As the tone for the 2020 primary season becomes muddled with the vote counting controversy in the Iowa caucus, it has become clear that the centrist faction within the Democratic Party (commonly classified today as establishment Democrats) has become nothing more than a fleeting relic of past political victories. Living in the Trump era has made it easy to see that the rules of political engagement have changed. Not only has American politics morphed into a gladiator style free-for-all brawl, but the sentiment of the American public has altered.
Moderation has been usurped by the extremes of both the Right and Left, where those who are the most politically active are also those who are the most rigid ideologues. To add to the partisan divide, both parties are flirting with majoritarianism, where the loudest voice holds the key to the party’s doctrine and values. Voters who are not attuned to politics or loyal to a party will increasingly feel isolated and if they decide to vote, will likely vote for a candidate based on popularity.
Centrists have been cited as being antagonistic to democracy and supportive of strong men politics. A problem with this assessment is the way in which a researcher defines who gets classified as a centrist. Can we lump them all in one group even if some have ideological leanings and others apolitical? Is having a preference for order antithetical to one wanting change to bad laws or leadership? This may be oversimplifying the definition, but one way a person can understand themselves to be a centrist is by an aversion to accepting a dogmatically stringent strain of both Left and Right political philosophy.
There are many people who fall somewhere in between Communism and Libertarianism, and they want the freedom to be able to listen and understand people with different ideological viewpoints; maybe even have the ability to build coalitions and debate which viewpoints hold resonance with a majority. Ideology feels safe for many people, but it alone cannot be used as an all-encompassing method to rebuild the architecture of American political culture and laws. Furthermore, falling somewhere in the center of the political spectrum is not equivalent to accepting corruption in establishment media or politicians; people who are moderate see the corruption too. They want to fight it, but without the ideological baggage of voting for a political bloc that does not represent all Americans and will definitely not do it by being bullied by the far-Left for not conforming to their exact worldview. Democratic socialists and Progressives may speak fanciful about wanting a revolution to weed out the worst manifestations of corruption, and as much as corruption needs to be tackled, it is important to note that revolutions rarely give birth to their original intention, nor can a country be legislated into a utopia.
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The distressing thing is that everyone has a stake in this game, but only the most extreme party politics have gained legitimacy. Our politicians have perverted our fears and concerns and weaponized them for the benefit of their own political power. In these times, the act of labeling oneself as a Democrat or Republican constitutes a loyalty to a certain set of values and cultural norms. It is no more only about differences in the implementation of public policy, but a battle over who controls and disseminates the rules of engagement that govern the whole system (cultural and procedural) of American democracy.
Slogans and rallying cries have become the new platform from which both the Democrats and the Republicans sway voters to their cause. American politics is no more about negotiating policy to appeal to a consensus, but to instill ideological righteousness in their followers in order to fulfill a partisan agenda for the entire country. This rebranding of party politics has led to absolutism on both the Left and Right. Where we see President Trump’s Republican Party molding the old establishment (neo-conservatives and constitutional conservatives) into a populist nationalist fold, we will see the old Democratic establishment (liberal internationalist Obama/Hillary wing) fall into the mold of the identitarian politics of the Progressive faction of democratic socialists.
The center has surely dropped out. People who still deem themselves to be moderate will be not be welcome in this new set of politics. Being a moderate will now mean being a supporter of a corrupt establishment.
And I am one of those people.
The Majority’s Authority
The problem is that the Obama sect of the Democratic Party has no leader. Joe Biden is not that person. He has had so many odd speaking mishaps this campaign season that I would be surprised if anyone believes that he is even capable of holding the office of presidency. Even more bizarrely, news has come out that if he is elected in 2020 he might not seek a second term. I had to double check on this story to make sure I was remembering correctly. I have never thought of Joe Biden as being the torch bearer for centrism, especially not so in the 2020 Presidential Election. Pete Buttigieg is the only Democratic contestant who is moving more to the center but has problems stemming from his time serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana and so far, has not excited the Democratic base or independents.
A big problem is the vilification of moderates from Progressive media. Progressives tend to brand moderates as backers of corporatist establishment policies that have assisted in stifling reform to the system, and because we do not want to sign off the Democratic name to a check list of socialist policies, we must be supporters of oppressive elites.
Now don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that Wall Street crony capitalism and the financialization of the economy are major problems that needs reform. But like any concerned citizen, I want to make sure we do it the right way. Senator Elizabeth Warren has many good ideas on economic reform, but they also need to be discussed and debated more openly due to the complex nature of the topic. There is a fear in the corporate and technology sector that excessive taxation might break down tried and true operations that lead to innovation. Many of her ideas sound great on paper but need thorough research and debate before implementation.
The We Have A Problem Moment
To make matters worse, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently spoke at an event where she stated:
the Democratic Party is a center or center-conservative party and that we don’t have a left party in the United States.
As absurd as this statement is, it does force us to truly understand what she is trying to say from her point of view. The only way I can work around the ignorance of this statement is to look at it as emotional hyperbole. The 20th Century is filled with examples of burgeoning progressivism in American politics, the most noted example being President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) who enacted government social safety programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It’s true that the progressives of yesteryear do not look totally similar to today’s progressives, but what they do share is the ideological sentiment of centralizing government power in order to ensure the general wellness of citizens.
Unless Ocasio-Cortez’s Progressive wing decides it’s a good time to start re-writing history to favor the politics of their worldview, I will assume her statement seeks to inform the audience that we never had European style socialism in America, and that is why Democrats are not her understanding of the true Left. To make her point a little clearer, I am to the right of Vladimir Lenin.
