Centrists treat politics as fandom. Progressives treat politics as a goal. If the rest of my feature disappears from your phone, don’t fret. Those two sentences are the entire argument. Everything else is elaboration.
If you’ve been seriously active on Twitter—and how in the name of God and all his rowdy friends have we gotten to where that sentence is taken seriously—then you’ve seen the very online fight about Beto O’Rourke. The debates follow a repeating pattern. A progressive brings up Beto’s lukewarm record. A centrist responds that the record doesn’t matter: something something skateboard, something something purity. The progressive responds. And then, at some point, a variation on this statement is posted:
This is an astonishing tweet, and deserves our consideration. In the middle of long debates, my friends, there are simple statements that illuminate everything.
When the reliably insane Cornelius Vanderbilt said “What do I care about law? Ain't I got the power?” he might as well have been speaking for all rich people ever. During the White Pride March in Charlottesville, President Trump said “But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” During her 2016 campaign, Secretary Clinton commanded a protester, “Well, why don't you go run for something, then?” These statements are in no way comparable, except they reveal the pent-up essence of the speaker. Trump is an avatar of white revanchism, and Clinton is an out-of-touch technocrat. That's the beauty of the Moment of Clarity: the pane of cloudy glass is wiped clean.
The Twitter user above has given us a similar gift. Much as Vanderbilt unintentionally spoke for all plutocrats, this person unintentionally speaks for all centrists. What's he saying?
First, debate among non-Republicans is counterproductive—that disagreement is possibly even dangerous. Second, nobody can define “progressive.” What does this imply?
If words don't matter, then “progressive” is a rickety scaffolding that can hold any meaning. Want to take Wall Street dark money? Progressive. Leveling Syria? Progressive. Throwing money at Trump's wall? Progressive.
If that's what “progressive” amounts to, where do you stop? In 2005, Senator Biden cast a vote making it impossible for student loans to be discharged through bankruptcy. Is that progressive?
In the centrist view, “progressive” here doesn't mean believing in particular policies. It's a group marker, a tribal tattoo. It's a word with no tie back to the real world. “Progressive” is like calling someone a True Detective or a Certified Master Pickup Artist. The key thing for centrists that you are loyal to the group. And what unites centrists is political celebrity. You can only be a progressive if you are part of an entourage in good standing.
But politics is about platform. Not the people who sell that platform. Obama sold himself as the opposite of Bush II. And personally, sure, he wasn't Bush.
But his policies continued Bush's war and Bush's Gitmo and Bush's wiretapping. In 2008, I adored Obama as much as I despised Bush. We applauded and he gave eloquent speeches and said the right words. And then he dropped a hundred thousand bombs during his presidency.
If you were standing on the dusty ground in Iraq, what did it matter that Bush was a famous dullard and Obama loved The Wire? Could the bomb craters tell the difference?
Personality does not matter, platform does.
This is the crucial divide between centrists and progressives. We don't just disagree on policies, we disagree on how we see the politics which will lead us to our ends.
I can illustrate this in two tweets:
I haven’t been shy about supporting the Prophet Sanders. I’ve even given him an ironic nickname, which is the only way the pundit class can feel love. But if Bernie abandoned his platform tomorrow, I’d forget him. I don’t want my champion to be my friend. I want him to enact my will.
I’m sure the Lorax from Vermont is gruffly charming in his personal life. But Bernie is only compelling because his policies are attractive. Take that away, and you’ve got Larry David in worse suits. What’s more, Sanders would agree with me. He doesn’t matter. Medicare For All is what matters.
In fact, you could make the argument that the main reason progressives like Bernie is that he’s such a contrast to the normal centrist shtick. Obama had charisma; Kennedy had the looks; Biden has this make-believe Onion persona. What does Bernie have? He’s a crusty old dude from Burlington who attracts stray birds. If he kowtows to Goldman Sachs, he’s lost the reason for our affection.
Moreover, we know this fight isn’t about Beto, Biden, Bernie, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This debate happens every time a powerful centrist gets challenged. If anybody jeers Pelosi, or Biden, or the Clintons, or the Obamas, Donut Twitter goes deaf with rage. How dare you, you party-crashing urchins? What’s the first criticism of Bernie? “He’s not a Democrat!” That is what matters.
But why should it be this way? Centrists possess reason. They can grok policy. Centrists understand the reasons for intra-party fights. Indeed, centrists encourage such fights in the GOP. They’re heavily invested in the “Reasonable Conservatives will rise again” narrative.
If that’s the case, why do centrists care more about loyalty than policy?
Because centrists are deeply wedded to institutions. The center-right and the center-left buy into the basic myths of our big ridiculous society. And not just the institutions of party. The biggest, most important buy-in is accepting capitalist inequality as natural, and healthy. Once you’ve made that commitment—and it’s a huge one—there’s not that much room to maneuver. Centrists are emotionally, philosophically, and intellectually invested in the belief that coercive economic power is not really a problem.
That makes politics very difficult for them. Politics is mostly about resources: which groups of people get what. That’s the central debate. Everything else is salad dressing.
Centrist pundits pretend identity politics and economic policy are separate. In reality, you can’t divide them. If you can’t question economics, your options for reform are limited. A centrist can talk about representation in Hollywood. But to have lasting, effective social justice, you must challenge the economic structure of the entertainment industry. Centrists cannot, will not, admit that.
Let’s drill down a little deeper. Here is the world’s shortest political test, written by me:
Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $160 billion. He makes about two-and-a-half thousand dollars a second, eight million dollars an hour, and $1.5 billion a week. What do you think about that?
It’s not a complicated question.
Centrists spend most of their time running away from the World’s Shortest Political Test. Or changing the subject. Or not thinking about it. Or saying progressives have ulterior motives in asking the question.
Now: if you don’t believe economic struggle is important, what remains? Culture. To centrists, politics is a matter of culture. They have that in common with conservatives. Culture is a matter of signs and consumption and manners and norms. That is why they don’t care about candidate policy, why they’re afraid of direct debate, and why progressivism means whatever they need it to mean at this moment.
Which is a roundabout way of asking: what do you think politics is for? We’re doing the same thing here, as the nervous groom said to his bride at the altar. Is politics a kind of fun game played by superfans? Or is it a practical contest with real consequences?
Twitter wants a definition for progressivism? Let’s oblige them.
Progressivism isn’t agreeing with everything I say, or what AOC says, or what Bernie says. It’s a series of questions. Either you believe in the imperial project, or you don’t. Either you believe in the moral legitimacy of our prisons and prosecutors and police, or you don’t. Either you believe Bezos deserves a better life than his workers, or you don’t.
It’s not a matter of a single particular bill. It’s not a matter of black and white. It’s this: who is “we?” To put it in religious language: Who gets saved? Is it the people who vote for my party, and those people alone? Or is it everyone: the nonvoters, and Red State folks, and youngs, and the Jill Stein voters? Either you believe everybody deserves food and shelter and medical care, or you don’t. The centrists are right on one point: it’s all about “we.”