In Defense of Democratic Centrism

Democrats don’t lose left-wing voters when they nominate centrists and can make real progress incrementally.

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York attend a political event in New York City, April 4, 2016
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York attend a political event in New York City, April 4, 2016 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)

In Current Affairs magazine, Nathan J. Robinson takes issue with the centrism of America’s Democratic Party.

The idea that Democrats can win elections by reminding progressives they have nowhere else to go and reassuring conservatives they won’t go after big business is a dead end, according to Robinson:

For one thing, it doesn’t work. Unless you have Bill Clinton’s special charismatic magic, what actually happens is that progressive voters just stay home, disgusted at the failure of both parties to actually try to improve the country.

This is the left-wing version of the Ted Cruz philosophy: that you can win national elections by mobilizing your base instead of appealing to the center.

The evidence (PDF) is against it. (Also see Scott Alexander.)

A few fanatics might hold out if Democrats nominate too centrist a candidate, like Hillary Clinton, but the majority will make the rational decision and vote for the lesser of two evils, as many Bernie Sanders supporters did in November.

Moderate Republicans exist

And the mythical “moderate Republicans” never seem to show up. (This is because there are no actual moderate Republicans.)

Not true either. Millions of college-educated middle-class voters who supported George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney switched to Clinton last year when a smaller but electorally more significant group of non-college-educated populist voters, who twice voted for Barack Obama, switched to Donald Trump.

The United States have become more polarized, but middle-income suburbanites in states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia still tend to decide the outcome of elections.

Different strategy

And it’s not just electorally unwise: it also gives up on the idea of actually changing anything, with the only goal of politics being to attain political office.

No, it’s a difference in strategy: do you push for incremental change and take progress wherever you can find it, no matter how small, or do you wait for a revolution?

Serious action

It precludes the possibility of ever taking serious action on health care, the environment, nuclear arms, housing or any of the million other issues that require urgent and serious action.

If this were true, America would be the same country it was forty years ago.

During Barack Obama’s presidency alone, progressives:

  • Expanded health care to millions of low-income Americans;
  • Tightened restrictions on coal mining and oil drilling and introduced fuel efficiency standards to reduce carbon emissions;
  • Eliminated thousands of nuclear weapons through the New START treaty with Russia; and
  • Enhanced fair-housing rules to end racial segregation.

Robinson doesn’t mention the enormous gains that have been made in the last eight years in terms of gender and sexual equality either.

If this isn’t “serious” action, what is?