“Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”
— Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
After years of lazy contempt, the centrists decided to address the unwashed masses. Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times titled “The Center is Sexier Than You Think.” It was embarrassing.
Bruni’s argument rests on two pillars: One, centrism is what people want. Two, centrism is pragmatic and realistic. Both are demonstrably false.
The supposed center doesn’t exist.
Look at all these centrists!
The numbers disprove centrism: polls show the public favors progressive ideas. History disproves centrism: eighty years ago, a much more conservative America gave Roosevelt four terms. Modern politics disproves centrism: Trump was so extreme that the GOP punished him … by voting him President. Where was the mighty centrist push-back? As one writer put it, the only center of modern American politics “consists of policies the people who finance elections want to see enacted.” Centrism is the house belief of the American ruling class.
When he reviews Democratic fortunes, Bruni is either ignorant or disingenuous. He recycles thoughtless cliche. He treats the utterance of corporate-funded third-way hacks as if it was holy writ. He misrepresents Conor Lamb and other politicians. He blathers about the success of machine Democrats, without mentioning how the national party has led a constant campaign to purge progressives from their primaries. In Pennsylvania, a woman named Jess King tried to fight the machine. But:
It turned out the Democratic Party had other ideas — or, at least, it had an old idea. As is happening in races across the country, party leaders in Washington and in the Pennsylvania district rallied, instead, around a candidate who, in 2016, had raised more money than a Democrat ever had in the district and suffered a humiliating loss anyway. ... across the country, the DCCC, its allied groups, or leaders within the Democratic Party are working hard against some of these new candidates for Congress, publicly backing their more established opponents, according to interviews with more than 50 candidates, party operatives, and members of Congress.
Bruni uses the word “pragmatic” as opposed to progressive. In Bruni’s case, “pragmatic” means “non-ideological,” and the only non-ideological position is centrism.
Let’s put a stake through this vampire once and for all: Centrism is not the absence of an ideology. It is an ideology. It is a belief in the current system. Centrists benefit from the status quo. They have the privilege of mocking change. They are not materially effected by current oppression.
Bruni won’t tell you what Beltway centrism actually means. None of the centrists will.
What does it mean, to believe in the status quo?
I will tell you their platform.
Centrism believes in the drug war. It believes in the carceral state. It believes in student debt. It believes in medical debt. It believes in the righteousness of all American wars: past, present, and future. It believes that the rich are doin’ just fine. It believes that Washington is the home of the best and brightest. It believes in institutions.
Centrism says it believes in the dignity of people of color, but is scared of Black Lives Matter. It says it believes in Native Americans, but approves of the Keystone Pipeline. It says it believes in women, but only to the extent that there should be more female CEOs.
Centrism believes in modern capitalism. It believes in the meritocracy. It believes in droning. It believes in the eternal crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan. It believes that wages are just about right. It believes in Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, and it believes in how great they are together. It believes in civility during a time of child-cages. It believes that everything was fine the day before Donald Trump took office. It believes the youth are whining about nothing. It believed Harvey Weinstein until the moment it was no longer “pragmatic” to do so. It believes in the personal and moral superiority of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and the late Steve Jobs. It believes in the troops, but only long enough to thank them for their service, never long enough to listen to them about the VA.
Centrism believes private insurance companies are good. It believes in taxing soda consumers but not laying a finger on corporate agriculture. It believes in Silicon Valley. It believes in the New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME Magazine, the Ivy League, the Fortune 500, Steven Pinker, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, and in the universality of consumer electronics. It believes the Never Trumpers have power outside of the Coasts. Centrism began believing in gay marriage in about, oh, 2012. Centrism believes in vote-shaming: if the bad centrist candidate lost the election, it is the fault of the American people.
Centrism says it loves Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King did not love centrism. King understood how the Brunis of the world worked. He wrote:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Centrism believes in all of these things fully, without reflection, and will believe in them as the Republic collapses. Centrism is profoundly uncomfortable with moral clarity.
Above all, centrism believes it is pragmatic.
There is a very simple test to determine practicality. Practicality is what works. Centrism does not work. It cannot fight Trump. It cannot fight the right. It cannot bring people to the polls. It cannot win elections.
If your sole justification is how successful and effective you are, then you have to go away when you stop being effective and successful.
Listen up, Bruni. I’m a leftist. Our political platform is simple and straightforward. The public doesn’t have enough money or power. Their money and power were stolen by elites. We will fix this. We will take the power and money and give it back to the public. We will elect politicians who believe in this program. We will oppose the politicians who don’t.
Why is Beltway centrism a failure? Because it is unrealistic. Their creed is a masterpiece of contortion. Being a centrist is like being an anti-vaxxer: you have to do so much mental work to keep the real world out.
Centrism requires that you accept twenty-two fantasies as scientific laws:
1. Change isn’t popular.
2. Bipartisanship still works.
3. Process matters more than results.
4. Politics is mostly about manners.
5. The rest of the country is exactly like my social circle.
6. The Midwest and South would never elect progressive candidates.
7. Billionaires are good people, and will act justly.
8. It is practical to continue global wars forever.
9. The far right will act sane.
10. Our environmental policy is rational and sustainable.
11. Our economic structure is rational and sustainable.
12. This is still the 1990s.
13. The system works and will keep working.
14. America is already great, and always has been.
15. If anything bad happens, it’s the Russians.
16. Universal health care is impossible.
17. Strong unions are impossible.
18. Alternative economics are impossible.
19. Millennials love centrism.
20. The future will look like today.
21. A better world is impossible.
22. Whatever is, is right.
Imagine being the kind of pundit who unquestioningly believes these brain-fevers. Imagine writing an editorial for a national newspaper, and calling this heap of self-serving banalities “sexy.” Imagine punching down at the people who care.
We fight for a better world. What do you fight for, Frank?