I am not the first to take note of its passing though it may not be quite finished, the next few years could still hold some centrist victories, a dead cat bounce, but it’s in the coffin, ready to be buried. Many have hailed this as a good thing, a victory that will foretells the rise of the left (or the right depending which side of the partisan divide you’re on). However, declarations of victory are premature. Centrism has died and been born again many times because of course it has, political philosophy that remains unchanged for even half a century while society, technology, and circumstance move on would be considered stagnant. Centrism has never preached stagnation but it is now stagnant and so even centrists will abandon it in time. But a new centrism is being born, a political philosophy that has the potential to be every bit as influential as previous centrist philosophies.
You might be smarting at the idea that there can be multiple philosophies all defined as “centrist”. Let’s be honest, centrist, left, right, they are all vaguely defined and change throughout history, the same with liberal, conservative, and progressive. Currently the political philosophy most associated with centrism is neoliberalism (or neoconservatism but for consistency I’ll stick with neoliberalism).
Neoliberalism is the political philosophy that began gaining ground in the mid to late 70s in response to the global economic downturn and rose to dominate politics under Reagan in the United States and Thatcher in Britain. When it first appeared it was seen as conservatism which makes sense considering its champions but its designers included those in the stereotypical left as well as the right. President Jimmy Carter kicked off neoliberalism and its deregulatory regime. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair helped to cement neoliberalism as the dominating force of post-Cold War politics. The Clinton/Blair administrations were representative of the Third Way, neoliberalism for the opposition, the Tolerant Traditionalists designed to cater to the desire for an alternative party without really changing anything. This isn’t unusual, during the New Deal era Republicans were New Deal lite being for grand public works and welfare but you know, different somehow. Democrats were Republican lite after Lincoln, being for tariffs but not too high of tariffs, that sort of thing. The point is to offer an alternative, but an alternative that is palatable and familiar.
Neoliberalism is characterized by laissez faire economic policies; deregulation and austerity are the standard. The idea of efficient markets is accepted as a fundamental fact thus any government intervention must result in waste. If monopolies form, if fraud occurs, if banks or businesses act irresponsibly either the market will fix it or it is actually an indication of an efficient market. This absurd conception of economics is what led directly to the global economic recession of 2008 and the weakest recovery in decades. It is also what leads neoliberal policymakers to espouse the “new normal” rhetoric that says greater economic growth can never again be achieved, that living standards cannot continue to rise.
At the same time neoliberals tend toward centralization of power and expansion of the state. In the time of neoliberalism we’ve seen expansion of the military, imposition of a police state, the militarization of the police, escalation of the drug war, harsh mandatory sentencing laws, and the concentration of powers with the executive and DC. Neoliberalism has strong antidemocratic tendencies preferring a technocracy with as much power in the hands of the bureaucrats as possible. This has been witnessed in the expanding powers and obligations of the Federal Reserve and continuing delegation of responsibility to government agencies. It has materialized in elections with strict voter identification laws, term limits, intense gerrymandering, and restriction of independents and third parties.
Laissez faire economic policies and a large, restrictive state might seem a tad contradictory but it’s not, laissez faire has always caused general unrest and it requires a strong state to quell that unrest. A vibrant, dynamic economy is always going to create winners and losers and the global neoliberal economy has created a whole lot of losers and not that many winners. Yet we have seen some of the least unrest in decades. During the 1981 recession there were hundreds of protests and strikes across the country. During the 2008 recession we saw little to none of that and 1981 was an economic blip compared to 2008. The Occupy Movement was the largest reaction to the recession and it was entirely wiped out in a week thanks to careful coordination between mayors, police forces, and the country’s intelligence agencies.
Of course such a wrongheaded political philosophy as neoliberalism is dying. It emerged at the right time to combat the 1970s economic crisis of stagflation that was in part caused by overburdensome government control and regulation but times have changed, neoliberalism has run its course and went too far dismantling regulations and institutions resulting in the 2008 economic crisis and quite likely the next one in a year or two. It is perhaps a cruel irony of history that political paradigms, by doing exactly what worked so well before, create the circumstances of their own demise. It is likely that forty years from now whatever political paradigm replaces neoliberalism will face its own demise at the hands of an economic crisis it helped create. The question now is what that new political paradigm will be?
Again, political disagreement between the major parties is rarely on a fundamental level, rather there is a paradigm defining party and an opposition party that offers superficial differences; though, cultural divisions are often used to define the party further (i.e. gun rights, abortion, religion, etc.). Yes, on the fringes of politics we will see more ideological differences but they only become prominent during the collapse of a political paradigm. Since the Great Recession signaled the collapse of the neoliberal paradigm, we’ve seen the ascendance of competing political groups vying to fill the void of the rapidly receding neoliberal order.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans are dealing with a civil war and realignment within their parties. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders took them by storm in the 2016 election. As different in character and values as the pair are, they both relied to an extent on demagoguery, they competed over the same voters, they both campaigned against trade agreements and globalization, they represent an emerging political paradigm characterized by nationalist and populist sentiment. This may seem like a simplification, I’m sure many in both camps would be outraged by this comparison, and certainly I know they continue to differ substantially on social issues just as the neoliberal paradigm did, but look no further than Dennis Kucinich, a candidate in the 2018 Ohio gubernatorial primary, for evidence of the overlap of the two camps. Kucinich, widely supported by Ohio progressive groups, has voiced his agreement with Trump on multiple occasions. Most notable was his praise of Trump’s inaugural address.
