Can Centrism Be a Movement? The Answer May Surprise You
It was a certain brand of centrism—call it "insider centrism"—that gave us Trump. But there's another kind, based on people's needs that has much to offer.
Astronomers tell us the stars we see in the night sky died many millennia ago. Their light has spent eons crossing the emptiness of space. To us, they still seem to glitter and shine, but were extinguished long ago.
Last week, the Washington Post ran an op-ed about the political framework known as “centrism.” The name is derived from the from the fact that its ideology draws equally from leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties. The Post’s headline in the Washington Post last week asked the question, “Can centrism be a movement?”
The answer may surprise you.
The kind of “centrism” described in the Post’s op-ed has been peddled to the American people for decades, by members of a political and media class – some undoubtedly well-intentioned, others less so – who believe that the center lies in their own midst.
They want decisions about the nation’s future to be made in quiet convocations of the powerful, far from the messy and contentious disturbances of the popular psyche that give rise to memes, demonstrations, and voter insurrections.
You know: democracy.
This brand of “centrism” brought us “responsible” plans to cut Social Security, a rhetorical fixation on deficit reduction, an unwillingness to prosecute crooked bankers or break up too-big-to-fail banks, and at the same time a drive to involve ourselves in military misadventures across the globe.
It’s a global phenomenon, taking in the liberal leaders of social democratic parties in Western Europe, as well as U.S. Democrats with last names like Clinton and Obama. It gave us Obama’s Deficit Commission fiasco, his misguided attempts at a grand bargain, and Congressional Democrats’ fixation on “pay-go” programs.
This kind of centrism has been rejected by the voters over and over again. Obama was forced to retreat from it, at least rhetorically, in order to win re-election. But it contributed to the Democrats’ loss of the Senate, the House, two-thirds of governorships, and some 900 state legislature seats.
This brand of centrism also played a major role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. Even after attempting to adopt a more populist pose, Clinton could not resist return to her old ways.
“I get accused of being kind of moderate and center,” she said at an Ohio campaign event. “I plead guilty.” Ohio, like many swing states, had already been decimated by job-killing, “centrist” trade deals. Clinton’s record, along with comments like these, made her vulnerable to her pitchman/opponent’s phony promises.
This brand of centrism gave us Trump.
The Light of Dead Suns
There have been many attempts to keep this vision of centrism alive, all funded by Wall Street tycoons and corporate CEOs. Still it shines, burning as bright as so many dead suns, fueled by the incineration of Wall Street money.
Not that I don’t understand its appeal, especially if you travel in certain circles. Political debate is messy and angry and frequently rude;. Members of Congress don’t beat each other senseless with canes as in days of old, but that could be making a comeback.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could get together and talk things through in a courteous manner?
Or, as a baffled John Pierpont Morgan once told progressive populist Teddy Roosevelt upon being hit with an antitrust suit: “If we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”
“We don’t want to fix it up,” Roosevelt replied. “We want to stop it.”
The event described in the Washington Post was hoste by a group that calls itself “No Labels.” And what is “No Labels”? As we first reported in 2012, the group adopts an anti-insider pose, but was founded by longtime political operatives from the corporate-funded wings of both parties and seeks funding from big donors.
The only concrete idea mentioned in this most recent op-ed “combines tax reform with infrastructure,” and sounds very much like the corporate-backed “compromise” idea that’s been kicking around Washington for a while now. It would give corporations a major or complete break on the $600 billion in offshore taxes they’re currently withholding from the U.S. government in return for vague commitments and/or the creation of a bank to rebuild this country’s crumbling infrastructure through the well-worn “public/private partnership” route.
Voices From the Past
The gathering began with a dialogue between two of this well-funded operation’s leading lights: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman. Lieberman is an oleaginous and self-serving cynic, whose lurch to the right earned him the emnity of his own party and the contempt of suspicious Republicans, who refused to allow John McCain to pick him as his vice presidential running mate.
In someone else, the fact that both parties dislike you might reflect an admirable independent streak. But Lieberman’s endorsement of Donald Trump – which included some some pretty smarmy, sexist jokes – was more likely motivated by his current law firm’s close relationship with Trump and his own hopes for an administration position. Lieberman is driven by ambition and vanity.
Blair led his party to the right and befriended financial and other corporate interests, much as Bill Clinton had before him. Under both leaders, personality replaced policy as the party’s driving force, while each declared the policies of their predecessors – the New Deal and Great Society of Clinton’s party, and the postwar socialism of Blair’s – to be relics of a dead past.
As we have learned in 2016 and 2017, both were wrong.
In Great Britain, Blair’s longtime left nemesis Jeremy Corbyn surpassed him in popularity way back in May 2017, as Corbyn was beginning his meteoric rise. Blair’s mendacity over the Iraq War has left deep wounds. A 2016 poll showed that more than half of British voters agreed with this statement: “I can never forgive Tony Blair for what I think he did wrong.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, Bernie Sanders remains the most popular politician in the country. But “centrism” marches on.
The Centrism Movement
About that question: Can centrism be a movement? The answer is yes. Only not this form of centrism. Voters have rejected it over and over. But real centrism, based on the needs and ideals of most voters, could very well become a movement.
60 percent of U.S. voters believe that the government should guarantee healthcare as a right for all people, and a growing number want a single-payer system. Polls have shown that voters want Social Security expanded, not cut. Most voters want to see taxes raised on the wealthy and corporations, and there is bipartisan support for breaking up the big banks.
Pundits have tended to label those kinds of proposals “left,” “extreme, and even “marginal.” A better word would be “centrist” – based on the center of public opinion, not that of people in Washington.
Voter-based centrism could become the movement of the future. But insider centrism, the kind that brings leaders of both parties together with their corporate funders, will always be the plaything of the elite. If the Democrats don’t turn their backs on it, their party will be as dead as the stars that shine in the autumn sky over Washington.