These two terms have been around for so long that the reality of their present uselessness may not seem immediately obvious. But, in fact, there are actually three very different political groups who are lumped together inside the vague term “the left” and six or seven very distinct meanings of the term “centrist.” For any serious intra-Democratic political discussion to be productive, Democrats have to start making the effort to clearly distinguish between these differences.
In the case of the term “the left,” the problem is obvious to any Democrat who listens to Fox News. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck and their imitators relentlessly hammer away at a succession of straw men called “the loony left”, “the hard left”, “the extreme left” and so on — a powerful group who, they assert, have substantial if not total control of the Democratic Party.
Aside from other political commentators, the only specific examples they offer are — not really surprisingly – such powerful and influential figures as junior professors at small state colleges, eccentric elementary school teachers in communities no one has ever heard of before and a variety of well-known (or just as often barely known) Hollywood actors – individuals whose views or actions are confidently asserted to reflect the absolutely typical or dominant attitude of the entire Democratic community.
The truth, on the other hand — as all serious observers know perfectly well — is that there are actually three profoundly distinct groups that compose “the left” and they are so different that it is essentially useless to make any generalizations about them as a whole.
1. The first group is the traditional social movement organizations dedicated to causes like the environment, civil liberties, labor and so on. The most distinctive characteristic of these groups are their single issue focus and political strategy of bargaining with candidates to win their support.
2. The second group is the multi-issue, internet-based organizations like MoveOn and Daily Kos. Their political stance tends to be militantly partisan and pro-Democratic but not ideologically extreme. Surveys have shown that the political attitudes within this group tend to resemble traditional post-war liberal and progressive views.
3. The third group is the genuine “radicals.” These days they are less often doctrinaire socialists than eclectic ecological/peace/anti-establishment militants. They are concentrated among graying tenured faculty members and young energetic protestors in movements like the anti-globalization coalitions. Although their attitudes are asserted to be the dominant ones in the Democratic coalition, in fact they generally have relatively little interest in standard electoral politics and rarely become involved in the grass-roots organizational activities of the Democratic Party.
The differences between these three groups are generally greater than the similarities, a fact that is relatively obvious when comparing the authentic radicals and the others, but is also evident between the netroots and the traditional organizations (The Daily Kos’s Markos devoted an entire chapter in his book Storming The Gates to outlining the Netroots’ disagreements with traditional single-issue organizations)
Since Obama’s paradigm-breaking campaign, there has mercifully been far less abuse of the general term “the left” within the Democratic Party then in the years preceding. But Democrats nonetheless need to officially retire the phrase and replace it with more specific discussion of issues and questions concerning the positions and actions of the three distinct groups.
Meanwhile, the term “centrist” is, if anything, even more desperately in need of retirement than “the left”. It does not only refer to several different groups, but more confusingly to a cluster of fundamentally different concepts — each of which needs to be clearly distinguished from the others.
When Progressives criticize “centrism” they are generally focusing on three very distinct and specific political behaviors or characteristics (1) an excessive conservatism in ideology, becoming at the extreme nearly indistinguishable from Republicanism (2) a marked timidity or even cowardice in political strategy and (3) corruption in financial and ethical standards.
It is not hard to understand why grass roots Democratic activists who live outside Washington find it relatively easy to feel that these characteristics do all substantially overlap in the group generally known as the “beltway insiders.” From a distance, these people all appear extremely intimate and chummy – appearing on the same think-tank panels and sitting amiably side by side on the Sunday talk shows, referring to each other by first names in the most friendly and collegial way.
But, regardless of how many canapés and podiums the “Beltway insiders” share together, the three characteristics above simply do not necessarily imply each other or overlap. Lumping them all indiscriminately together conceptually in a single term “centrism” is intellectually sloppy thinking and is deeply detrimental to the quality and usefulness of progressive thought.
Let’s untangle the distinctions.
1. Centrism as a political philosophy – In principle, this would seem easy to define – one need only draw a horizontal line somewhere on the various liberal voting scales that rate every member of Congress on a general liberal-conservative dimension. In practice, it is substantially harder, a problem that can be seen in the difficulties encountered by the various “Litmus Tests” that have been proposed to identify unacceptable deviations from Democratic principles. Depending on the particular rater’s priorities and perspective, different politicians appear on different lists as unacceptable apostates. Overall voting records reveal idiosyncratic and inconsistent patterns and a handful of “critical” votes are devilishly hard to agree upon.
2. Centrism as a political strategy – Again, although seemingly unambiguous, there are actually three different political strategies that are frequently labeled “centrist” (1) the entirely cynical “Campaigns and Elections magazine” model with professional “gun for hire” consultants and platforms defined entirely by opinion polls. (2) “philosophic moderates” who perpetually seek an exact “middle of the road” position, wherever it may be (3) The New Democrat approach – extremely cautious and focused on winning swing voters, but sincere in the desire to gradually move toward some kind of incremental reformism. In some particular campaigns and the work of some strategists, it can be hard to distinguish these three strategies; in others, it is easily apparent.
3. Centrism as undermining political and personal integrity – In the view of many liberals and progressives, “centrists” have greater propensity for deal making with special interests and “selling out” as a result of their greater ideological comfort with corporate power and their lack of commitment to progressive and egalitarian principles. Even here, however, one must distinguish between (1) the incessant search for home-district pork or political campaign contributions — a search that even most liberal and progressive candidates find to some degree unavoidable and (2) good, old-fashioned bribery, illicit enrichment and “under the table” personal gain.
4. Centrism as undermining partisan loyalty – In the current political environment, with Obama in office and struggling to enact an ambitious agenda, this has become a critical issue — Does a particular Democrat support Obama agenda or not and support The Democratic Party or not. This is the existential crisis that Evan Bayh’s recent vote against Obama’s budget has created for the so-called “Bayh group” – it obliges them to decide; are they still Democrats who owe some loyalty to the history and traditions of the party they represent or are they actually de facto political independents who are no longer reliably part of the Democratic coalition. It is now this partisan issue that looms most centrally in any evaluation of centrism.
It is indeed complex to distinguish these four meanings of the term centrist in serious political discussion, but it is vital. Like the term “the left”, the term “centrist” now befuddles all serious strategic planning and has little use except as a rhetorical device in polemical arguments.
This does not mean criticism of the characteristics or positions taken by specific groups is no longer valid. It most certainly is. But progressive criticism of “centrist” characteristics must be accurately focused on the actions or characteristics of particular groups or individuals and not against an ill-defined, amorphous straw-man .
It is indeed unfortunate that Dems cannot stop the professional propagandists at Fox and the RNC from demonizing them as “the loony left” or anointing even the most clinically delusional opponents of Obama’s agenda as “sensible centrists.” But what Dems most certainly can do is eliminate the imprecise terms “the left” and “centrists” from their own inter-party vocabulary so that – as President Obama so cogently recommended to everyone in his last press conference – they can actually know what the devil it is that they are talking about.