As 2020 draws nearer a lot of people are calling on America to come together. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi claimed in her inaugural address that Democrats would work towards being bipartisan. Joe Biden has repeatedly defended his “working across the aisle” credentials. Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz, if elected president, promises to not sign off on any legislation that doesn’t have bipartisan support.
If you’ve followed politics long enough, then you’ll have noticed a call among mostly middle-aged and elderly white people to meet in the center. There is a belief that somewhere between the “right” and the “left,” regardless of how extreme one of those two sides might become, lies an “ideal” set of policy choices that will lead to a better and stronger America. This frankly naive assumption ultimately does nothing but enforce the status quo, and says more about the privileged people who assume so than the actual policies they support.
Process Does Not Equal Progress
Embedded in the philosophy of centrism is the belief that meeting in the middle is intrinsically valuable. It is the faith that when you combine a little bit of column A and B together it creates a better product. While it’s true that compromise, especially with those you disagree with, is a necessary part of life, it doesn’t automatically make superior legislation.
It just makes legislation that can become a political reality.
Politicians compromise more often than not out of the belief that some progress is better than no progress at all. As Kamala Harris’ communications director remarked about his candidates’ desire to have single payer healthcare or Medicare-for-all :
“I want a burrito. I’d accept tacos in the meantime, but I want a burrito.”
In this case, Kamala Harris wants single payer, but is willing to entertain incremental change if that’s all the political establishment has the stomach to do. She is willing to compromise to get an inch closer to her preferred outcome.
Centrists will often ignore the reality of compromise (i.e., progressive expectations being tampered with by invested interests), and will instead wax poetically about how incremental change is the superior policy because it involved compromise. As writer Steve McIntosh lamented in The Hill:
“Accepting some of the positive values of our political opponents is a difficult practice that involves increasing the scope of what we are each able to value overall. But it is only through such an integrative approach to building cultural agreement that we can successfully create political unity where conventional centrist approaches have failed.”
This outlook only makes sense, though, if you value the process over what is actually being produced. Compromise for compromise’s sake doesn’t always create incremental progress. Sometimes, the meshing together of two incompatible political philosophies (which is what the Democratic and Republican party represent at this point) leads to bad legislation that hurts more people than it helps.
An excellent example of this is the safety net “reforms” of the late 90s. In his 1992 campaign, Democratic President Bill Clinton promised to reform safety net programs as we know them for the better. He was unfortunately then cursed to deal with a Republican-controlled Congress for most of his tenure, and that made passage of leftist reforms difficult.
Rather than pass nothing on welfare, he signed into law a Republican-crafted piece of legislation that devolved federal administration of cash assistance programs to the states. This policy led to the creation of a new funding vehicle called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), where states were given federal block grants to spend on cash assistance programs as they wished, with little to no federal oversight.
The Republican logic was that states would be more flexible at administering such programs, and would consequently be able to stop people from “abusing the system.”
Bill Clinton’s perspective was that reform had been achieved, or, at the very least, he had something to show on the campaign trail. In his statement shortly before signing the bill, President Clinton remarked:
“[This bill] gives us a chance we haven’t had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work. It gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.”
The reality was that the new law hurt a bunch of poor people. The law added work requirements, created caps for how long or how much aid a person could receive, and instituted strict punishments for recipients who did not comply. The result was that fewer people were able to use these programs, and poverty increased. Americans would have been better off if this law had never been passed (and I am not the first to argue that).
Bill Clinton’s desire to show something was worse than nothing.
Compromise is only useful if you can extract concessions. If you go into political negotiations assuming that, through compromise, you will inherently craft fairer policy, then you are going to hurt people. This fact is especially true since the Republican Party is aware of this mindset and has, over the last few decades, deliberately shifted its policy positions to unfairly prioritize the center in its favor.
The most visceral example of this fact is the Republican Party’s blind resistance to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) aka Obamacare aka that healthcare law you definitely have an opinion of by now. Despite the law being popular, the Republican party has tried to repeal the ACA over 70 times and has organized much of its political base in opposition to it.
