How the Word “Centrism” Became an Insult (And Why It Should Be)

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How the Word “Centrism” Became an Insult (And Why It Should Be)

The Democrats may have lost 1,000 seats in the last eight years, and a Presidential election to a vulgarian with a soft spot for racism, but there are millions of proud Democrats who still believe in the Party’s centrist model, first made popular by Bill Clinton in 1992. These centrist Democrats hate Trump and they also hate what they describe as the Progressive Movement’s “purity politics.” But something they really can’t stand is being called . . . “centrists.” As Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, these folks are starting to resent the insinuation that being something so moderate and allegedly pragmatic could be an insult.

Well, it is. Moreover, it should be. Because in 2017, if you’re still proudly flying your Democratic centrism flag, you lack compassion or intelligence. Perhaps both.

That might sound fairly provocative to centrists, but then again so does single-payer healthcare and strong unions, so I’m not sure their outrage is a reliable indicator of incitement. Still, there’s a very good reason so many in the growing progressive movement find centrism so ethically devoid. That’s because it’s incredibly bizarre to think of centrism as a belief system in the first place. Centrism is a byproduct of triangulation – the political positioning of yourself between opposing views. It has more to do with geometry than ethics. Accordingly, centrism is meant to be a political strategy, not a moral philosophy. The only morality to centrism is the argument that if it helps Democrats get elected then they can put forth comparatively more liberal policies than Republicans. That’s it. That’s why the moment centrism ceases to be politically effective, it no longer has any moral value.

Which brings us back to our timeline. It’s true that in 1992, Democrats in this country were still very much in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, and perhaps only a lite version of the Democratic platform could win elections at that time. Maybe Bill Clinton had to reign in the party by showing a willingness to deregulate Wall Street through the repeal of Glass-Steagall while ratcheting up sentencing and incarceration for those accused of violent crimes. Arguably, none of that was necessary, but I’m willing to give centrists the benefit of the doubt—at that point in time. But after 25 years of Centrism, we have a party that failed to jail a single individual for the Wall Street fraud that tanked an economy, that believed in bailouts for businesses but not homeowners, that has seen union membership decline to a fraction of what it once was, and has, in lockstep with Republicans, propagated constant interventionist war. We also have the loss of Hillary Clinton, a self-proclaimed centrist who liked to call herself economically conservative, but socially liberal. And let’s not forget those 1000 lost seats in the last eight years.

It’s 2017, and centrism as a strategy has failed.

Yet, based in literally nothing, centrists still feel content to roll their eyes, and explain to those with progressive values how the “real world” works. It’s not all candy and unicorns, they say. Being a realist means giving up unrealistic notions when necessary for victory.

Now, I’m sorry if it’s insulting, but if you can look at the centrist years of relentless losing and think you have the right to say, “more of this,” you deserve to be insulted. Let me repeat that: Anyone who thinks centrism works deserves to be insulted. And the maddening part of it all is that decidedly non-centrist policies like single-payer healthcare continue to poll increasingly well even as the majority of Democrats only half tip-toe towards its consideration. (Kamala Harris’ recent support of the idea has, so far, been an anomaly.) Even if you’re a Democrat who doesn’t care about runaway deductibles or 27 million uninsured Americans, you should be embracing single-payer just as a democratic strategy. Why wouldn’t you? Because paid pundits who like to pretend that “neoliberalism” is an invented word tell you not to?

Confronted with a terrible Democratic track record, most centrists will then claim their views are not based in mere pragmatism, but good ol’ fashioned centrist values. I’m not really sure what those might be. Insuring more people, but certainly not all people? Being pro-choice, but picking running mates who supported anti-abortion legislation? Criticizing Republicans who keep going to war, but remaining silent on drone strikes, regime-change warfare, and NSA abuses under Democrats? What could these central core values be? Considering triangulation means shifting your beliefs based on your opponents’, centrist beliefs are inherently malleable. That’s probably why even though both Bill and Hillary Clinton are similarly-minded centrists, only one of them was running for president when a middle class still existed. Twenty-five years of neoliberalism fed through a triangulation machine allowed this country to be pushed increasingly to the economic right, giving the private sector greater power while the divide between the 1% and the rest of the population continued to grow.

But centrists aren’t defeated yet. Pushed to this point, offended centrists might tell you their values reject all forms of violent and dangerous extremism. Now, that argument certainly sounds better than bragging about how effective your politics are while Republicans kick your ass, but it is the emptiest of rhetoric, requiring multiple lies to even exist. Take Kurt Eichenwald, who’s so great at being a centrist he loves both Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Kurt and centrists like him enjoy pretending the anti-fascists, or “Antifa,” are the sum total of the progressive movement, and that they’re as bad as Nazis. It is nothing short of bizarre that the centrists who loved to scream “false equivalence” during the 2016 election…really love making false equivalences:

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This rhetoric is nothing but a dodge. Despite centrist propaganda, Antifa is not the summation of the progressive movement. Ask progressives what they’re looking for in candidates, and you’ll hear the same things over and over: single-payer, affordable college, and a rejection of constant interventional warfare. Which of those policies is extremist? Which of those is violent?

Furthermore, if centrism is a rejection of and positioning between extremes, then centrists give progressives every reason to push left as hard as possible. After all, Trump is racing this country dangerously to the far right, so without progressives, these centrists will be forced to take a step or two in that direction. But thanks to all the hard work of the progressive left, and their polling and fundraising efforts, centrists are now able to stay right in the middle doing nothing while they #Resist. That’s right—the whole liberal platform of mere resistance is only possible because of every idealistic person fighting to push the Democratic Party back to its pre-centrist values. Is that insulting for centrists to hear? I hope so.

Gladstone is the author of the Internet Apocalypse Trilogy of novels on Thomas Dunne Books. He has written for publications including Cracked, Slate, and Thrillist.

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