Is New Democrat centrism becoming as endangered as its moderate Republican variation? It would be far from exaggeration to maintain that the only moderate Republicans left are now Democrats.
This centrist orientation, while embraced by Obama, is not his invention but is representative of the main trend of the Democratic party for some decades and was most obviously embodied by former president Bill Clinton.
It's chief feature and fatal flaw is its ideological surrender, with policies to match, to the free-market fundamentalism espoused by the Right. The chief difference between centrist Democrats and the Republicans has been that the former would do more than the latter to mitigate the suffering among the middle class and poor engendered by loosening nation's governmental reins on finance capital and large corporations.
Mike Konczal, a Roosevelt Institute fellow sees the recent election as a repudiation of this centrism.
The most striking thing about the post-election landscape is the utter route of centrists Democrats. In the aftermath, as Chris Bowers notes, the Progressive Caucus is larger than the Blue Dog and the New Dems combined. Analysts will continue to go through the numbers, but right now there’s nothing to suggest that ‘liberal overreach’ or a lack of centrist views was a factor. The truth is much worse: the ugly process of appeasing and buying off centrist Democrats on financial reform and health care turned what should have been landmark generational reform into a bitter, ugly view of corporate power and sleazy influence over our political system, the Senate and the political party that is supposed to defend the interests of working people.
The Democrats' most recent attempts to mitigate the socioeconomic damage of the last decades have been met from the Left with dismay as being far too weak and from the Right with the accusation that he is a Socialist. Neither of these two groups are electorally dominant for the moment but they do represent restive, vocal and, more importantly, growing factions on what are generally seen as opposite sides of the political spectrum.
But what might happen if, at the grassroots, they found common ground? Given the intense differences between the two groups on many issues this may at first seem ludicrous. But in a world where American capitalists and the Chinese Communist Party can find common cause, might not other strange unities emerge? Hamsher/Norquist ring any bells? Just as with greed, economic desperation can make for strange political bedfellows. It may well boil down, not so much to ideology, but to who can make the national economy work well enough for the greatest number of its citizens. Call it pragmatic economic nationalism.
But I don't know if Obama and his ideological cohorts are capable of even thinking in this direction. As for those, myself among them, who have been disappointed with Obama's reaching across the political aisle to empty chairs and in so doing weakening what might otherwise be more progressive policy initiatives, we might ask ourselves: what other ill-advised and untoward moves might he yet make? As with any ambitious and exceptionally intelligent person, upward mobility often means internalizing one of the dominant ideologies of one's time and as such become incapable of perceiving the root cause of a systemic social problem from which they themselves have escaped, let alone being able to effectively deal with it. There are of course exceptions. Conversion experiences do occur.
And, even more importantly, we as a nation have ceded so much power to private, highly concentrated capital that those few who control most of it can essentially sabotage the nation's economy for both economic and political gain. Hence, too big to fail banks who as one wag put it have made it clear to our politicians that we must "Give them what they want or we'll shoot the economy in the head". This is no idle threat, and the correct response should be, "in that case we will take our economy away from you."
As a people, we are profoundly attached, and rightly so I believe, to the common person's rights to private property. But we have failed to grasp the degree to which capital is a social product. And if we are beginning to appreciate the kind of damage its gross and criminal mismanagement can inflict upon society at large, then centrism has not and cannot by its very nature develop the means to correct the problem.
Furthermore, we have allowed finance capital to marginalize the American working/middle class: first as producers, through outsourcing and automation without sufficient mitigation, as consumers steeped in debt, as small investors suckered into a rigged market, and finally and most ominously, electorally through unfettered election financing.
For the present we are as Matt Taibbi recently observed, caught between "two giant political parties of roughly equal size perpetually fighting over the same 5–10 percent swatch of undecided voters..."(Matt Taibbi) These voters regularly switching from their votes from Democrat to Republican then back hoping to find a happy middle ground.
I see very little that can be done by gridlocked government or the private sector at this juncture to get us out of what Jim Quin convincingly describes as Depression 2.0 (well worth reading). So what might this portend as we go forward? On this question I will defer to the greater wisdom of Robert Reich.
Reich offers visions of two possible futures in his book Aftershock . One is a draconian, autarkic economic nationalism. In this version of the future he envisions the rise of the Independence Party that draws support from both Left and Right.
The platform of the Independence Party, as well as its message, is clear and uncompromising: zero tolerance of illegal immigrants; a freeze on legal immigration from Latin America, Africa and Asia; increased tariffs on all imports; a ban on American companies moving their operations to another country or outsourcing abroad; a prohibition on "sovereign wealth funds" investing in the United States. America will withdraw from the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; end all "involvements" in foreign countries; refuse to pay any more interest on our debt to China, essentially defaulting on it; and stop trading with China until China freely floats its currency.
Profitable companies will be prohibited from laying off workers and cutting payrolls. The federal budget must always be balanced. The Federal Reserve will be abolished.
Banks will be allowed only to take deposits and make loans. Investment banking will be prohibited. Anyone found to have engaged in insider trading, stock manipulation, or securities fraud will face imprisonment for no less than ten years.
On the other hand he proposes an alternative that would have the U.S. more resembling most other contemporary economically developed democracies.
* A reverse income tax: money added to middle-class paychecks by the government.
* Higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy, with capital gains income treated no differently than wage income.
* A re-employment system rather than an unemployment system: wage insurance ("Any job loser who takes a new job that pays less than his or her former job would be eligible for 90 percent of the difference, for up to two years."), income support of 90 percent through job training period, severance tax on profitable corporations that lay off workers.
* School vouchers based on family income. "Spending on public schools should be replaced by vouchers in amounts inversely related to family income that families can cash in at any school meeting certain minimum standards. For example, the $8,000 now spent per child in a particular state would be turned into $14,000 education vouchers for each school-age child in a poor family, and $2,000 vouchers for each child in a very wealthy family." (Under this system, he foresees wealthy districts competing to get the students from lower and middle-income families because of the value of their vouchers.)
* College loans linked to subsequent earnings. Free tuition at public universities. Federal loans for private colleges. "Graduates of public colleges and universities, and borrowers of federal loans, should be required to pay a fixed percentage—say, 10 percent—of their taxable earnings for their first ten years of full-time work into a fund that finances public colleges and universities and provides loans to students attending private colleges and universities."
* Medicare for all.
* Sizable increase and investment in public goods such as public transportation, parks, museums and libraries.
* Get money out of politics. Strong campaign finance laws, "generous" public finance matching and an insistence that "all political contributions go through 'blind trusts' so that no candidate can ever know who contributed what."
As quoted by Susan Gardner in her Book Review: Robert Reich's Aftershock
As for me, I'd prefer the latter alternative. Without it we may be on our way to the former. Cheers and watch yourselves out there.