Political centrists have had a hard time of it lately. Wish-washy, they are said to be. Don’t stand for anything. That’s wrong. It’s at the center where those who are center-right and center-left work things out to move the nation toward social and economic progress. Friends on the far right think centrists are closet liberals who can’t be trusted. Well misinformed by years of propaganda from right wing talk radio and television, it’s hard to know where to begin a useful conversation. Others, who usually vote for centrist candidates, have become discouraged. Is there any way to get them back? Let’s consider a few options.
Democrats made a mistake by focusing on opposition to Trump to the exclusion of issues framed in language familiar and attractive to a broad range on the political spectrum. As many commentators have already said, it cost them the presidential election. The same was true in our local U.S. House campaign where the defeat the incumbent message was not balanced with an even stronger message about what her opponent would do to fight for the district. Negative campaigns have become commonplace, but they don’t work well with voters who believe the system is rigged against them, unless offset by a stronger message affirming what the candidate can do for the voters. Libertarians and right wing conservatives have managed to do that for a vocal group of voters. Centrists have been held in check by those favoring a right wing political agenda that would do serious damage to the republic and the welfare of its people, but it promised jobs and security in an insecure world, which was enough. The current resistance movement may fall into the same trap, relying on opposition without offering a salable alternative. When a significant portion of the electorate is convinced that the system is rigged against them, it’s unlikely they will be persuaded by hammering on the opposition’s negative attributes while ignoring issues related to the their visceral angst. To put it another way, in politics, proving a negative works only when one has something to offer in exchange that has been made understandable to the voters least likely to understand.
In very rough terms, there are two categories of potential voters who believe the system is rigged against them: tea party libertarians, and historically marginalized populations. Tea party libertarians, who have seen their place in the hierarchy of society eroded, have had the greater influence in recent elections. They blame their conditions in life on a government they don’t trust. Dismantling it, they imagine, will restore them to their rightful place. Caricatured as the less educated, angry, white working class, they are far more complex than that, but the caricature is not without some truth. Their small government, give me my liberties mantra is a robust shield not easily penetrated because they are convinced that big government is, by definition, responsible for shoving them to the margins of society. It is big government that has taken their rights and liberties, giving them to (undeserving?) others. To set things right, dismantle big government. But what is big government? It’s any government beyond the village, and they aren’t too sure about the village. They are not a large group, but they have electoral muscle and know how to use it. Getting their vote, if it is to be got at all, requires a message that presses the case for economic and social justice for them without excluding others. Moreover, it’s a message that must be delivered without waving the flag of intellectual condescension, something centrists are not adept at doing.
The second category includes a broad, diverse population of those whose subordinate place in the social hierarchy has been systematically enforced for generations. While decades of civil rights laws have made a difference, the effects of centuries of oppression are not easily erased, especially in the face of well entrenched prejudice that thrives in spite of the law. If those in the first category are vaguely, uncomfortably aware that the system was once rigged in their favor, those in second category fully understand it has always been rigged against them. Snail like progress has helped some, but not all. While they don’t believe government is the enemy, it has not been a reliable friend, especially at state and local levels. They are tired of pandering candidates who promise much and deliver little. Enough of them have become discouraged about elections to sit them out, swinging the outcome in some places. They could vote, but why bother? It’s not apathy, it’s electoral exhaustion compounded by state and local efforts to make voting as difficult as possible for them.
Those represented in these two groups are important because their fears, anxieties, and disappointments are a veneer covering legitimate issues. Centrists from left to right must address them if the nation is to move forward with success in the great experiment of representative democracy binding semi-independent states together as one nation under a constitutionally defined federal government. Appealing to those in the first category for their votes, while appealing to the second to vote, has to speak to the issues that dominate their competing worlds.
Addressing those in the first category has to start with the solution sold to them: dismantle the federal government, leaving a core military and law enforcement function to be used only to defend against threats to their personal liberties, and laissez-faire capitalism will usher in an age of thriving small businesses with robust heavy industries competing fairly to produce the best for the lowest cost. Good jobs like the old ones will come back, and the country will be solidly grounded in the old social values. It’s a vision with glitches many, obvious, and ignored. Rather than naming them in supercilious self righteousness, center-right and center-left candidates must be unapologetic about the need for a big federal government. It’s a big complicated nation in a big complicated, interdependent world of nations. It takes a big government to manage it. A progressive agenda that meets national problems with national solutions is not socialism, it’s common sense.
It’s not the size of government per se that is bad, it’s the impenetrable maze of bureaucratic opaqueness that is so frustrating. For that reason legislators and executives must be fearless opponents of bloated government bureaucracies that are unresponsive to local conditions, needs, and values. They must stop micro-managing through legislation, and encourage political decisions to be made at the lowest possible level within national standards of justice and equity for all persons. Center right and center left legislators and executives must also be courageous protectors of human rights, liberties, safety, and ecological well being that is so easily challenged by interests more opportunistic than malignant. There will be, of course, the usual outcry of federal overreach that must be fearlessly met face-to-face through listening sessions during which listening really happens. Trust in government is not easily gained when one has been spoon fed years of anti-government propaganda, particularly when it heartens back to Reagan’s oft cited quip that government is the problem, not the solution.
Those in the second category never bought that line. Government is OK, politicians are the problem, and that may make them harder to reach. They’ve been lied to so often, let down so often, and suffered so long under the scorn of public derision for benefitting from undeserved, unearned government programs and preferences. Listen, promise only what can be delivered, do the work, report back. It’s a simple formula but political egos have a hard time resisting the temptation to tweak, manipulate, and preen for self aggrandizement. I’m not hopeful most politicians can do it, but try they must.