Lost in the middle: Will the arrogant certainty of "centrism" destroy America?

From Bill Clinton through Barack Obama and now Joe Biden, the centrist consensus has failed — and learned nothing

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published December 26, 2020 12:00PM (EST)

Joe Biden, Bill Clinton (circa 1992) and Barack Obama (circa 2008) (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden, Bill Clinton (circa 1992) and Barack Obama (circa 2008) (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." One insight to draw from Santayana's oft-repeated aphorism is that the repetition of clichés is likely to have little effect, given the widespread tendency to ignore pithy advice and continue witlessly recycling, recreating and reliving history.

Over the past few weeks, the Republican Party has proven itself hostile to freedom and democracy; its merciful incompetence the only thing saving whatever remains of our republic from the fascist insurrection of a con man. The absurdity of the cast members — from Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to their incoherent Michigan "witness" and of course Donald Trump himself — have made the entire fiasco seem more like a satirical film than political reality. At the other multiplex on the Democratic side of town, every screen is running previews for the third version of a box office smash, "Centrist Failure," with Joe Biden taking over the leading role from his more charismatic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The 1990s original had audiences entranced by a seductive Southerner, Clinton, who under the guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council rebranded his party as the "new Democrats," which apparently translates into "Republicans." Clinton cut social programs, ended "welfare as we know it" by making single mothers work low-income jobs without child care, signed a massively destructive and draconian crime bill into law, deregulated the financial industry, and approved NAFTA. Democrats throughout the mediocre commentariat largely applauded, on the grounds that right-wing policies with a friendlier face were the only way Democrats could win or maintain power, and prevent another Reagan-like figure from seizing control of the country. 

After all, they asked, wouldn't you rather have Clinton, with his paeans to social liberalism, administrative proficiency and obvious intelligence, than George H.W. Bush? Sure — but then along came Bush's son, holding the White House door open for the ghoulish likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and proving himself far worse than his father. Two horrific wars, the criminal ineptitude of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash created fertile conditions for radical reform, but instead the "hopey-changey" Obama administration committed the first error of national politics. They failed to act on the keen insight of the aforementioned Cheney, who once told a defiant Republican senator, "We don't negotiate with ourselves."

Obama clearly enacted policies that improved American life. The Affordable Care Act rendered an ongoing catastrophe somewhat less deadly, he doubled Pell grants (barely keeping pace with exorbitant tuition spikes), signed the Paris climate accords and negotiated a decent nuclear deal with Iran. He also staffed his Cabinet with corporate sycophants, allowing the same banking and high-finance bandits who had liquidated working-class wealth to manage the "recovery"; dropped the "public option" from his health care proposal without a fight; and spent years attempting to reach compromise with an obstructionist opposition that he eventually admitted — rather too late — had no interest in productive policy and governance.

Obama was inarguably better for the country than a potential McCain-Palin administration would have been, let alone the planned corporate tyranny of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But throughout his two terms in office, Democrats lost countless state and local offices, while obliviously arguing that demographic changes all but guaranteed their permanent ascension to power — a great victory that somehow always lies just beyond the horizon. Performing a cover version of the Clinton composition, mainstream politicians and pundits also insisted that any openings to the left would provoke a vicious backlash, manifesting in a menacing right-wing resurgence. In other words, if Obama had governed as a progressive, someone like Donald Trump might have become president.

A rational observer might assume that the victory of a reactionary psychopath who upended all normative assumptions about politics would have introduced a little humility and introspection into the centrist consensus. That observer had best not hold her breath. 

Biden hasn't even taken the oath of office, and the centrist crew, including Obama and Biden himself, are blaming the left for Democratic losses in the Senate, House and state legislatures, citing the activist call to "defund the police" as the primary reason for the party's poor down-ballot performance. There is no data to support this conclusion. If anything, the available evidence actually suggests that candidates with progressive positions outperformed the so-called moderates.

Lack of evidence has never stopped the centrists before. Now they've reached a point where information is an unnecessary impediment to their effort to overwhelm all legitimate political or ideological debate with a mélange of platitudes and bromides. 

John Harris, writing in Politico, chastises the "stupid second guessing of Biden" from the left over his corporate Cabinet choices, focusing closely on the early opposition to the potential appointment of former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Harris claims that progressives "don't know what they are talking about," and then attempts to prove Emanuel's merits by summarizing a book he co-wrote in the 1990s. He never mentions that Emanuel left Chicago as the most hated mayor in the city's long and colorful history, earning contempt for closing dozens of schools in poor neighborhoods and then covering up video footage of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, which eventually sent the officer involved to prison. 

Joe Klein, the former sage of Time magazine and champion of "radical centrism," shared Harris' article on his Facebook page, acting as if he had received it from the hands of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. When I reminded Klein of the McDonald murder, observing that the country's leading civil rights organizations and labor unions opposed Emanuel, Klein responded that I was "missing the bigger point." 

Centrists are always threatening to make a big point, but never follow through. Here is the big point that they've been missing for 40 years: The neoliberal consensus is disintegrating, taking traditional party politics into oblivion, because the policies on which it was built have devastated the lives of ordinary people. Widespread privatization and the elevation of what Karl Marx called "fictitious capital" — interest, stocks and commodities, dividends and incomprehensible financial instruments of many kinds — have transformed an economic arrangement that, for all its flaws, gave at least some working-class people a chance to build stability and generational wealth into a Serengeti Plain where the powerful use their fangs and claws to rip the flesh from the weak.

