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Centrists Are Going to Kill Us

Democrats are in danger of dooming the planet and the democracy by adhering to their corporate-friendly, campaign finance-motivated centrist strategy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Centrists are going to kill us.  Literally. They’ll do it in two ways.

First, they’re saying that we can’t afford the kind of far reaching solutions like Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal that are needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Second, they’re spreading the dangerous myth that Democrats need to appeal to the center to win the election.  How would this kill us?  Well, it’s the only way Trump – who is unravelling right before our eyes – could get reelected, and that would be an existential crisis.

Let’s look at each in turn.

The GND is not a cost, it’s an investment, for two reasons.  First, saying we can’t afford to do what’s necessary to mitigate the greatest threat humanity has ever faced is about as smart as trying to save money by not changing the oil in your car – if you don’t do it, your car will self-destruct; if you don’t address climate change, every aspect of the natural world and civilization as we know it will deteriorate, including the economy. 

A 3.7 degree C temperature increase, a little more than what we’d see if all the nations of the world met their obligations under the Paris Agreement, will result in damages that cost us – at a minimum –  more than $551 trillion.  And right now, the world in general and the US in particular are not on track to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement. A business as usual climate policy -- the path we’re on now – would increase temperatures by 4.5 C or more and the costs of that kind of temperature increase are, quite literally, incalculable. 

So the $16.3 trillion price tag that Sanders’ plan calls for is cheap at twice the price. Planetary maintenance isn’t a cost, it’s a prerequisite to the survival of civilization as we know it, and to the life support systems our species has relied on since we first appeared on the planet.

But there’s another reason Sanders’ GND is an investment, not a cost.  The fact of the matter is, the world will switch to renewable energy and no-carbon energy, not only because it’s cleaner, but it’s cheaper too.  Bids for renewable energy supplies are coming in as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour, while the cheapest fossil fuel alternative – natural gas – costs as much as 6, 7 or more cents per kW/hr. And cutting the amount of energy we use through efficiency costs about 2.5 cents per kW/hr.  In many cases, it is now cheaper to shut down an existing coal fired plant and replace it with solar or wind energy than it is to keep running the plant. And when it comes to new power generation, wind and solar win the price war hands down. This means we can cut carbon emissions while saving money.

Electrifying the transportation sector will also cut costs while it cuts carbon.  The cost of owning and operating an EV is lower than owning a fossil fuel driven car in Europe already, and it soon will be here in the US. And as any EV owner will tell you, EV’s outperform fossil fueled vehicles in just about every way.  To top it off, they’re just plain fun to drive.

These are the technologies of the 21st Century.  These will be the source of jobs and wealth for the countries that have the foresight to invest in renewable infrastructure. Those who cling to last century’s technologies will be punished in the market and their economies will suffer for it.  Those who adopt a leadership position in the coming energy transition will create millions of new jobs, tap into export markets, and, oh, by the way, help save the Earth.

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The myth of centrism, and the triumph of Trump are inextricably linked.  Trump is President because he won three key states by razor thin margins: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, he carried these states by just 77,744 votes and it enabled him to win with a minority of the popular vote.

Ask any neoliberal, Third Way Democrat, or centrist why that happened and what should be done about it, and they’ll tell you Democrats lost because they went too far left and if the Party wants to win in 2020, it’ll have to run a centrist in order to peel away a few Republicans.

Here’s the thing. We lost those states because we ran a neoliberal centrist, and doing it again could have the same result. Consider, Bernie Sanders won Michigan and Wisconsin in the primaries, and he also won Indiana. He did it by running on issues working Americans care about – affordable health care, a living minimum wage, a tax structure that doesn’t feed the rich and starve the rest of us, stronger unions, an end to the Wall Street and Big Bank oligarchy that controls both political parties.

Want more proof?  On issue-by-issue basis citizens in these states and in the country at large overwhelmingly support progressive policies like those listed above, as well as gun control, the Green New Deal, campaign finance reform, a more humane immigration policy, and equal rights and equal treatment of minorities, immigrants, and the LGBQT community.

This begs a question or two. How do conservative Republicans and demagogues like Trump win, and why don’t liberals?

The answer is obvious.  Since 1980, Democrats have been drifting to the center and leaving workers, the middle class, and the poor behind.  Working Americans have lost faith in the Party and lost hope in the future.  Meanwhile, for the last four decades, Republicans and the Oligarchy have mounted a silent coup using the politics of hate, blame and fear that has seduced a minority of the disaffected. A larger cohort have simply dropped out of the process and refused to show up on election day. Remember that margin of 77,744 votes?  Well, that’s the group the centrists want to appeal to.  Meanwhile, 4.4 million people who voted for Obama, stayed home on election day.  And frankly, Obama was a centrist, not a progressive, but he did mobilize progressives.  Finally, the real winner in 2016 was “no-show” as nearly forty five percent – some 96 million eligible voters – dropped out.

Which brings us to the danger of identity politics. Black voters in the south gave Clinton the nomination, and Black people seem destined to do the same for Biden. Ironically, Joe stands a good chance of getting creamed in the general election, in no small part because he’s been on the wrong side of many issues Black voters care about. He’s got an awful lot of baggage that a demagogue like Trump could easily exploit – Wall Street and big bank ties and a record of favoring them; an anti-busing record that could alienate Black people and make them stay home, too; the Anita Hill debacle; his support of the draconian 1994 crime bill; the plutocrat-favoring 2005 Bankruptcy Bill; his pro- Iraqi war vote… the list is ignominious and long, and there’s a real danger that once Trump starts hammering Biden with his record, Blacks will stop supporting him in numbers he needs to win. Yes, Biden enjoys a lead over Trump now, but so do Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The bottom line is, Democrats can pick a centrist candidate and go after some of those 77 thousand, or they can pick a progressive and go after some of those 96 million no shows. The fact is, when people are given a choice between someone advocating progressive policies, someone representing the largely mythical center, and a right wing hate monger, they’ve chosen the progressive.

So Democrats are in danger of dooming the planet and the democracy by adhering to their corporate-friendly, campaign finance-motivated centrist strategy. It’s possible that democracy could recover; the planet can’t in anything other than geologic time.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, 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, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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