This is an Opinion Piece.
I have had many debates (on Facebook) about the ideological center where the majority of people sit, we’re told, and where their policy views lie. But the ideology behind that center- the centrist democrat point of view, has been so off the mark, to my thinking, that I simply stopped calling it the ‘middle’ or center view of anything, and instead started calling it the majority view, especially when discussing progressive politics.
What has bothered me most in the past when debating the issue, is that we’ve been looking at the whole thing backward. We’ve been told that centrism is the moderate view held by the majority of people.
But it is really the other way around- it is the majority view that is at the center of America, and therefore the centrist view, and actually has nothing at all to do with the ideology of a ‘moderate’ centrist at all.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t. In our backwardness we have applied a “moderate” ideology to it because what we’ve identified as centrist has been wildly off-center.
Luckily, we have a different lens to look at this through, thanks to venture capitalist and entrepreneur, Nick Hanauer. He discusses the topic of centrism in his latest podcast, Pitchfork Economics: Should democrats appeal to the center by moving hard left? This is a follow-up to a story he wrote last August for Politico Magazine .
What Hanauer says in both his podcast and the article is that to gauge where the ideological center lies, we need to gauge where the majority of people are benefited and generally support an issue.
From this perspective, the ‘majoritarian’ center, as Hanauer calls it, (or the majority view-as I call it), is indeed the center view of the country. But the pragmatic centrism of the establishment-the centrist democrat view of the economic majority, is actually extremely, radically far right.
To understand this better, we have to determine what it is that we are weighing. The ‘majoritarian center’ accounts for what benefits the majority of people. That’s where the center of the country is. That’s also where the majority of support falls.This is NOT the economic center, however. Nor is it an ideological center. Yet, centrist democrats love to tell us their views are where most Americans fall in the center, however much to the contrary that is proven by what most people do or don’t support in poll after pool. Or how much evidence there is of who would benefit the most from a particular policy. In fact, that centrist democrat view is so skewed it seems almost the opposite of what the majority of Americans actually think, believe or support, let alone what they benefit from.
Nick Hanauer effectively illustrates this…with a yard stick!
First he asks us to imagine a 36-inch-long ruler where all of the people in the country are equally positioned along, with the person at the bottom of the economic ladder standing all the way to the left at zero and the wealthiest person standing all the way to the right at 36 inches. If everyone is equally aligned across the spectrum, and it does not correlate with its weight, then the center would be at 18 inches, in the middle. That is where presumably the majority of people fall.
Only, economically speaking, they don’t.
Now, imagine the same ruler, but rather than measuring people we’re measuring personal wealth. The center would be where half of the personal wealth in the country is held, between zero and thirty-six inches.
Fifty percent of the wealth in America, however, isn’t held at the 18-inch, half-way mark. Fifty percent of America’s wealth is owned by the top 2 percent, which would put the center of the economic majority just before the last thirty-six-inch mark at the farthest right of the yard stick. Not only an apt depiction of income inequality, this also reflects how far off center we have become with where, or what we’ve been calling the centrist (majority) view. That view, which actually represents just the top 2% of the wealthy few, and their economic interests and agenda, is what we’ve been calling the ideological center of the American people!
If the majority view is the center and therefor the centrist view, then progressive policies that have majority support and benefit the majority of the people are actually the center, or ‘centrist’ position, and not the radical, extreme, or very far left minority we’ve been told they are, according to Hanauer. This is why progressive issues that effect and benefit the majority of people tend to have bipartisan support, on both-or all sides of the political spectrum.
In fact, the more progressive an idea, the more centrist it usually is! For example, the minimum wage, which Hanauer highlights in both his article and podcast.
Raising the minimum wage
Only a small portion of the country attempts to live on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, approximately 1.3 percent of workers. So, raising the minimum wage to $9 or $10 an hour, as Obama proposed, would only marginally benefit a small minority of people in the country. But, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour builds interest and momentum-and popular support because it would impact a larger portion of Americans-29.2 percent. If we raise the minimum wage even higher to $20 an hour, which is considered the far-left radical ‘progressive’ position, it would benefit the largest number of Americans by far. Currently, 50 percent of American workers make $18 or less per hour. So, a $20 an hr. minimum wage would both directly and indirectly benefit them, thereby representing the interests of the majority of workers at the median or center of the country.
The New Centrism and the rebirth of the American Dream
This ‘new centrism’ should come as no shock to most Americans. It was, after all, the prevailing New Deal liberal perspective following WWII.That New Deal ideology led to three decades of economic prosperity, the rise of the industrial revolution, and the expanding middle class that sparked the American Dream, as Hanauer points out in his Politico article. But we’ve gotten so far off message that we have forgotten what the American Dream was really all about, and what it represented to most Americans at the time.
In the town hall that Bernie Sanders recently held on Fox News, these perspectives are illustrated perfectly. During one of the several occasions that FOX News hosts point out Bernie’s new ‘millionaire’ status, they ask him if making a fortune wasn’t the American Dream? To which Sanders replied frankly, “no.”
And he was right.
Living the American Dream meant that a working-class family with one income could afford a nice house, buy a car, and send their kids to college. It meant having the economic stability to be able to give your children a better life. It was not about getting rich or collecting excessive wealth and status at the expense of everyone else.
