Why the Center Doesn’t Hold

(Luke Harbur /The Kansas City Star via AP)

New York congressional candidate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez speaks in support of Kansas Democrat Brent Welder in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 20, 2018.

The W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming” has long been frequently quoted in political stories for the line, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” With the rise of Donald Trump, however, the quotations went viral. According to an analysis by Factiva, the line was quoted more in the first half of 2016 than it had been in the previous 30 years.

And for good reason: As I argue in my book How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, the center is not holding in American politics because the center became corrupted and stopped working for working people; because the bipartisan deals of the past quarter-century were all about deregulation, trade, and reducing social benefits. The center’s chief creation was our towering inequality.

The center isn’t holding on either side of the aisle. The Republican Party has become owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by Donald Trump’s brand of mafia-style cronyism and corruption, in combination with a virulent form of authoritarian racism and sexism. Meanwhile, insurgent Democrats are beating candidates favored by the establishment in places ranging from Orange County to Syracuse, and the Bronx to Kentucky, Maryland, and Nebraska. Seeing where the energy is coming from, and what the polling is saying about primary voters, Democratic presidential hopefuls are adopting more progressive positions on a host of issues.

As a result, Democrats who style themselves as “centrists" and “moderates” are pushing back in increasingly hysterical ways.

Third Way, a major centrist Democratic think tank bankrolled by Wall Street, is leading the charge to contain the energy coming out of the progressive flank of the party. At a strategy summit in July, it launched a rebranding effort, renaming centrists as “Opportunity Democrats.” As Third Way’s vice president of politics and policy, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, explained:

We had to look at the baggage of our own brand and say, ‘Is this the right way to brand us?’ People will still call us moderate Democrats. But a lot of people here would not call themselves that. … You don’t have to be a self-described moderate to believe there is a path other than the end of capitalism.

Having worked closely for years with many of the progressive Democrats who induce such fear in Third Way, I have closely followed their public pronouncements. These are folks like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Keith Ellison. And in all my years in politics, in all my research and reading, not once have I heard or heard of any of these Democrats advocating the end of capitalism. Not once have they disparaged small business or competition in a fair and open marketplace. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren speaks eloquently about the importance of open competitive markets, and how to combat the monopolies and monopsonies that suppress competition and increasingly dominate the economy.  

The Third Way Democrats not only send out false alarms about the threat progressives pose to capitalism, but also fret that these new progressive ideas may bring to a halt the incredible winning streak Democrats have been on over the last ten years.

Just kidding.

Over the past decade, Democrats have gone from having more seats in Congress and state legislatures than they’d had since the 1970s to having close to the fewest since the 1920s, despite, or more likely because of, having the “mainstream" Democrats beloved by Third Way anointed as candidates by party leaders and committees. These candidates have often campaigned on platforms well to the right of Hillary Clinton’s. Consider, as an example, Illinois Representative Cheri Bustos, who is getting talked up by some as a post-Pelosi Democratic House leader. Here’s what she recently had to say: 

There’s the narratives that’s out there, well, ‘It’s the far, far, far left. It’s the Democratic Socialists.’ The other narrative is, ‘The path to victory goes through places like Ohio and Illinois and Iowa and Minnesota.’ I happen to believe the latter narrative.

What you’re presenting here, Representative Bustos, is a classic false choice. I’m a Midwesterner myself, and I’d like to suggest that the old school, working-class, Midwestern progressive populism I grew up with plays better in the heartland (and everywhere) than deregulating Wall Street and cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, as Third Way has advocated over the years. Think about the political identities of many of the successful Democratic politicians who have come out of the Midwest in last couple of decades: Progressive populist Senator Sherrod Brown is the only Democrat in Ohio to win statewide in a decade; progressive populist Senator Tammy Baldwin beat a popular former governor in Wisconsin by making taking on Wall Street the cornerstone of her campaign; your own senior senator in Illinois, Dick Durbin, one of the most progressive members of the caucus, famously said in frustration after a Wall Street reform bill failed during the financial crisis that “the banks own this place”; and progressive populist icons Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin were senators from Minnesota and Iowa, respectively.

For that matter, the former congressman from your district, the great Lane Evans, was a progressive champion of working-class issues throughout his entire storied career. You didn’t have to become a pro-corporate centrist to get elected from that district, Representative Bustos, you chose to be one.

The reason the center “hasn’t held” in American politics is because it failed the American people. The big bipartisan accomplishments and ideas of the last quarter-century have been shaped by wealthy and powerful special interests and have hurt working families. They include trade deals like NAFTA, written to help big multinational corporations make money; a substantial weakening of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department; welfare “reform” that cut poor people off from benefits even when they couldn’t find work; massive Wall Street deregulation, which led to the 2008 financial collapse; bailing out the “too big to fail” banks created by that deregulation (and failing to prosecute any bankers); the consolidation of Big Media through the Telecommunications Act of 1996; and various “grand bargain” proposals (thankfully never passed) that would have cut Social Security benefits and imposed a draconian austerity regime on the nation.

In consequence, the rich have gotten exponentially richer, while working people’s wages have flatlined. More and more industries are becoming monopolistic, and consumers and workers have less and less power. Voters in both parties are moving away from the center because the center has forgotten about them. They are revolting against the status quo—a pro-corporate, establishment centrism. 

So, sure: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of democratic socialism isn’t going to play everywhere, as she herself freely acknowledges, although I would argue that it would play a lot better in most places than cutting Social Security and coddling Wall Street. But a working class–oriented progressive populism in the mode of Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown will do just fine in helping Democrats start winning governing majorities again.

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