I know that Progressive programs like Medicare for All and a higher minimum wage poll rather favorably amongst the public, but I am not sure that voters in Middle America, whether they be Obama to Trump voters, Independents, or even liberal establishment Democrats are ready to toe the line of Ocasio-Cortez’s ardently purist form of socialist ideology, especially with its modern packaging of identitarian doctrine. Writer Max Diamond’s article on the topic states that such thinking:
dismisses anyone’s argument based on nothing more than his or her identity group and that the conflict then is between a system of representational democracy, in which we unite over broadly shared interests, and a group-based representational system, which, due to the doctrine’s own premises, requires group conflict and the failure of democracy.
The more Progressives try to be inclusive by boxing people in social and racial identity bubbles, the more they actually exclude ‘the other.’ I get a sense that is how it is meant to be considering it is a good technique in decreasing the power of whatever group they perceive to be the dominate out-group.
Social and economic empowerment for minority groups is increasingly tied to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist doctrines, where a safe space is carved out for politically legitimizing past grievances while tying this dissent to build a movement for a complete overhaul of the ‘system.’ The identity politics inherent in this type of critique isolates other people whom may not have the same racial or gender identity, but care about the exact same economic conditions that have depleted the power of the middle-class since the onslaught of the 2008 Great Recession. Many Trump voters have vocalized similar angst about employment opportunities and livable wages. What they saw in Trump was their own version of a social safety net. Trump and Bernie voters both support more protections for the middle-class but will remain divided due to Trump supporters race driven class denialism and Progressive voters use of dogmatic anti-capitalist doctrine. There is a center somewhere here, but it is very hard to bridge together.
Onward To The Revolution?
In my opinion, most Americans like a certain amount of government run welfare programs, and most progressives do seek to end grave social, economic, and political injustices, but I am not sure if they are ready to do so with the leadership style of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. Talk of revolution and grievance politics might be a way to start a conversation about problems, but it is not the solution.
Another contentious point of debate is whether overhauling the healthcare industry to enact Medicare for All is affordable. It may be the right thing to do but there is no consensus on how it would affect both cost of care and quality of care. Here is some further reading on the positives and negatives.
There is corruption in Washington and Wall Street, and I do support policy initiatives that would help overhaul money in politics and crony capitalism, but at this moment I am not on board with electing a Progressive under the leadership of Sanders/Cortez. I am a Democrat and I do not want a socialist overhaul of the entire American system. When Progressives call a voter like myself a corporate Democrat, it gives all the evidence I need to understand that they are trying to take over the Democratic Party. Whether it is their intention or not, I absolutely feel as though they are trying to push out voters like myself.
For now, there is nowhere to go, but I know in the future voters like myself will have to work to build a new coalition with the center-Right and/or with other Republicans who never got on the Trump train. I know it’s untenable to think we can rebrand Trump’s Republican Party, it’s just not plausible especially in this era of mob style winner-take-all politics. Either we fight the extremes, or we succumb to the dreaded fate of being a third party, which at its worst would be a new Independent Party and at its best would be something other than a Democrat or Republican. In the near future, this would be unlikely to happen since we currently do not have a multi-party system. Good articles on the failure of the two-party system and the benefit of a multi-party system can be found here and here. The future for sanity in American politics may be in the legitimization of multiple political parties.
Will Election 2020 Be Populist Nationalist Or Populist Socialist?
So Democrats, especially moderates, are in a perilous situation. On one side we see Trump supporters whose nationalism is more tribal than it is patriotic and on the other side we see Bernie supporters who believe that only way to right America’s sins is to centralize government power in order to throw money at long-ingrained social and economic problems. But whatever you do, don’t tell Trump and Bernie followers that they have anything in common.
Most of them refuse to see it but both Trump’s nationalists and Bernie’s socialists have a set of ideals which seek to benefit the common working man and woman, where they differ is in the tactics used to rebuild a solid middle-class. Both want to end America’s foreign wars and interventionism but differ in how to define the future role of American power. One major difference is that Trump’s followers still want America to be number one on the world stage but without needless wars that take the lives of their children, whereas Bernie’s followers want to diffuse the power of what remains of American hegemony and give more power to international governing bodies like the United Nations.
All in all, Trump and Bernie followers both suffer from in-group/out-group thinking. If you agree with mass majority of their ideological platform (including slogans and policy ideas) then you are in the group voting bloc, and thus helping to give them the leading opinion within the Republican or Democrat party. This type of group think has helped build the majoritarianism that has taken over both political parties, where dogmatic rhetoric is used to fuel popular support for anti-establishment attitudes.
The anti-establishment wave is not going to fade anytime soon considering economic issues like the national debt, inflation, and wage stagnation are some of the most pressing issues of our time which have not been fully addressed.
The mood of today’s popular political culture is mostly aggrieved and both Bernie Sanders and President Trump have an edge in cultivating and sketching out a base of support that see both as reformers to a broken system.
To conclude, the Republican Party is now defined by President Trump’s nationalist wing, whereas the Democrat Party is nearly ready to be remade by the Progressive faction. Moderates have no leader and no party where their voice has any resonance. Media pundits and politicians are heavily to blame for creating this atmosphere and are now unable to contain the anger and frustrations of the American public. The only way partisan media figures can mildly contain the anger is if they point the finger at the other side, deepening divisions within an already ossified political culture and pushing people further away from understanding how to come together to fix the political and economic problems plaguing the system.
In Election 2020, it is very likely that only the far-Right and far-Left will be fighting over who gets to remake America in their image. As we continue our inward fighting, the weakening of the American polity will not only cause further erosion to American institutions but to American power on the world stage.