As the U.S. political scene transitions from the midterms to the beginning of the 2020 presidential contest, one of the most pressing questions is whether any meaningful middle ground remains in the political spectrum.
This will certainly be a question for Democrats to consider in their primaries, but it’s recently emerged as a key concern as a result of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz announcing his availability to run for president as a centrist independent.
We must ask: Exactly what does an avowed centrist believe in these days?
One of the traditional ways to be deemed a “centrist” is to call yourself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. But where does this leave you? You don’t gain any libertarian votes because you believe in moderate gun control and some reasonable degree of federal taxation. You lose the Religious Right because you believe in a woman’s right to abortion and LGBTQ rights. You lose the mostly older, mostly pale, mostly male voters who are obsessed with sending all the immigrants back to wherever they came from and slapping a wall right behind them.
Ergo, you give up all hope of support from Fox News and the right-wing media. But that’s okay, right? You’re a centrist, so you’re trying to position yourself to the left of those nutjobs.
By contrast, let’s turn our attention to the extremists on the other end of the spectrum. As a centrist, you lose those who believe growing income inequality is a social justice issue that necessitates changing our laws and tax policies to better provide for workers, children, and consumers — and to make things a bit less cushy for rich people.
Who remains? Those who somehow don’t think we need to Make America Great Again, but do believe all we need is a sort of Return to Normalcy after the great aberration of the Trump presidency? Those worried about saddling the next generation with astronomical national debt but not worried about leaving them with a hotter planet and no affordable homes?
Hardly anyone today thinks that these are normal times that call for a normal leader.
What is your rallying cry? Which hot-button issues motivate your base? Balancing the budget? Most of us think this is important, but very few of us would place the issue anywhere near the top of our list of concerns.
The chief political strategy of both sides in recent years has been demonization of its opponents. How do you take part in this strategy as a centrist? Do you try to convincingly demonize those on both the right and the left? Fight a political war on two fronts at the same time? Hand out hats in a calming color that say “Make America Normal Again” or “Back to Center”?
My sense is the chief centrist voting bloc consists of business owners, executives, middle managers, and professionals — people who feel they’re doing pretty well and want to avoid rocking the boat. Those in the 9.9 percent of people who make up Matthew Stewart’s “New American Aristocracy.” Even if you can somehow motivate all of these people to come out and vote for you, it’s not a large enough group to support a successful presidential run.
The basic problem for a centrist, I think, is that hardly anyone today thinks these are normal times that call for a normal leader.
Many Americans seem to believe that abortion, birth control, homosexuality, criminals, Muslims, and people of color are ruining our nation. They fear nothing more than a “normal” leader who would let those forces proceed unchecked. Another sizable group of Americans believes that climate change is real and that we must do something about it before it gets worse. They fear nothing more than a “normal” leader who would fiddle while the world burns.
Yet another group believes rising levels of income inequality are not only dangerous and unpleasant for a great many Americans, but also a threat to the very integrity of our social order. This group wants nothing to do with a centrist leader who would allow these disturbing economic trends to continue apace.
A final, and no doubt overlapping, contingent believes our society lacks all sense of social justice. In their eyes, open season has been declared on people of color, LGBTQ people, and non-Christians. This group certainly wants nothing to do with a centrist leader who thinks there is some “normal” American condition worth returning to.
In short, some of us want to return to the past, while others want to venture into an as-yet-unknown future. Hardly anyone wants to stay where we are, or even go back to where we were four years ago.
I think most of us have some idea of what a right-wing worldview looks like these days. We may not agree with it, but we can recognize it. Likewise, most of us have some idea of what a progressive worldview looks like. Again, we may not agree with it, but we understand how the world appears from this perspective.
But how does the world currently appear through the eyes of a centrist? Is there some way to split the difference between the far right and the far left? I think most of us can’t quite figure out what the world looks like through a centrist lens.
What does this leave us with as an image of a centrist leader? The only thing I can conjure up is a Jet Ski that has lost its rider, quietly spinning in circles to avoid doing any damage.
And that’s not an inspiring picture for a presidential candidate.