally Kohn is Director of the Movement Vision Project. She has interviewed more than 165 leaders across the country for a forthcoming book on the progressive vision for the future of the United States.