The RAND Corporation — hardly an advocate of socialism or Marxism — recently reported that from 1975 to 2018, the top 1 percent, taking advantage of tax policies, corporate welfare and other built-in benefits, took in $47 trillion — that's trillion, with 12 zeroes – that otherwise would have been distributed among the bottom 90 percent. 

Naomi Klein explains brilliantly in her book "The Shock Doctrine" that catastrophes and crises typically exacerbate inequality in various ways: They offer multinational corporations an opportunity to force out small competitors, convince governments to deregulate or surrender public land and other areas of the commons, and accelerate urban gentrification and residential segregation. It is hardly surprising then that COVID-19 has only enhanced these hideous developments. According to one report from the Center for Public Integrity, 900 companies that accepted billions in Paycheck Protection Program loans still laid off a cumulative total of 90,000 workers.

American life, for most citizens, has become a never-ending struggle, with essentials like health care, child care, and high-quality education all but inaccessible. As a recent report from NPR made clear for those sitting in the back, even many Americans who appear to have it made in the shade, earning relatively high salaries and owning substantial homes, still live paycheck to paycheck, frightened that an unexpected expense will drown them in debt.

There's "stone cold rage in the hinterlands," Warren Haynes shouts in the Gov't Mule song, "Stone Cold Rage," capturing the way that entire American towns have collapsed into conditions that resemble war zone. Small villages that once had a vibrant communal center made possible by family farming, light manufacturing employment and small retail business have become ghost towns, without much hope for middle-class or even working-class resurrection. In a previously unprecedented and horrific development, "deaths of despair" — primarily meaning those caused by suicide, drug overdose, alcoholism and obesity — began to rise in the United States a few years ago, especially among men in rural areas.   

The inhabitants of these desolate and deprived outposts have accepted a theory, albeit a terrible and dangerous one, to explain their demise. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist who spent five years conducting lengthy interviews with poor people in the Louisiana bayou, summarizes it this way:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they'd worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back. 

Hochschild is not seeking to excuse the obvious racism embodied in this narrative, or to deny its pervasive influence on whites who support Donald Trump and other xenophobic Republicans. She only explains that nearly everyone she interviewed articulated some version of this "deep story," to use her words — "a story in which you lift away facts and moral judgment and just find the story that feels true." 

A massively funded apparatus of creative thinkers and skillful personalities inundate voters with right-wing propaganda on a daily basis, creating an alternative universe in which "facts and moral judgment" drift away to make room for the hateful scapegoating of all the people Hochschild identifies above. 

What is the centrist "deep story" that might respond to this? Is there even a centrist hypothesis to explain and alter the continual decay of American life? 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently courted the scorn of centrists for stating the obvious by calling Biden's vision for the country "hazy." None of the attacks on her even tried to offer an alternate assessment of Biden's prospective agenda. Of course there is time for the incoming president to communicate with more clarity and specificity, but progressives in Congress are only expressing the reasonable concern that 20 months after Biden announced his presidential candidacy, no one can honestly describe his overarching vision for governance, reform and public policy.

The progressive or leftist politics that Ocasio-Cortez represents at least offers Americans, especially those who suffer from poverty and despair, a "deep story." The leftist deep story has the benefit of being true. It doesn't require adherents to overlook relevant facts or suspend all moral judgment. It makes no room for racism or nativism. Instead it accurately surveys the reality on the ground, from the South Side of Chicago to the swamps of Louisiana, and offers real, actionable solutions, which double as an effective counterargument against the nationalism of the fast-rising far right. 

As psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl demonstrates in his book, "Dying of Whiteness," many white people in "heartland" America are so deeply committed to "racial resentment" that they will actively vote and fight against their own access to medicine, education, clean air and better wages. Many of the poor people Metzl interviewed essentially took the position that it is preferable to starve than to endorse policies that might better the lot of Blacks or "illegal immigrants." 

Of course progressives shouldn't assume that they will convert Trump followers to democratic socialism with a few Bernie Sanders speeches and John Mellencamp records. They may, however, begin to shift some political support with active and aggressive engagement throughout the country, explaining exactly why their "deep story" is better than racial inculpation and division. 

As for the centrists, they guarantee failure, offering exactly nothing other than their own arrogance and provably false prescriptions to ordinary people confused and outraged over the decline of their communities and the precarity of their own lives.

Centrists insist that "moderation" is the only sensible approach to national politics in a large and diverse country. They might have an argument worthy of consideration if the world's problems were moderate. But the impending climate apocalypse is not moderate, nor is the dramatic and worsening economic inequality, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. Those things cannot be addressed with compromises or half-measures.

Centrist equivocation will only alienate Americans from each other, while emboldening the forces of right-wing extremism, ignorance and hatred. From the 1980s onward, through recession, war terrorism, and ecological catastrophe, this story has repeated itself time and time again. How many times will the "sensible" centrists have to watch the country descend into chaos before they learn its lessons?

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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