Back in the 1990’s, the perspective called “political centrism” played an important role in the intellectual and organizational growth of the Democratic Party. While progressives often deeply and passionately disagreed with particular centrist policies and tactics, in retrospect most Democrats will now agree that centrist politicians like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore and others played a significant role in building today’s broad Democratic coalition. Today’s Democratic Party is a coalition of both progressives and centrists that has come of age in the era of Barack Obama, a man who personally embodies a very unique fusion of both centrist and progressive impulses and views.
In fact, most politically serious centrists as well as most progressives would today agree that although Obama has championed major progressive initiatives like national health care, he is more accurately described as closer to a 1990’s Clintonite centrist than to a traditional post-war New Deal Democratic progressive.
There are, to be sure, still very deep disagreements between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic coalition. Right now these are reflected in very substantial arguments over the extent of Obama’s concessions in his negotiations with the GOP. But these disagreements exist within the context of an extremely powerful underlying Democratic consensus – one that was emphatically ratified by the November election. The consensus is that there is a profound and fundamental difference between the views and values of today’s Democratic coalition and the right-wing extremist views and values of today’s conservatives and Republicans. Bill Clinton’s passionate defense of Obama and his agenda at the Democratic convention symbolized the basic unity and agreement that exists on this core issue within all sectors of the Democratic community.
That’s why it is genuinely dispiriting to see the distorted way that “centrism” is now being redefined by the current group “Third Way.”
Consider the recent Op-Ed commentary by two principals of the group that appeared in the weekend Washington Post. The commentary repeatedly implies that most or at times all “Democrats” and “Progressives” hold views that most political observers would more accurately describe as the views of “the left-wing” – or even “the most extreme left wing” — of the progressive coalition. The op-ed commentary does this in order to invent an artificial space for Third Way’s own “centrist” alternative – one that presumes to identify a moderate middle ground between what the commentators clearly imply is an unacceptable degree of partisan extremism on the part of many Democrats and progressives as well as Republicans.
Here’s how the commentary re-frames the views of the present Democratic coalition:
“If Democrats and their progressive allies are to achieve real gains during Obama’s second term, they must understand how we got here, and they must be willing to challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages. If they do not, this historic opportunity could easily be squandered.”
Notice that the “they” who must “challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages” refers without distinction to all Democrats and also to all progressives. Many of the most basic views of most Democrats and progressives are, it seems, so deeply wrong that they must be “challenged” or disaster will result.
The authors then apply this implicit criticism of the excessively extreme views of Democrats and progressives to a range of major issues, in each case identifying a new “centrist” middle ground alternative to the implied Democratic left-wing partisan extremism on the one hand and the right-wing views of the GOP on the other. In order to make this dubious argument, in each case they create either a “straw man” left-wing Democratic position or a non-existent opportunity for political compromise that Democrats have ignored.
Watch how this is done:
Taxes and Spending
The commentary says:
“Democrats can demand tax increases on the wealthy, but only as part of proposals that also include sizable spending cuts. A plan involving tax increases alone would be rejected by moderate voters and clearly is immovable in a divided government.”
1. Has any major faction within the Democratic Party -the Progressive Caucus in Congress, for example or the largest progressive organizations — ever actually demanded that Obama only propose or accept deals that involve absolutely no spending adjustments at all? Has any major faction within the Democratic coalition ever threatened to withdraw support from Obama unless he embraced a plan of pure tax increases and no spending reductions? The answer is obviously no.
2. Is a deal involving a genuinely balanced mixture of tax increases and spending cuts actually “movable” in the current “divided government”? Again the answer is obviously no.
In short, the implicit criticism of the supposedly extremist position of many Democrats and progressives combines both a “straw man” left-wing position that Democrats and the major progressive organizations have not actually insisted upon and a non-existent missed opportunity for compromise.
Gun Safety and Rights
The commentary says:
“For decades, the left asserted that the Constitution did not confer an individual right to own a gun…This stance made many gun owners sympathetic to the gun lobby’s often conspiratorial claims that Democratic administrations wanted to round up firearms…As long as [Democratic] calls for new restrictions are balanced with an affirmation of their Second Amendment rights, most gun owners will be on board.”
