There are times when one can persuasively argue that so-called “centrism” is the proper strategy for winning a presidential election. Now is not one of these times.
First, let’s be clear, centrism is not a political philosophy or even a consistent political position. It is defined in large measure by what it opposes, namely, the left and the right. Yet, what it opposes is not fixed, for example, what would centrists have looked like during the 1930s and the 1980s? They would have been very different beasts, because what is considered left and right shifts over time, and the middle ground shifts with them. Centrism is typically a vote for the status quo or moderation in face of political positions on the left and right that are deemed perilous, and yet it draws on them even as it opposes them, creating political hodgepodges out of their ideas.*
Trump didn’t win as a centrist. He won as a right-wing populist. He promised something outside of the box, outside of the current political center. Even if his political philosophy was depthless and incoherent, he had a coherent emotional strategy, which involved telling people that they had been screwed by the Establishment, and making them very angry about having been screwed, while targeting innocents as the culprits. He didn’t have to be truthful. He just had to seem right. Trump still has an energized base that believes in him, that is moved by him, that loves him.
The majority of Americans believe that the country is not on the right track. This has been true for years. People remain frustrated and fed up. Nothing that has the taint of same old, same old will do. But it’s not platforms alone that will convince people that change can happen. It’s going to require a passionate candidate and passionate followers to convince people, to counter the energy of Trump’s supporters, for whom Trump represents the promise of positive change. This is in fact how Obama won in 2008. Remember “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes, we can!”
If we try to defeat Trump with humdrum centrism we run the risk of being steamrolled by the energy in the Trump camp. We saw what happened in 2016. Hillary was not a good candidate for two important reasons: 1) she appeared bloodless to too many Americans, and 2) her proposals were seen as same old, same old. Even when she moved left, she hedged her bets. Not a good look facing a Trump.**
To defeat Trump will require a two-pronged strategy: 1) a coherent program to improve life in America, and 2) the dedication of those who are not only opposed to Trump, but who are passionate about a candidate, because they believe that he or she will address crucial issues, for example, climate change and destructive economic inequality.
This brings us to Bernie Sanders. Look at the Democratic field as impartially as possible. Is there anyone who brings his degree of believable passion to the table? Is there anyone who has generated anything like the enthusiasm he has on a national level? He has a proven track record here. There may be other candidates who come off as passionate, for example, Elizabeth Warren, but they have not been tested nationally, nor have they been as consistent as Sanders for so long.
This isn’t an argument for idealizing Sanders. I am suggesting instead that we need the energy of people who believe that a candidate will keep his or her word and really work for significant change. No one in the Democratic field has a track record that can compare.
Sometimes we really do have to fight fire with fire. Passion with passion. This is one of them.
Still not convinced? Consider the following.
Why do you think Trump and company are attacking Democratic candidates for president and their supporters as socialists? Early branding? Perhaps. But anyone with any political savvy wouldn’t be showing their cards so early if they truly believed that the label “socialist” would cause their opponent to self-destruct. They would hold their tongues, hope that the candidate most easily branded a “socialist” was nominated, and then go on the attack. So, here is another hypothesis. The GOP is worried that in spite of the label, the policies of democratic socialists, as well as their prominent advocates, will prove immensely appealing, especially among working class voters who have been left behind by the system, folks in Midwest states who gave Trump the election. They are terrified that what they have tried to stamp as “free stuff” will look pretty good to most Americans. They want to run against a centrist like Senator Klobuchar and not a Sanders. In other words, all of the noise about socialism is meant to scare and prevent Democrats from nominating someone who might be a genuine threat, both in terms of winning the election and to their (financial) interests. Here is Nathan Robinson from his piece, “Why Bernie Sanders’ radicalism can take out Trump,” in The Guardian.
Sanders has an unusual advantage against Trump: he’s capable of effectively countering the type of nationalist populism that elevated Trump to office, by offering a more hopeful and heartfelt appeal to popular instincts. He is capable of going to working-class communities and speaking to people without seeming patronizing or insincere. He does particularly well in the midwest, the exact areas that were so critical to Trump’s victory. His message speaks not only to rural white people, but to the black residents of Milwaukee who saw little progress under years of centrist Democratic governance.
Trump would love to run against a candidate who didn’t have a passionate following and who offered a platform that could be tagged as the same old, same old (centrism). Let’s not give him the opportunity.
* And let us not forget that labeling something as perilous or risky is often a rhetorical ploy utilized by those fearful of change. Sometimes out-of-the-box positions are demanded: think of the American Revolution. From one perspective the centrists or moderates would have been those who decided not to side with the American patriots or the British. The wishy-washy neutralists. Their motto: not “Live Free or Die,” but “Let’s Not Be Too Hasty.”
** The Democrats made a terrible mistake in 2016 running on the rhetoric of things being already pretty good and getting better all the time. See, “Obama’s ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’ Speech or Why The Dems Could Lose the Election.”
Button photo from Ramparts Magazine, 1962-1975.