By Herb Bowie
As the US political scene transitions from the Democratic successes in the midterms to the beginnings of the 2020 presidential contest, one of the most pressing questions to emerge is whether there is any meaningful middle ground remaining along the political spectrum stretching from left to right.
This will certainly be a question for Democrats to consider in their primaries, but the concern has also come to the fore as a result of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz announcing his availability to run for president as a centrist independent. And so we have to ask: exactly what would an avowed centrist believe in these days?
One of the traditional recipes for a centrist is to call oneself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. But where does this leave you?
You don’t gain any libertarian votes, because you believe in moderate gun control and some reasonable degree of federal taxation.
You lose the religious right, because you believe in a woman’s right to abortion, and in LGBTQ rights.
You lose the mostly older, mostly pale, mostly male voters who are obsessed with sending all the immigrants back to wherever they came from and slapping up a wall right behind them just as soon as you get them across the border.
Ergo, you give up all hope of support from Fox News and the right wing media. But that’s ok, right? You’re a centrist, so you’re trying to position yourself to the left of those nutjobs.
So now let’s turn our attention to those extremists on the other end of the spectrum that you’re trying to distance yourself from.
You lose those on the left who believe that global climate change is a serious issue that demands national focus and investment and something more than lip service.
You lose those on the left who believe that social justice is tied to our growing income inequality, and that to address both we need to change our laws and tax policies to better provide for workers and children and consumers, and make things a bit less cushy for rich people.
And so who do you have left? Those who somehow don’t think we need to Make America Great Again, but who do believe that all we need is a sort of Return to Normalcy after the great aberration of the Trump Presidency? Those who are worried about saddling the next generation with an astronomical national debt, but not worried about leaving them with a hotter planet and nowhere they can afford to live?
And what is your rallying cry? What are your hot-button issues to motivate your base? Balancing the budget? Most of us think that this is important, but very few of us believe these days that this issue is anywhere near the top of our list of concerns.
The chief political strategy of both sides in recent years has been demonization of its opponents. What do you do as a centrist – try to convincingly demonize those on both the right and the left? Fight a political war on two fronts at the same time? Hand out hats in a calming color that say “Make America Normal Again”, or “Back to Center”?
My sense is that the chief voting bloc for centrism consists of business owners, executives and middle managers and professionals – people who feel they’re doing pretty well, and just want to avoid rocking the boat: those in the 9.9 percent who make up Matthew Stewart’s “New American Aristocracy.” But even if you can somehow motivate all of these people to come out and vote for you, that’s not a big enough group to support a successful presidential run.
The basic problem for a centrist, I think, is that hardly anyone today thinks that these are normal times that call for a normal leader.
There is seemingly a large group of Americans who think that abortion, birth control, homosexuality, criminals, Muslims and people of color are ruining our nation. They fear nothing more than a “normal” leader who would let all those forces proceed unchecked.
There is another large group of Americans who believe that climate change is real, and that we need to do something about it before it goes any farther. They fear nothing more than a “normal” leader who would fiddle while the world burns.
There is another bunch of us who believe that rising levels of income and wealth inequality are not only dangerous and unpleasant for a great many Americans, but also threaten the very integrity of our social order. This group wants nothing to do with a centrist leader who would allow these disturbing economic trends to continue apace.
And there is another (no doubt overlapping) contingent with the belief that our society lacks all sense of social justice, with open season seemingly having been declared on people of color, gays, and non-Christians. This group certainly wants nothing to do with a centrist leader who thinks there is some “normal” American condition that is worth returning to.
In short, some of us want to return again to where we’ve been in the past, while some want to venture to someplace we have not yet been. But hardly anyone just wants to stay where we are, or even where we were four years ago.
I think most of us have some idea of what a right-wing worldview looks like these days: we may not agree with it, but it’s well established, and we know what it looks like.
And most of us have some idea of what a progressive worldview looks like: again, we may not agree with it, but we understand how the world appears from this perspective.
But how does the world currently appear through the eyes of a centrist? Is there some way to just split the difference between the far right and the far left and call it good? I think most of us don’t have any clue about how to do this. Try as hard as we can, we can’t quite figure out what the world looks like through a centrist lens.
And so what does that leave us with for an image of such a leader?
The only thing I can conjure up is a picture of a jet ski that has lost its rider, quietly turning in circles to avoid doing any damage.
And that’s not an inspiring picture for a presidential candidate.
Published 2019 Feb 18