The United States is not looking so good lately. Medical costs are spiraling out of control, wealth continues to be siphoned to the very top, poverty and homelessness are rampant. Fortunately, elites have a solution for us: a healthy dose of political moderation.
The fetishism of pragmatic centrism for its own sake finds its most common expression in calls for former New York billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president, a regular ritual that comes around every election season.
In October 2015, concerned that Clinton’s primary fight had pushed her too far to the left, Bloomberg’s Wall Street friends pushed him to run, with billionaire hedge fund investor Bill Ackman declaring, “He’s all the best of Trump without the worst of Trump.” Michael Wolff, citing Clinton’s tack in early 2015 “towards an Internet-and-millennially-centric left that . . . sees the center as its enemy,” also endorsed a Bloomberg run, while the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin pointed to Bloomberg’s social liberalism, support for the Iraq War, and tough-on-crime policies as reasons he would make a “credible challenger” to Clinton. Bloomberg even got a nod from Rupert Murdoch.
This longing for a “sensible” center isn’t solely focused on Bloomberg. Only last month, Tim Geithner — the former treasury secretary responsible for the bank bailout — lamented the “scary erosion of the pragmatic center in politics, the diminished capacity to make sensible economic choices.” For years, the media’s stock advice for Democrats who suffered losses in the midterms has been to move rightward. In 1997, in a private conversation with then British prime minister Tony Blair, Bill Clinton offered Blair his personal admiration for having “the freedom to capture the center and move into tomorrow.”
The center is a moving target.
The center is often held up as a kind of ideology-free zone that exists outside space and time, a neutral area that straddles the line between left and right where the true solutions to the world’s problems lie.
But it should go without saying that as political belief shifts leftward or rightward, the center does with it. What is centrist today may be tomorrow’s wacky extremism, and vice versa. As much as pundits like to complain that the problem lies with both major parties drifting towards their ideological extremes, the fact is that they have both experienced a dramatic rightward shift over the past few decades.
This development has been most dramatic for the GOP, which one study found is the most conservative it has been in one hundred years. The rabidly anti-tax, anti-government, anti-immigrant Republican Party of today is quite different than the party’s past positions. What was “socialized medicine” in 2007 was originally Richard Nixon’s health-care reform proposal, and even Ronald Reagan raised taxes several times and gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants. This isn’t to mention the “big government” policies pursued by the Republican Party of the 1950s.
“Extreme” ideas have broad support.
Despite the certainty of political elites that the path to political success sits directly down the middle — a belief typically based on nothing but gut instinct — there is plenty of evidence that policies typically considered far to the left enjoy broad support.
For instance, while Hillary Clinton and others have dismissed Sanders’s calls to break up the big banks, 61 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans are in favor of it. Ditto for Sanders’s proposal to make college tuition-free, which critics charged “doesn’t make sense” and would kill historically black colleges: 62 percent of Americans back the proposal. And despite Clinton’s reluctance to adopt a fifteen-dollar federal minimum wage, 63 percent support it.
This is the trend for a whole host of other supposedly far-left policies. Large majorities of Americans believe money has too much influence on politics and want campaign finance reform. 58 percent favor replacing Obamacare with a federally funded health insurance program, with only 22 percent in favor of repealing it with no replacement. 61 percent say the wealthy pay too little in taxes. Just over half think the Obama administration failed to do enough to prosecute bankers. And 54 percent agree with the statement that a “political revolution might be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class.”
The ideas championed by “firebrands” like Sanders are not fringe policies to be abandoned in the rush to the center. They are the center.
Centrism doesn’t necessarily translate into electoral success.
For decades now, moving to the center has been viewed by the liberal political establishment as a surefire strategy for winning elections. The thinking goes that by moderating any progressive beliefs they may hold, Democrats can siphon “independent” or even conservative voters away from the Right. In the process, even if they compromise on some core principles, they can make incremental reforms while preventing the worst conservative policies from being enacted.
A study released last year, however, shows that while “triangulation” may win votes in the short term, in the longer term it causes disillusioned core supporters to abandon the party, while not engendering loyalty among the more conservative voters it poached. That’s just what happened in the 2010 “shellacking” the Democrats received, in which a few voters switched sides, but rather many Democratic voters stayed home.
Sanders’s electoral success in the primaries reflects this. He performed best in states that held open primaries like Alaska, Michigan, and Wisconsin and polled better among independents than a self-described “moderate” like Clinton. In fact, until the day he dropped out of the race, Sanders continued to poll better than Clinton in head-to-head match ups against every Republican candidate.
Pundits’ demands for liberals to move to the center aren’t likely to disappear overnight. And while at seventy-four, Michael Bloomberg isn’t likely to ever launch that presidential bid he’s been threatening for a decade, there will always be some centrist technocrat like him who establishment figures will hold up as the answer. But while centrist politics was once seen as the future, shifting norms appear to be making it a remnant of the past.