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Fetishizing Centrism: The Myth of the Middle in American Politics

June 8, 2016

Middle grounds are created. They don’t just exist. They are always shifting—in motion in relation to new political realities.

Politicians have the ability to shape new middle ground in each election cycle by campaigning on their ideals. You state your ideals in relation to your opponents, and then attempt to forge a new center based on compromise and feedback. True pragmatism, moreover, would not deal in mythologized centrism. Pragmatism deals with the truths that arise from hard-won evidence about the existing situation. Real political pragmatism can shape a middle ground.

The Democratic Party in the U.S., however, is not really pragmatic. It makes a fetish of centrism hoping that mythical mushy ground will attract the largest number of voters. And the party sells that centrism hard, convincing primary voters that it is the best way to win national elections. But the centrism the party sells and fetishizes is a dated centrism, based on data from past elections, old circumstances, and nominating committees filled with senior thinkers. Every election requires a reevaluation of the on-the-ground situation.

The 2016 presidential election holds forth a number of unique situations that should give pause to the centrist fetishists. Past experience in this year provides, I believe, only rhymes, not hard lessons. I think this particular election is something different. We have demagogue running at the top of a Republican Party that believes in…what? Do we know what Trump really believes in? I think the answer is only power. He’s definitely not a “no small government” advocate in a globalized nation. That’s the ideological problem for the #NeverTrump conservatives.

The lack of congruency between this election year and recent presidential elections is striking. This fact will be ignored or denied at our peril.

I gravitated to Sanders several years ago when I realized that starting in the center was no way to negotiate with a right-wing party bent on destroying the effectiveness of our political institutions. The failure of the strategy of negotiating from the center became evident to all observers during the Obama presidency. Except for his reelection in 2012, nothing of policy significance has been achieved by Obama since the 2010 midterms.

Sanders attracted me also for his attention to what has been the central fact of U.S. social, political, economic, and cultural life since 2008: economic inequality.  That reality is at the center of what the current Democratic leadership has ignored. It has fetishized centrism over paying attention to the central problem of our age–the one that has driven politics since Obama’s election.

I truly fear that the mythical center presented to us by this year’s Democratic Party will not hold. They have presented us with a middle-of-the-road candidate whose profile fits a dated centrism that is out of sync with the 2016 election cycle. This kind of centrism won’t defeat a demagogue. It also doesn’t address the most important problem of the past eight years.

This year’s candidate has to create a new middle ground in tough, unique circumstances. I’m not sure she has the will or skill to do it. I hope she proves me wrong. – TL

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