Last week, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a characteristic statement urging her party to remain in the center and resist any turn to the left.
Pelosi’s remarks came with a bizarre addendum, namely the suggestion that Democrats should narrow the horizon of their ambitions because Donald Trump might contest the legitimacy of the election results: “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that”, said the Speaker, before issuing the following prescription to her party:
Own the center left, own the mainstream …. Our passions [during last year’s midterms] were for health care, bigger paychecks, cleaner government — a simple message …. We did not engage in some of the other exuberances that exist in our party.
There are some obvious holes in this analysis.
For one thing, it implies that Democrats should be letting Donald Trump’s (entirely hypothetical) future actions dictate their strategy for opposing him. More importantly, there is simply no reason to assume — as Pelosi’s statement does — that a candidate who rejects the wishes of the party’s left will fare better against Trump than one who embraces and champions them (his narrow victory in 2016, after all, didn’t come at the expense of a left-wing candidate but rather an avowedly centrist one who shares Pelosi’s politics).
The real issue with Pelosi’s claim, however, has to do with its implicit belief in a center ground where there exists a significant constituency of voters who will be turned off by anything even a tad to the left of the Democratic Party’s conventional, big-business, and donor-friendly agenda. In making such an assertion, of course, the Speaker is hardly alone: her assessment very much represents the dominant one among pundits and marquee op-ed columnists.
In this conception of politics, both parties have minoritarian constituencies of committed ideologues with values and demands that are unpalatable to a much larger bloc in between. Deferring to this larger bloc while doing just enough to mobilize core supporters is therefore considered the sweet spot for winning elections — and it usually means adopting something very close to the current Democratic leadership’s preferred policy agenda: an amorphous brand of social liberalism that ultimately defers to the logic and pressure of markets.
As ubiquitous as this narrative is, it suffers from a few pretty glaring flaws.
It might be pointed out, for example, that those often assumed to be on the fringes of American politics (perhaps engaging in some of the “exuberances” so curtly dismissed by Pelosi) are often more aligned with the majority of the voting public than those deemed pragmatic and moderate. That was the thesis of a recent piece by the Intercept’s Mehdi Hassan, which among other things noted that figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez champion policies more in sync with public opinion across a wide range of issues — from higher taxes on the wealthy and a Green New Deal to Medicare For All. For this reason, argues Hassan, the social-democratic and reformist liberal currents in American politics can plausibly lay claim to being its real center.
But the real lesson here may be that the center, as currently construed by Pelosi and most of the national media, is by definition an elite construction rather than a popular or democratic one; not an Archimedean point in the middle of American politics, but a consensus shared and held together by institutional power and those acting to uphold it. Pelosi’s supposed middle ground, as Hassan rightly points out, is significantly to the right of majority opinion. But it also includes a whole lot that the average person probably isn’t very invested in at all.
What passes for the centrist mainstream of American politics — the supposed sweet spot from which it would be electorally suicidal to deviate — tends to be undergirded by powerful actors and big money far more than by popular opinion
How invested is the average American, we might ask, in the maintenance of hundreds of military bases overseas? The retention of a larcenous military budget that easily dwarfs those of China, Russia, India, France, and the UK combined? A campaign finance system that resembles a giant corporate Ponzi scheme? A health care regime that values the profits of insurance industry shareholders over human life? A lower marginal tax rate for CEOs than for their secretaries and office staff? An environmental policy that rhetorically embraces the reality of climate change while pushing the planet ever closer to environmental collapse?
All these things generally pass for moderate, pragmatic centrism in American politics, and some of them may indeed enjoy a popular base of one kind or another. But the consensus they represent is one upheld primarily by some combination of big money, powerful private interests, and embedded institutional power.
Put another way, swing voters in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania probably aren’t all that interested in appropriations for the next generation of cruise missiles, but the Pentagon and the CEO of Lockheed Martin care a whole lot. Those same voters, and their equivalents in other states, are probably even more ambivalent about the latest wonkish compromise between health insurance executives and party leaders, though this too is invariably what passes for the sensible, enlightened middle. Virtually no one thinks it’s a good idea to let those with a few million to spare rig the electoral process, but neither Democratic or Republican leaders ever seem to feel much urgency about aggressive campaign finance reform.
That’s because the center, at least in the sense implied by Nancy Pelosi, represents the middle ground for political elites — not democratic opinion. Far from being electoral suicide, campaigning to break its bipartisan stranglehold on American politics might prove a strategy against which even Donald Trump has no defense.