1. Has any even remotely serious proposal to deny all individual Americans the legal right to own a firearm ever – ever — been proposed by any significant group of Democrats or progressives in recent decades? The answer is no.
2. Do any such non-existent Democratic proposals actually explain or validate to any real extent the “conspiratorial claims that Democratic administrations want to round up firearms.” – Again, the answer is simply no.
Again, Democrats and progressives are warned not to support a position (illegalizing all individual gun ownership) that they have never seriously proposed and are blamed for validating the propaganda campaigns of their opponents.
The commentary says:
“[Democrats] must address, not dismiss, the concerns of undecided voters. That means, for example, ensuring that state marriage laws have robust protections for religious liberty and reminding Americans that the First Amendment guarantees that no clergy members would be forced to conduct marriages that violate their religious beliefs.”
1. Has any significant (or even insignificant) Democratic or progressive group ever “dismissed” the concerns of undecided voters by coming even remotely close to proposing laws that appear to require that clergy be “forced to conduct marriages that violate their religious beliefs” or to otherwise dilute the religious liberty provided to other Americans as part of legalizing gay marriage? The answer is no.
The commentary says:
“To break through and shift the debate their way, those on the left will have to make an ambitious but principled deal. While we would support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, there’s little evidence that such a plan could pass. Rather than losing momentum and leaving 11 million people in limbo, Democrats should be willing to accept a result in which deportations end for all, citizenship is granted to those who came here as children, and lifetime legalization is guaranteed for adults (with deferred citizenship also possible). Passing such a plan would not be easy, but it is politically feasible and would dramatically improve the lives of millions of immigrant families.”
1. Has any major Democrat, Democratic group, Progressive group or even Democratic aligned Latino organization ever indicated that it would actually reject a plan such as the one above (particularly if it actually appeared “politically feasible”) simply on the grounds that absolutely nothing except a plan for full and complete citizenship for all illegal immigrants is acceptable? – The answer is obviously no.
2. Is there any evidence that a deal of the particular kind the commentary describes, as opposed to a path to legalization, is really any more “politically feasible” at the current time? Again, the answer is no
In short, in each one of these areas, large sectors of the Democratic coalition are very clearly implied to support extreme positions (e.g. demanding tax increases without any spending restraint at all, eliminating the individual right to own firearms, trampling on religious liberty in gay marriage laws, rejecting any immigrant relief measures short of full legalization) that they have not actually advocated and to have rejected available political compromises that do not in fact actually exist. By slipping back and forth between the profoundly distinct terms “the left,” “progressives,” and “Democrats” as if they were completely interchangeable, the discussion attempts to create the impression that there is actually a coherent left-wing extremist wing of the Democratic coalition that is a major roadblock to reasonable compromise and progress and that must be “challenged” if progress is to be achieved.
It is particularly notable that throughout the Washington Post commentary there is absolutely no credit given to Obama for the fact that his approach on all these issues has been essentially “centrist” in character and that his inability to reach reasoned agreement with the GOP has not in a single case been the result of any excessive “leftism” on his part nor has the failure to reach agreement been in even a single case the result of any intransigent rejection or sabotage of his proposals by either the Democrats in Congress or the major progressive organizations.
The “problem” preventing compromise, in short, is Republican right-wing extremism. Period. Full stop. End of story. The comparable “Left-wing Democratic extremism” that Third Way tries to invent is a problem that simply does not exist.
The basic flaw in Third Way’s argument is simple. Its fundamental framing of today’s political reality is wrong. The inescapable fact is that President Barack Obama is essentially and fundamentally a political centrist who has consistently negotiated as such. Today’s Republicans, in contrast, are fundamentally and essentially behaving as intransigent right-wing extremists. And midway between these two profoundly asymmetric positions there is simply no magic undiscovered, new “middle of the road,” moderate “Third Way” alternative to both Democratic and Republican extremism anywhere to be found.