Note: This is a follow up to my previous article. If you don’t like it, ignore it.
Several commentators have written about the need to restore healthy center-right and center-left parties, capable of negotiating in good faith with each other, to drive public policy decision making in our legislative bodies. We’ve had too much of fringe politics making progress difficult, if not impossible. I agree. At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss altogether what the fringe might be saying that is truly important.
Let’s start with center-right and center-left. Center-right is cautious about using the powers of government to address social and economic problems, preferring private sector solutions. It works to keep taxes as low as possible without jeopardizing their highest priorities, which seem to favor defense and stimulus targeted at major industries. Center-left is enthusiastic about using the powers of government to address social and economic problems. It is suspicious of private sector control over matters of public welfare, and is willing to raise taxes as needed to fund social services. Both desire the nation to be a vigorous, even dominant, player in world affairs, including trade. Both support defense spending, but center-left questions the need for more advanced equipment when basic needs are left wanting. Each is able to negotiate with the other in the good faith intention of finding an agreed upon workable decision. The problem is that each is inclined toward the laws of inertia. It takes a whack of substantial force to wake them up to issues critical to the health and well being of the nation.
On the sidelines are various fringe groups complaining that centrists are just Tweedledum and Tweedledee ignoring the real problems, refusing to listen to the cries of those left behind. Some are far right, some far left, and some have narrowly defined interests that defy being systematically categorized. They are the ones providing the whack of substantial force. But they are not the ones who can be trusted to run the country. Thankfully, they don’t, but they have managed to gain enough political power to make it difficult to get anything done because they are incapable of negotiating in good faith.
During the Reagan era (1981-89), conservative and corporate lobbyists began using a new tactic to move the centrist debate outcomes more favorably in their direction. They announced that because liberals had staked out such extreme positions toward the left, the only way they could balance the negotiating outcome was to stake out a position farther toward the right, which they did. The thing is, the center-left had not staked out a far left position at all, so the fulcrum was moved way over to the right, and the tactic worked. The intent was to benefit business, or more specifically corporate, interests, but along the way they picked up fringe movement allies such as Falwell’s Moral Majority that were disinterested in corporate matters, but could see the value in changing the terms of the debate for their own conservative social agenda. It planted the seeds for today’s tea party inspired polarization in which nothing will happen if they can’t get their way. I am not impressed by those who try to be fair and balanced by condemning both sides. As Friedman, Krugman, Dionne, Robinson, and others have noted, the polarizing intransigence has come from the tea party side of things.
Speaking of which, when the tea party movement took hold around 2009, commentator Rachel Maddow said it was not a true grass roots movement because it was financed by a few wealthy persons (who?), and energized by the professional provocateurs of conservative talk radio and television. She was wrong. However financed and provoked it may have been, it was a genuine outpouring of disaffected people who were suspicious of a black president, discouraged about their economic future, and frightened of a federal government government that might take their weapons. There were enough to them to elect enough state legislators and members of congress to use the old Reagan era corporate tactic to stop everything, or nearly everything, if it didn’t go their way. Except for Kansas, it hasn’t gone their way, and the result has been deadlock in too many places, especially in D.C.
With that in mind, it is time for centrists to forcefully reject tea party like tactics, and get back to the business of working out decent workable decisions directing the future of the nation. My own politics are center-left, and that’s the direction I think we need to go. From my point of view it means policies that encourage and support a vibrant private sector, but not at the expense of public policies and programs aimed at giving the poor, oppressed, and marginalized whatever is needed for them to participate fully with the rest of us in economic and social opportunity. Centrists also need to listen with open minds to what the fringe is saying. Yes, there are paranoid nuts among them, but there may also be something worth hearing. Let’s call them populists, and leave the term fringe for the truly goofy. Populists, in their anti-elite, anti-establishment outrage, can call attention to real thorns and sores infecting the community.
Consider a few historical examples. The Peoples Party (Populists) of the late 19th century raised important issues about unfair corporate manipulation of farm costs and prices, and the instability of monetary policies. Labor union Wobblies helped raise public awareness of abusive labor practices. National Child Labor Committees did the same for child labor. W.E.B DuBois demanded equality ini civil rights for blacks. MLK brought it to a head. PETA raised awareness of wide spread animal abuse. Occupy Wall Street made questions about banking and financial practices hit the front pages. You get the idea, and can probably add more to the list. The point is that as uncompromising and socially offensive as populist movements can sometimes be, they also raise important issues that can be resolved only through centrists negotiating in good faith. That is never satisfying to the populist soul because they don’t want to negotiate or compromise on anything.
Bernie or Bust and Trump supporters are unrelenting, non-compromising populists on opposite sides of an issue that can rip our society to shreds: income inequality. Each is anti-elitist, anti-establishment, which gives them their populist credentials. They have each identified excessive income inequality as an issue that has the potential for undermining the structural integrity of our republican democracy, even if there are dramatic differences between them about what republican democracy is, or what should be done to resolve the issue. Neither of them is competent to guide the affairs of state, although the Trump gang is going for it. Parenthetically, Trump and Trump supporters are two different things. One is delusional, and the other is suffering the illusion that the delusional one is on their side, but I digress. What we need are healthy center-left and center-right parties willing to work things out because they are competent to guide the affairs of state.
The Republican Party, as it currently exists, is no longer a healthy center-right party. Indeed, it’s not a health party at all. What may be needed is a cathartic cleansing through the overwhelming defeat of it’s populist (and extremist) candidates so that it can rebuild as a responsible center-right party. In the meantime, the next congress and administration needs to bend to the task of restructuring our system to address the issue of excessive income inequality because it really is a cancer that can destroy us as a nation that prides itself on economic opportunity for all.
Hopefully, something similar will happen in state houses as well. I certainly hope it does in my state. We shall see.