We Are Witnessing the Last Gasps of Centrism

While the Democratic establishment is blindly attempting to revive the neoliberal Third Way, the party’s base is embracing socialism.

Miles Kampf-Lassin September 10, 2018

Don't shed a tear for the demise of centrism. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

If there’s one thing estab­lish­ment Democ­rats excel at, it’s cov­er­ing their ears and whistling the tired tunes of cen­trism. Despite hav­ing expe­ri­enced colos­sal elec­toral loss­es, the whole­sale rejec­tion of their neolib­er­al pol­i­tics and the resur­gence of a bold left-wing pop­ulism across the coun­try, cen­trist true believ­ers are doing every­thing in their pow­er to keep the party’s pro­gres­sive insur­gency at bay — even if that means stamp­ing out the new­found ener­gy breath­ing life back into the party.

The party’s centrist wing is terrified. The political enterprise they’ve spent their careers building runs counter to the big, universal redistributive policies being supported by the Democratic base.

Take the Oppor­tu­ni­ty 2020 con­fer­ence, host­ed in late July in Colum­bus, Ohio, by Third Way, a cen­trist think tank. At the gath­er­ing, mod­er­ate Democ­rats — includ­ing law­mak­ers and par­ty big­wigs like bil­lion­aire real estate devel­op­er Win­ston Fish­er, co-host of this con­fer­ence-turned-con­so­la­tion ses­sion — con­vinced them­selves that their brand of tepid, busi­ness-friend­ly poli­cies is what the pub­lic real­ly wants.

Rather than tar­get­ing ram­pant inequal­i­ty, orga­niz­ers embraced an eco­nom­ic mes­sage of oppor­tu­ni­ty” to ensure that each per­son has a chance to suc­ceed — nev­er mind the skewed play­ing field that favors the few.

New Democ­ra­cy, a fel­low cen­trist group, also held a July meet­ing to plan its coun­terof­fen­sive to the grow­ing left wing of the par­ty. That group’s mes­sage? Accord­ing to Rep. Cheri Bus­tos (D‑Il.), it boils down to, the cen­ter is sex­i­er than you think.”

Sex­i­ness aside, what would Third Way’s Wall Street-fund­ed vision of oppor­tu­ni­ty con­sist of? A pri­va­tized retire­ment fund, a ven­ture-cap­i­tal-style bank for under­served com­mu­ni­ties and a vol­un­teer pro­gram for retirees called Boomer Corps.” If this doesn’t sound like a pro­gram up to the task of solv­ing the eco­nom­ic cri­sis fac­ing the work­ing class, con­fer­ence speak­er Rep. Tim Ryan (D‑Ohio) made clear the gathering’s real mes­sage, a rebuke to the party’s insur­gent left wing: You’re not going to make me hate some­body just because they’re rich. I want to be rich!”

While plen­ty of Amer­i­cans undoubt­ed­ly want to be rich, more and more are wak­ing up to the fact that the cur­rent sys­tem depends on them remain­ing poor. And they’re sick of it: An August poll shows that, for the first time since Gallup start­ed ask­ing the ques­tion 10 years ago, Democ­rats now view social­ism more favor­ably than capitalism.

Dur­ing this year’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries, left chal­lengers run­ning on bold pro­gres­sive agen­das won across the coun­try, from Ben Jeal­ous in Mary­land to Rashi­da Tlaib in Michi­gan, Ilhan Omar in Min­neso­ta, Ayan­na Press­ley in Mass­a­chu­setts, Andrew Gillum in Flori­da and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York.

These can­di­dates have embraced an emerg­ing left-wing con­sen­sus plat­form, includ­ing Medicare for All, free pub­lic col­lege, a $15 min­i­mum wage and mas­sive invest­ments in renew­able ener­gy. A num­ber of them, includ­ing Oca­sio-Cortez and Tlaib, open­ly ran as demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists who called out the fail­ure of cap­i­tal­ism to pro­vide work­ing peo­ple a dig­ni­fied life.

This shift to the left isn’t just evi­dent in the pri­ma­ry results. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 cam­paign helped pop­u­lar­ize an array of pro­gres­sive poli­cies, and they’ve been gain­ing steam ever since. Uni­ver­sal, sin­gle-pay­er health­care, free col­lege tuition and a $15 min­i­mum wage now boast the sup­port of a major­i­ty of Americans.

The cor­po­rate inter­ests bankrolling the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment remain adamant­ly opposed to such pro­pos­als. It’s no sur­prise, then, that the party’s cen­trist wing is ter­ri­fied. The polit­i­cal enter­prise they’ve spent their careers build­ing runs counter to the big, uni­ver­sal, redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies being sup­port­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base — and by the pro­gres­sive can­di­dates in the media spotlight.

The party’s future suc­cess hinges on the Left exert­ing its bur­geon­ing pow­er — in the streets and the bal­lot box — in a way unseen in recent Amer­i­can polit­i­cal his­to­ry. That’s the real oppor­tu­ni­ty Democ­rats face in 2020.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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