Many view this as the age of populists, where the left and right fringes will rise to power and realign American politics to favor the extremes. While this nationalist populism is the frontrunner in the race to replace neoliberalism, I’m not convinced that it’s over. Sanders and Trump offered something desirable to most voters whether it was their economic populism, outsider status, or willingness to shake the system. Usually it was enough to overlook the candidate’s more prominent flaws, personally I was a vehement supporter of Bernie Sanders despite disagreeing with him on the majority of his platform. The political center is collapsing and giving the demagogues their moment, but most Americans are not willing followers of demagogues, we’re too independent minded for that. Centrists, independents, and the more moderate Democrats and Republicans aren’t about to adopt fringe or extremist politics, they aren’t joining the alt right or trying socialism, they’re going to find something new, a new path forward rather than the tried and failed.
I offer a new centrist philosophy, one that is at most parallel to neoliberalism. If Neoliberalism is Tolerant Traditionalists the new school of centrist thought I’m attempting to formalize could perhaps be described as Values Progressives; though that’s probably more about conceptual symmetry than a useful definition, Values Progressives could mean anything. Values such as our sense of civic identity, that we aren’t defined so much by tradition or culture but by our neighbors and the community we find ourselves living in. And that hard work and intelligence should always pay in America.
New centrism envisions a very different role for government in the economy and society. A more participatory and less regulatory approach to the economy. Rather than perpetual austerity new centrism calls for counter cyclical economic policies and rather than removing government from the economy government takes on an entrepreneurial role making investments in infrastructure, research and development, new businesses, and skills. We are pro-market, not pro-business, so we favor building a competitive, level playing field. This means no protections for dying industries but investment in new ones and the technologies that keep old industries competitive. We want a low corporate tax rate in line with the rest of the world but elimination of the loopholes and special categories that favor the largest businesses with the most lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants. And anti-trust and anti-monopoly law needs a long overdue overhaul to deal with an economy increasingly dominated by a few powerful interests.
While new centrism shies away from severe regulation of the productive sectors of the economy, there is a special place in our hearts for the financial sector, the root cause of the 2008 global economic crisis. Finance requires proper regulation and proper oversight to ensure our nation’s savings are properly invested. It should no longer be easier to get rich managing other people’s money than building something productive. Capital gains taxes must be greater for short term investments and adjust on a sliding time scale. A financial transactions tax must be imposed to reduce speculation and excessive trading, the largest banks must be broken up and derivatives, those famous financial weapons of mass destruction, must be heavily regulated. Clearly, we aren’t Ralph Nader style consumer protectionists and aggressive regulation is the exact wrong approach to fight climate change, we tend to favor market solutions and innovation after all. Nor are we laissez faire and willing to watch the economy crumble with an unwavering faith the market will fix it if we just do nothing, the government’s strategy for the Great Recession.
At the same time new centrism reverses neoliberalism’s centralization of power, preferring to devolve decision making to the lowest practical level and fully taking advantage of states and cities as laboratories of democracy. We can’t have a handful of technocrats or a handful of CEOs controlling our country and economy, our society is far too complex for that too succeed. It can’t be planned, it’s emergent, policy must be adaptive and experimental. Alongside government’s refocus on facilitating and experimentation is a retreat from moralizing and policing society. Generally, as many rights as possible are reserved with the people, the police state dismantled, no more militarized police, no more mass spying, no more war on drugs, an end to the prison-industrial complex, and an end to the military-industrial complex. Government must become transparent, accessible, a part of the information age technological revolution, and any hint of corruption must be eliminated.
New centrism is also more than ready to tackle the much-needed reforms of the welfare state. In the short-term this means raising the retirement age, means testing, and scaling benefits with income rather than having hard cutoffs so it always pays to work. In the long-term this means consolidating welfare programs, more direct transfers, and a UBI. But primarily, we see a swiftly growing economy as the most effective means by which the welfare state can be reduced.
I imagine this has been a challenging read for you, it is a rather rambling and disjointed manifesto, full of ambiguity and redundancies. Paradigming is a difficult, messy task and I’ll progressively clean this up and refine it over time. It would be an impressive feat for a dominant political paradigm to adapt seamlessly to changing times and become the next paradigm. But that’s not what we get, instead one would expect collapse and chaos and struggle first as the faithful resist change and a vibrant exchange of ideas ensues. That’s what we’re experiencing now and those with a strictly linear perspective of history may expect centrism’s decline to continue. Centrism will be resurgent if a new centrist paradigm manifests itself within the next few years but should centrism cling to the past it will suffer irrelevancy. Whether new centrism reflects at all my vision for it remains to be seen, this political identity crisis is unlikely to peak before the next presidential election. In the meantime I’ll be working to put the best of these policies into practice because that’s how ideas thrive in a competitive ecosystem, by proving themselves, not endless exhortations of their superiority or complaints about what’s wrong with politics today.