If you’ve read anything about the recent Democratic debates—or worse, are one of those sadomasochists whose quest for naughtiness compelled you to watch them—it’s likely you’ve noticed a major theme: Centrism. The word’s meaning should be fairly obvious, as is the logic behind its present ubiquity: Democrats want to defeat Trump at all costs, and in order to do that they need the candidate with the most appeal; since most voters theoretically exist around the center of the political spectrum, Democrats should choose a centrist candidate. For conversation’s sake let’s call that candidate Joe Biden, though there are plenty of others hovering awfully close to his positions.
It’s a backward looking movement, this centrism, whose head-turning appeal functions very much like nostalgia. In the same way we’re presently encouraged to remember how amazing Woodstock was 50-years ago, we’re now urged to recall how great things were during the halcyon days of Obama or Clinton. That things were great during the halcyon days of Obama and Clinton is emphatically taken for granted. What helps nudge this rosy retrospection forward is that both Obama and Clinton were great speakers, while their replacements were—well, a little more challenged.
It’s important to point out that most of the people calling for centrism are political pundits, who we’re going to leave alone except to note that their predictions about the 2016 election were, by and large, really, terribly wrong. In other words: when you hear an op-ed writer calling for Biden, temper and contextualize those claims accordingly.
If we want an interesting refutation of centrism, we can simply look at the 2016 election. If you graphed out the Republican candidates at that time, Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric were very far from center. And yet he won both the Republican nomination and the presidency. Conversely, Hillary Clinton was an extremely centrist candidate, and we all know what happened to her campaign. So why, when we consider these two examples, which are basically opposite sides of the same anti-centrist coin, are we continuing to hear that this is the only valuable currency in the Democratic pocketbook?
It’s worth pausing to reflect upon something Joe Biden, our representative centrist, recently said to a room full of wealthy donors. If elected, he promised that “Nothing would fundamentally change.” This highly revelatory statement reveals an essential fault line in this country, this election, and these calls for centrism: If you’re wealthy enough to eat lobster hors d’oeuvres on a Tuesday afternoon at a swanky fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel in NYC, you probably don’t really want things to change, fundamentally or otherwise.
If that sounds like I’m taking matches to straw men let me grant that Biden, our stand-in centrist, does in fact want change, but only of the most middling nature. Incrementalism is the helpmate of centrism, which is a fine approach when cooking a roast but seems horribly insufficient when you consider the problems currently confronting our country. Sure, a return to a more civil discourse would be nice, but what does that do to substantively span the gulfs of inequality—economic, social and racial—that are splitting us apart? How do moderate tweaks to the ACA truly help the 75-million of us who have either no health insurance or insufficient health insurance? Rather than continuing down the laundry list of issues and centrism’s inability to address them, let me sum up my response to incrementalism as: Rhetoric aside, is a return to Obama-/Clinton-ism a sufficient solution to the compounded challenges currently confronting our country? Put another way: are the compounded challenges currently facing us not perhaps an inevitable outgrowth of the centrism inherent in Obama-/Clinton-ism?
My guess is that centrists will insist that Obama-/Clinton-ism is incrementally better than Trumpism. Once again, beyond the rhetoric that may be true, but it’s also true that when you’re playing football it’s preferable to have the ball on your own 10 yard line than it is to have it on your own 5. Just remember that even at the 10, you’re still a helluva long way from the end zone.
I think it’d be useful to swivel from considerations of political centrism toward socioeconomic centrism. Rather than thinking about which candidate might most appeal to a hypothetical center, instead I’d like to ask, on behalf of those of us truly in the center of things socioeconomically, What’s best for us?
I’m 42 years old, and for all of my life American politics have hovered more or less around the center, although it’s true that center has been drifting consistently rightward. My place in this system is: I work a lot and juggle several different jobs, and as a result I can pay my rent, buy mid-level consumer goods, eat out now and then, and even save a little each month. But I don’t have health insurance; I work in a state where I could be fired today, without explanation and with no recourse; I cannot afford to buy a house; my retirement savings are piddling; and I am one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
Despite the potentially dour latter portion of that overview, it’s important to emphasize that in the grand scheme of things I’m actually doing pretty well.
That’s what 42 years of centrism looks like for me, but it’s important to recall that some people find this system beneficial. They were mentioned above, eating lobster at the Carlyle, while the only buffets the rest of us enjoy look a lot more like The Old Country (where trust me: anything labeled lobster is pure imitation).
So if this is where centrism gets us, I have to wonder: Who wants more of it?
(Hint: it’s the people enjoying the lobster.)
One of the reasons Donald Trump was elected and continues to remain popular among his base is that many of us who can only afford imitation lobster have had enough of incrementalist centrism. The socioeconomic policies that have governed our country since the 70’s have consistently failed the majority of Americans. Many minorities and the lower classes have known this for decades, and as the shockwaves of those policy failures reverberated further into white middle America in the mid 2010’s, they too finally realized that they were sick of it.
Although the rhetorical flourish was originally Obama’s, Trump’s promise was change from the status quo, and his greasy, timeserving, snake-oiled tongue was sufficiently sly to convince people to give his particular brand a try. The point isn’t to demonstrate what a sham Trump is—everyone knows that, even huge portions of his supporters; all they simply demonstrate is what PT Barnum showed nearly 200 years ago: people are happy to be scammed as long as there’s enough entertainment to be had during the process—rather I’m trying to show that across the political spectrum people are sick and tired of centrism because, unless you’re eating lobster while you’ve read this, it clearly doesn’t work well for most of us.
42 years into my portion of the American experiment I’ve had enough of centrism. It doesn’t matter who’s mouthing it—the former VP, a seemingly nice gay man or a strong black woman—incremental centrism is just another word for sameism. And sameism hasn’t worked great for me, and probably isn’t working great for most anyone who’ll read this.
I realize that some readers might respond to everything I’ve written by returning to the first paragraph and insisting: The point isn’t that centrism is necessarily the best political approach, but that it’s the most likely to defeat Donald Trump. As I hope I’ve shown, I think the 2016 election throws that idea into question. Further, I think the logic underpinning that notion is based upon a hoped-for supposition rather than reality: specifically, we’d very much like to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that people (voters) are rational actors who will behave, well, rationally. To which I can only respond by pointing you to the PT Barnum reference above.
Still, it’s possible that Democrats might win with a centrist, Biden style candidate, but as recent reporting by the Times indicates, it’s also very likely that 2020 will be a repeat of 2016, and Trump will lose the popular vote while winning the Electoral College. It should be clear that my focus has never been on Democrats winning, which is a simple statement of fact and not some roundabout endorsement of Trump. Rather, I’m arguing against centrism because I don’t believe it works for most Americans, which is a roundabout way of saying that when you’ve got a foot pressing your head down into the muck, you don’t really care if the boot holding it is labeled Republican or Democrat. You just want the damned thing off your head.