For most working and middle-class people, the American Dream was to live a good, decent life where your kids had more opportunities than you did to truly partake in upward mobility, embrace the ideas of entrepreneurship and innovation, and move our country to the forefront of the global economy. For three decades, that’s just what we did, and we’ve been knocking down the gains from that 30 years of prosperity ever since. (Hanauer discusses this at length in his article.)
The New Deal idealism that sparked the American Dream, also sparked ideas like free public colleges and having healthcare as a human right. Which brings me to the next apt illustration from the town hall on Fox News, in front of the FOX News conservative, republican, far right viewing audience.
The majority of their audience, however, when asked if they would support a government-run single-payer healthcare system like Bernie Sander’s Medicare-for-All plan, burst out in vocal support and raised their hands and cheered…not quite the reaction that FOX News hosts were expecting, even with a contingency of Bernie supporters in the house.
That’s because most voters understand that Medicare-for-all gives healthcare to everyone as a human right, which affects and benefits the majority of Americans who are currently uninsured or under-insured. That’s also why most people support Medicare-for-all, whether they call themselves conservative, liberal, republican, democrat, or anything in between, or farther to the right or left.
Yet, we continue to confuse the center majority with the “ideological center balancing the interests of the top 2% against everyone else ‘, as Hanauer points out. This has led to the belief that incrementalism, bipartisanship, or the moderate center was and still is the centrist (majority), and that progressive issues like Medicare-for-all are far left, extreme, radical positions that most Americans don’t supports. The fact that progressive issues and center-majority issues are one in the same fails to resonate with centrist democrats, however.
The reality is that the Neoliberal centrist democrat isn’t the majority. They never have been, and their ideas are increasingly at odds with the real center where our collective majority interests lie.
Neoliberal centrism is also what helped created the Overton window where the center keeps moving further to the right. It’s what allowed decades of incrementalism, created such income and wealth inequality, and kept the political agenda in Washington virtually unaffected and un-swayed by the needs and wants of most people, and the policies that affect and benefit the majority of Americans.
Reclaiming the Narrative!
Which is why we need to reclaim the narrative about what truly is centrist and what truly is radical or extreme. Economically speaking, we need to shift our thinking of the center, not as the economic center, which paints 2% of the American population holding 50% of the wealth as the majority view, but instead what represents the economic policies that benefit-and are supported by the majority of the people. Form that perspective, we can reclaim the term-and the meaning of centrism, and the center/majority, and re-frame the progressive agenda as the truly centrist agenda that it is.
But first, we also need to divorce ourselves from the idea that ‘moderate’ is the same as centrist, or stop confusing the idea that the center view is a moderate view. We’re not gauging ideology-we’re gauging what benefits and is supported by the majority. So, incrementalism, Neoliberalism, or moderate views are not, in most cases, centrist views. Most of the time, pragmatic, incremental, Neoliberal centrist democrat positions are, again, radically far right because they represent a very small minority of people far to the right-of-center. (Just remember our yard stick!)
If we reclaim centrism as the progressive majority at the center of the country, then:
That is the question Hanauer poses in his latest podcast. Of course, he paints this argument from his position as a democrat, rather than as a progressive. While I don’t agree with everything Hanauer says about the democratic establishment, it makes sense to frame the narrative this way if that is the audience you are trying to reach. However, I still think he gives the democrats-especially centrist democrats, way too much credit.
For example, he talks about the far right economic ideology that centrist democrats have “internalized”, and what they mean by “pragmatic centrism” as,
“An economic policy agenda that necessarily balances the interests of business (the few) versus the interests of labor (the many) in an attempt to best serve the interests of all.” – Nick Hanauer, Politico Magazine
I don’t know that centrist democrats are concerned with ‘serving the interests of all’. They seem content to serve their own interests and call it the center majority interests, even when it is clearly not popular opinion. Even when it causes a decades-long stream of unprecedented democratic losses. Even when they simultaneously recognize how hard it is to get elected now without at least calling yourself a progressive! Yet, they still position progressive policies as the fringe minority, ‘unrealistic’ view, not supported by most voters. Or way too radical to ever win the bipartisan support needed to pass a policy measure through congress.
However, we know the real obstacle to passing progressive (centrist) legislation like Medicare-for-all, $15 minimum wage, or the host of other popular progressive policies that have been introduced. It’s their lack of political will. A lack that exists because the interests the democratic establishment serve are not the majority interests of the country, but the economic interests of the elite at the top of the wage and income gap, the ones funding their campaigns, influencing the party, and providing the revolving door through congress to lucrative jobs in the private sector.
Having said all that, Hanauer’s question is a good one, so let’s get back to the answer. The list of what a centrist democratic agenda might include could surprise you, but never the less, this is what Hanauer included (with a few additions of my own at the end). In the context of a ‘majoritarian centrism’, here is what a truly centrist democratic agenda could look like
The Centrist Democratic Agenda
- ‘$15 minimum wage’
- ‘Crucial infrastructure investments’
- ‘Modern labor laws”
- ‘Restored overtime threshold’
- ‘Substantially higher wages on wealthy corporations and individuals’
- Tuition-free public colleges and universities
- Green New Deal goals and projects