The irony is that the law relies on the use of conservative principals such as the ability to pool the purchasing power of individuals in the insurance market. In fact, before the ACA’s passage, this policy had been lobbied for by entities like the conservative Heritage Foundation. As Obama remarked to commentator Matt Lauer
“When you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas. I mean a lot of commentators have said this is sort of similar to the bill that Mitt Romney, the Republican governor and now presidential candidate, passed in Massachusetts.”
For liberals, the ACA may have been a step in the right direction because it provided greater coverage to more Americans, but it was by no means a liberal policy idea. Its very construction was an olive branch to the Republican party. It was an attempt at compromise.
Yet, the GOP was so deadset on obstructionism that not a single member entertained the idea of voting for it. The past few decades have been ones of increasing polarization, yes, but you would have to ignore a lot of history to believe that “the blame lies with both sides.” Many political scientists have noted the asymmetrical polarization that has occurred within the Republican party. The GOP has demolished centuries of norms that are too many to go over here in great detail (The Atlantic has a great article tracing our current dysfunction back to Newt Gingrich).
When centrists call for both sides to come together, they are ignoring the reality that many Republicans just don’t want to. This bending over backward to appeal to a political entity that does not respect you is not a winning strategy.
Sometimes, it’s fine to admit that the other side has nothing to offer.
Now, if you actually find yourself in the center of a specific issue because of moral or intellectual reasons, then that’s, of course, fine — natural even. No one can be perfectly aligned all the time.
What makes no sense, however, is to define your entire identity in opposition to two ever-shifting political continuums over which you have no control; to reject policy positions, regardless of their merits, simply because they are abnormal or fringe.
To be in the middle is to have no control over what you believe.
A lot of centrists form their entire political identities on being antagonistic to the opposite ends of the political spectrum. This is done to seem calm and rational, and they are doing it for entirely selfish reasons.
What Is Centrism Really About?
Contrary to what moderates will tell you, centrism has nothing to do with policy. People who claim to be centrists will often assert their policy wonk status. They will claim to know the nitty-gritty of legislative details and glorify their knowledge of obscenely banal political processes to the point of absurdity.
This in-depth understanding, however, is deployed as a shield against criticism from the far left, and to a lesser extent, the far right. Whenever a bold, progressive policy initiative is proposed, moderates will often use their knowledge to convince the public to not invest in it. They will tell you the world isn’t black and white; that any attempt to boil down a complex issue is reductive, and unsaid, will be the assertion that the status quo is just fine.
For example, when Single Payer Healthcare became a significant issue during the 2018 midterm elections, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sardonically asked the press who would pay for it? She made this objection sound like a rational concern, but how single payer will be paid for is already a subject many politicians, professionals, journalists, and other countries have addressed. She wasn’t adding meaningful commentary; only a glib remark meant to dampen progressive enthusiasm for reform. Her comment essentially amounted to “Change is difficult. Let’s delay talking about anything too dramatic.”
Centrists are all about trying to preserve contemporary power structures. As co-founder Tyler Norris of the bipartisan Millenial Action Project (MAP) wrote shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump in a blog post titled Centrism is Dead. Time to Rebuild the Left:
The centrist has a keen interest in maintaining their privileged position in the political community. He or she gets to remain above the fray; to moralize about the need for compromise without defining clear positions; to serve as a convener and power broker; to critique both sides and play them off each another; to act like the only sober adult in the room. Such a position often confers unique advantage inside the beltway, affording access to powerful officials, to reporters seeking the “balanced” view, and to lucrative support from interested parties.
Centrists are gatekeepers.
They are the deciders of political sensibilities.
It has become viscerally transparent in the post-Trump era that a moderate’s desire to be a gatekeeper transcends their values and positions.
A great example of this is self-identified centrist Damon Linker, who recently created a four-part article series about the political center for The Week. In the series, Linker discusses how what we think of the center has shifted from old school libertarianism (i.e., being fiscally conservative, but liberal on social issues) to one where the broadest number of voters are socially conservative on issues like abortion, but aligned more closely to Democrats on economics. In the second article in the series titled What is a genuinely centrist position on the economy?, Linker advocates for abandoning the current libertarian “consensus” and shifting to this new ideal:
“The incentive to do so is the promise of achieving a decisive political victory and helping to unify and heal our badly polarized country. The key is to follow public opinion wherever it leads, even when it diverges from the broadly libertarian consensus that prevails among elites of both parties.”
