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The So-Called "Middle Ground" and the Tyranny of Capitalism

For four decades oligarchs have dragged the country to the right, and the Democrats have moved with them

John Atcheson

You read a lot these days about polls telling us why—gasp—socialist could never win the presidency, about how “radical” progressives will make it impossible for Democrats to take the Senate, or pretty much accomplish anything else.

There are two things wrong with this.  First, it’s simply not true.  Polls clearly show that—at least on an issue-by-issue basis—people are overwhelmingly progressive.  Second, it essentially freezes in place a de facto coup perpetrated by extremist free marketeers who accomplished it by decades’ worth of propaganda designed to move the nation to the right of center and keep it there.

And it succeeded. Today’s Republican Party is a cult of know-nothings, xenophobes, racists, anti-vaxers, climate deniers and all-around anti-Enlightenment, anti-Jesus Christians, with a few true conservatives left to hang onto the crumbling edifice of a once rational political philosophy – or at least one that accurately reflected the rational self-interest of corporations and the uber-rich.

Meanwhile, today’s Democratic Party is well to the right of where Republicans used to be in the first half of the 20th Century.

For example, under Eisenhower the top marginal rate on income taxes was 90 percent, and he was responsible for implementing one of the most extensive public works projects in U.S. history, the Interstate Highway System. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and recognized China. Today, Pelosi and other establishment leaders in the party scoff at a 70 percent top marginal rate, do little to defend the EPA from a full-on assault, and ridicule any meaningful climate crisis legislation like the Green New Deal. At the same time, they do their best to ignore the fact that capitalism is creating an extraordinarily rich upper class of a percent or so, while ripping off the rest of us. As for their foreign policy? It seems to boil down to hawkish support of stupid wars and astronomical defense budgets.

The neoliberal Democrats in charge of the party use polls to keep it to the right of center, fight off the progressive majority, and to keep the extremist capitalists in charge.  For example, among the issues they regularly trot out to justify their assault on true progressives are polling data that says:

  • Most people don’t consider themselves to be liberal;
  • More people identify as conservative; or
  • The majority of Americans wouldn’t support a “socialist.”

So how do you square the fact that the overwhelming majority of people strongly support liberal policies with the reality that most people don’t consider themselves to be “liberal?” Well, basically, a cabal of conservative oligarchs and corporations have spent nearly four decades and billions of dollars to brand “liberal” as a negative thing, while simultaneously branding “conservative” as a good thing.

Quick, what comes to mind when you think of the word “liberal?”  Chances are “tax and spend,” “kneejerk,” or “politically correct” were some of the first of many pejoratives to pop into your head, or maybe you just drew a blank.  It’s not as if anyone has invested in creating a positive counter-narrative based on a values-based brand for liberals.

Now how about conservative?  As Kevin Drum put it in an article in Mother Jones:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too… Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for, because the conservative leadership has  spent four decades nurturing a consistent brand identity for themselves.

So essentially, a cadre of ultra-rich plutocrats and corporations have managed to use Madison Avenue techniques to completely divorce the words “conservative” and “liberal” from the values they espouse.  The Republican Party—which is essentially run by anti-science whack jobs using discredited economists to justify policies favoring corporations and the ultra-rich, is completely untethered from reality, but they’ve used distraction, hate, blame, fear and greed to distract folks from realizing that they are getting screwed by the trickle-down, deregulatory two-step.  In fact, it keeps them from seeing that their policies of deregulation and tax cuts—far from stimulating economic growth—have resulted in the three biggest economic dislocations in US history.

For four decades oligarchs have dragged the country to the right, and Democrats have moved with them, justifying it by a commitment to an extremist version of capitalism, and caricature of the “evils” of socialism.

It’s worth remembering that when Sanders first talked about Medicare for All, the party, pundits and the press scoffed. Today, it’s popular, and it’s become obvious that it is not only affordable, it would give folks better care at a lower cost; yet the neoliberals still scoff, while pointing to polls shaped by plutocrats as proof that we can’t support progressive policies.

It would be easy to rebrand progressivism and democratic socialism.  As the polls show, and Sanders’ leadership on Medicare for All showed, and as the 2018 midterms showed, the progressive majority in America has been waiting for a progressive leader. 

The reason the mainstream of the Democratic Party doesn’t take on the oligarch’s branding is that it suits their purpose.  It provides them an excuse for not adopting a values-based platform of progressive policies, while it enables them to continue pushing right of center viewpoints.  The latest example is Biden’s middle ground on climate change.  As report after report after report comes out affirming what people can already see in real time—that the climate crisis is upon us now and is rapidly approaching some irrevocable tipping points—Biden’s middle ground approach amounts to trying to jump the Grand Canyon in ten-foot increments.

The irony is, this reliance on polling to stay right-of-center has made the Democrats—who have more registered voters and more Independents leaning their way than Republicans—a minority party. The tragedy is, it might keep them that way after the 2020 elections.


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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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