Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) hobnobs with attendees of a May 17, 2019 event hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)
After a half-decade of progressive political gains, so-called "Centrists" over the last several weeks have struck back hard. In the U.K., Labour Party leader Keir Starmer used his annual speech to the party's annual conference to "draw a line" under the progressive ideas of "Corbynism" promising instead a "serious plan for government." Similarly in the U.S., Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—both frequently described as "centrist" or "moderate"—are holding up a major progressive spending bill due to claimed concerns over its cost. While the Left rails against these attacks, many continue in the corporate press embrace them as "sensible" and "moderate" voices with "their thumb more on the pulse on the average Democrat in the country" in a time of supposed left-wing and right-wing extremism.
Even more troubling, is the constant refrain that this "centrist" reaction represents a return to a "serious" politics. The dominant narrative is that while the Left may have laudable ideals, their policies are unworkable and their vision far too idealistic. By contrast, the narrative goes, these "moderates" reflect a much needed pragmatism that combines genuine desires for change with realistic and comprehensive strategies for achieving them.
These notions are the latest myth for preserving an elitist status quo whose only serious ambition is increasing its profits and political power. What these so-called "centrists" are really fighting for and promoting are outdated ideas based on a dogmatic free-market ideology that if enacted would only lead to more suffering and injustice. What is needed, instead, are serious radical solutions for addressing our numerous global problems.
The serious problem with "Serious Politics"
If the 1990s were a decade of "centrist" triumphalism, then the new millennium marked by financial crisis, genocidal invasions, climate change, and global public health pandemics should have signaled the end to the party. At the very least, those who politically preached the promise of capitalist driven prosperity for all should have repented and reflected on how wrong they had ultimately been. Even the Chair of the House Budget Committee, John Yarmuth, finally proclaimed in exasperation that Joe Manchin has "no understanding" of how the monetary system actually works. Yet these free-market believers continue to peddle their economic "malarky" under the snake oil of being "serious" policy-makers.
What is even more striking is that it was only recently that so-much of the media has reinforced this image of supposed "moderates" as policy gurus whose ideas and solutions are based on evidence rather than mere idealism. The 2016 battle between Sanders and Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination became not one between two different ideologies and worldviews but a struggle between realism and utopianism, "proven" ideas versus "pie in the sky" dreaming. Even as the evidence piled up that eight years of "smart" leadership led to a sputtering economy, endless wars, continuing systemic racism, and massive political defeats against a far-Right tide of populist anger—the discourse of the "serious" centrist persisted.
Fast forward, five years later and little has seemingly changed. It matters little that in reality, Clinton's supposed policy genius was severely undermined by the intellectual hollowness of her actual proposed policies—such as her "comprehensive" poverty measure that was judged "woefully inadequate". Or that her acolyte and now VP Kamala Harris' utterly confusing and unworkable proposal for reducing the costs of Higher Education was critical to ending her own presidential campaign in 2020. The media and, therefore, much of the general public continue to buy into the nonsense ravings of the now thoroughly disproven ideas of the "Washington Consensus."
Beware the "Serious" political threat of centrists
Unfortunately, we are experiencing a fresh outbreak of this destructive "serious" centrist politics. In the U.K., Starmer has promised to never again go into an election with a document like the party's previous Manifesto that promised such "unserious" things like raising the minimum wage, free bus travel for young people, increasing investment in public health, making energy companies public again, and free broadband. On the other side of the ocean, Manchin and Siname are remaining defiant against passing a quite modest and debt-neutral spending bill of $3.5 trillion over 10 years that would provide two free years of community college, childcare and universal Pre-K, Medicare expansion, and extending the child tax credit.
Far from a blessed return to a "substantive" and research-based politics, such resistance reflects a troubling though often utterly convincing political performance of being "informed" that requires the right outfit of tailored (pant)suits, dense but upon further investigation facile policy details, and a stern commitment to achieving only what is "realistic." They inspire through their appearance of professional competence and practical planning—a facade which protects them from any serious questioning concerning the intellectual emptiness of their actual ideas or the incoherence of their proposals.
Underpinning this fallacious "seriousness" is a dangerous strain of "respectability" politics against anything that threatens the interests of corporations, the military establishment, or a political class who benefits from their power. It is meant to denigrate novel ideals and genuine progressive alternatives based on decades of research and evidence that could challenge this corrupt status quo. Hence, practical but visionary solutions for "a world without police," cooperative workplaces, commons ownership, mass redistribution of wealth, a sustainable degrowth economy, and a world without exploitative work are cast aside as mere utopian blasphemies against the "proven" faith of an old world order.
Breaking free from this myth of "smart" and "informed" centrism is increasingly crucial to ensuring not only the well-being of millions of people in the U.S. but the very long term survival of our species. The threat of "moderate" resistance to needed public investment in "human infrastructure" or ecological renewal is a form of Liberal pseudo-science that must be exposed and fought against like that of Conservative religious evangelism. Their supposed "seriousness" poses a serious threat to everyone but the small group of elites whose short-term interests they actually represent.
Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include "Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits" (2016).