Linker got the data for this assertion from a study by the Voter Study Group. These categorizations of people are mostly academic. We don’t know yet whether these voters will form real political identities around this information, or if it’s just what they think on paper.
Yet Linker has fetishized being in the center so dramatically, that upon hearing it’s no longer where he thought it was, he’s ready to turn his entire political identity on a dime. The ability to window shop for your values may be easy if all you care about is being liked, but if you hold actual positions on things like abortion or economics, then that’s a little harder to do.
People don’t always believe in things merely because they are popular. In fact, when we look at many past civil rights movements, we see that the American public initially disliked them. FiveThirtyEight has a fantastic article that goes through some of our countries most iconic moments in civil rights history — from Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech to the 1993 March on Washington for LGBT+ rights — and they were not viewed kindly during their time. Sometimes, people believe in things because of their principles, and they turn out to be right in spite of what the political center thinks at that moment.
A lot of centrist elites, though, do not appear to recognize the historical fallibility of mainstream policies. It would be naive not to mention the economics that often come into play when supporting such positions. There is value in preserving the status quo, and that value is often cold hard cash.
Centrism Has Made A Lot of People Rich
Centrists are inherently anti-change. Since centrists draw to the center, they will never endorse a radically progressive position until years after the fact.
Years after it has become the status quo.
If you want someone to defend current power structures for you, whether they are aware of it or not, then getting a centrist in your corner is the best thing to do. They will fight to other people’s death for your right to make money.
For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is critical of Single Payer. She’s so critical to the point where she allegedly met with insurance executives to tell them that the policy would not make it through the House. She may intellectually disagree with that policy (we can’t know what she thinks), but it bears emphasizing that the insurance company Blue Cross/Blue Shield contributed over ten thousand dollars to her campaign in the 2017/2018 election cycle. Her resistance to this progressive policy pays well.
It pays to keep those leftists in line.
Joe Biden has consistently highlighted his friendships with Republicans. In a controversial move, he applauded Republican Fred Upton three weeks before the representative faced a tight general election against Democrat Matt Longjohn in 2018 (Longjohn would lose by about 13,000 votes in a district with a population over 700,000). Biden was addressing the Republican-oriented Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan at the time, an organization supported, in part by the Upton Family foundation. He was reportedly paid $200,000.
It pays to be bipartisan.
At the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t like that Virginia Senator Mark Warner was being critical of Facebook. Schumer argued that Warner shouldn’t try to hurt the company, and instead find ways to collaborate with Facebook; the entity, I remind you, whose negligence had done severe damage to our democracy following the 2016 election. The Minority leader allegedly kept Facebook lobbyists abreast of his efforts. Maybe Schumer is just enthusiastic about government-business cooperation, but we need to recognize that Facebook paid his campaign tens of thousands of dollars in the previous election cycle, and, at the time, his daughter worked for Facebook as a marketing manager.
It pays to keep your business friends in the know.
We should not ignore the fact that the leaders of the Democratic party, men and women who support a middle-of-the-road political outlook, are often being paid by entities that dislike progressive initiatives. It’s not a coincidence that the politicians who are being the least responsive to liberal interests are also the ones who financially benefit the most from not changing their centrist positions.
We Should Not Fetishize The Center
Compromise is an unavoidable, and sometimes a beautiful component of any group. We as humans do not always agree with each other and reaching a workable consensus is a vital aspect of society.
Compromise, however, does not guarantee that the end result will be fair, or even good, for a majority of people involved. The mere act of coming together guarantees nothing.
The Republican Party has proven to be particularly duplicitous in the last half-century, and despite what centrists claim, we should not pretend like Republicans are a negotiating partner that will act in good faith. The centrists who insist that “both sides are equally bad” are not being honest, and often have very material reasons for doing so.
My grandfather is a centrist. He has a saying that I can’t stand: whenever dysfunction breaks out in Washington he will bemoan “the leftwing loonies and the right-wing crazies.” I asked him once, if not conservatism or progressivism, what he believed.
He couldn’t answer me. The only thing he knew was that both groups were wrong. This mindset is how a lot of centrists operate. They adopt the philosophy of centrism for what it gives them.
Sometimes it’s just the feeling of being superior.
Other times it ties directly into financial gain.
We need to watch out for both.
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