In Defense of the Center

The mushy center never inspires passion like ideological purity. The spectacle of radicalism puts asses in the seats. It’s hard, on the other hand, to imagine rebellious, mask-clad youths taking to the street in the name of fine-tuning marginal tax rates.

Oh sure, you may see a protest here and there, and practically everyone grumbles about this or that issue in which they have an interest. But as the great philosopher Calvin once said: a good compromise leaves everybody mad.

calvin

Some more so than others. Opining in the New York Times, Senator Bernie Sanders suggests Democrats can reverse their political fortunes by abandoning their “overly cautious, centrist ideology,” and more closely approximating the policy positions of a Vermont socialist.

I suppose this could be sound political advice. Everyone has an idea of the way they’d like the world to work, and Sanders’ ideas are appealing to a great many people. You could argue–as Sanders does–that Republicans have had some success with a similar strategy following the Obama years. But, as they’re finding out, ideological purity makes for better campaign slogans than successful governing strategy.

Here’s the thing: We live in a big, diverse country. People have very different wants and needs, yet we all live under the same (federal) laws. Our priorities must sometimes compete against each other, which is why we often end up with some of what we want, but not everything. Striking that balance is tough, and by necessity leaves many people unhappy. We don’t always get it right. But when you’re talking about laws that affect 320 million people, some modesty, or if you prefer, “caution,” is in order.

Alas, Bernie is not of a similar mind. In fewer than 1,000 words, he offers no shortage of progressive bromides without mention of the accompanying price tag. It’s one thing to form a platform around medicare-for-all, higher taxes on the wealthy (their “fair share”), aggressive clean energy commitments, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, or free tuition at state universities and lower interest rates on student loans. But all of them? At once?!

Sanders should remember the political and economic lessons of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s foray into single-payer healthcare: Government spending–and thus government activity–is constrained by the population’s tolerance for taxation (And on the other side of things, their tolerance for a deficit of public services. Looking at you, Kansas). Go too far and you risk losing support. And unless you’re willing to rule by force, as extremists often must, that will cost you your ability to shape public policy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Senator’s advice would do the Democrats any favors. The Democrats didn’t move to the center-left because there was widespread and untapped support for endless government programs in America. They did it because they collided with the political and economic reality of governance in our country. Americans are willing to pay for some government programs, but not at the rate Europeans pay to have much more expansive governments. The left, therefore, shouldn’t play an all-or-nothing game, but instead think about what it does well and how it can appeal to, rather than alienate, the rest of the country. That’s going to involve compromise.

Update: Following Jon Ossoff’s narrow defeat in a Georgia special election, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether a more progressive candidate would have fared better. Personally, I find it hard to believe centrism and fiscal conservatism worked against Ossoff in a historically Republican district. Much more believable is Matt Yglesias’ related-but-different take that Ossoff’s reluctance to talk policy left a void for the opposition to exploit, allowing them to cast him as an outsider.

One thing seems certain: the rift within the Democratic party isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sanders Supporters: Why Fall in Line?

On June 6, 2016, the New York Times ran this article claiming that Clinton had clinched the nomination the day before the California and five other states head to the polls to vote in the primaries. The article, based on a poll by the Associated Press, claims that Clinton has secured enough superdelegate votes to effectively guarantee her the ticket, regardless of the turnout yesterday. The timing was…serendipitous, shall we say. All in all a fitting end to the Democratic primaries.

Anyone following the election will be familiar with the growing sentiment that our political process has been hijacked by elites. To paraphrase candidates Trump and Sanders: that we have a rigged system. This surprise announcement—that voters in six states have been rendered obsolete by the markedly undemocratic superdelegate system—will surely do nothing to alleviate such disquiet.

I haven’t been shy of critiquing Sanders’ ideas from my little soapbox. He made the economy a cornerstone of his campaign and then displayed approximately zero economic acumen (in my opinion at least–plenty of people find him compelling). But for all of the eye-roll-inducing statements he made over the past year, his campaign has been a breath of fresh air. It brought to light the extent to which establishment Democrats are perceived to have failed the working class (Trump did the same for the Republicans) and underscored that there are big ideological divisions within the Democratic Party.

It also brought a troublesome revelation for many longtime Democratic voters: some of those “Washington insiders” against whom they rallied to the beat of Sanders’ war drum have a “D” prefixed to their state. That disillusionment is sure to haunt the Party as it charges into November under the banner of a candidate under federal investigation for at least the fourth time.

Now Sanders and his supporters will be told (in truth, continue to be told) that it’s time to turn back into a pumpkin and fall in line. My advice to them: don’t.

I won’t go on a diatribe here—Clinton has plenty of merit as a candidate and is certainly “qualified” to be president, to whatever extent one can be qualified for a unique position. But she and her awkward, halting coronation represent everything wrong with American politics: the presumptuous attitude of entitlement; the ethos of a benevolent dictator; the impunity of the well-connected; the fallacy that less terrible is synonymous with good.

In 1964, Malcolm X observed that while Democrats were getting into office on the black vote, black political support was being taken for granted. I’d say the same point applies to any demographic or individual. If a voter is really into Sanders’ ideas, most of which are rooted in some spirit of protectionism, how do they rationalize supporting a pronounced neoliberal like Clinton?

Vote (or don’t vote) for whomever, for whatever reason you find compelling. But Bernie supporters shouldn’t reward a political party that persistently refused to take their candidate seriously out of a sense of obligation to “party unity.”