The Missing Political Center

by Jonathan Krall

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak with a member of Senator Mark Warner’s staff at a Grassroots Alexandria event. Because Senator Warner is famously centrist, I expressed my concern that the political center seems to have disappeared. The old definition of the center, policies supported by centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans, no longer applies to Congress. For reasons they are loathe to share with the public, centrist Republicans are no longer accepted by their party. As a result, the real-world center, the policies supported by a majority of US citizens, desperately needs the support of the only major party likely to support it, the Democrats.

As I see it, a “missing center” issue is not only clearly favored by a majority of US voters, it is also mysteriously considered a non-starter by the mainstream corporate media. Examples are loophole-free universal background checks prior to a gun purchase, an assault weapons ban, strengthening social security instead of continuing to chip away at it, universal healthcare without bankruptcy-inducing surprise billing, and transportation infrastructure for cities, such as subways and light rail. To the best of my knowledge, a majority of US voters favor all of these while the media ignores or pooh-poohs them.

In all cases, the Republicans work against the majority by either quietly undermining us (social security, transportation) or by declaring our majority views to be un-American (guns, universal healthcare). An example is transit funding. A scathing expose of the failure of the White House to distribute allocated funds to cities has barely gotten traction in the corporate media.

Like the isle of Avalon, the old model of centrism seems to have disappeared into the mist. But it didn’t go away, it was taken away. In her book, Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean documents this recent history for us: after discovering that their core, ultra-libertarian agenda is not supported by a majority of US citizens, the Koch-brothers-led Republican leadership decided to give up on democracy. Today, they instead hide their policy proposals until they have enough votes to pass legislation. In lieu of public debate, they now rely on anti-democracy propaganda (they tell us that politics is “toxic“), gerrymandering, and voter suppression. In Congress, there is no centrist overlap between Democratic and Republican politicians, except for a few marginalized or militarized issues. Sadly, both parties have more faith in war than in the international institutions that might one day replace it.

In this frightening era of Trumpism, pundits call on the Republicans to put country before party, but Democratic pundits should know better. Anyone who’s ever been through marriage counseling knows that you cannot control the other party, you can only control yourself. The time has come for Democrats to put country before party by not only proclaiming and occupying the new political center, but by standing up for democracy itself. Specifically, they should make elections more meaningful by giving up on gerrymandering and by supporting ranked-choice voting.

The public debate has gotten so twisted that the media sometimes treats the labor-focused globalism reform of the far left as somehow equivalent to the white nationalist anti-globalism of the far right. We need a new centrism. We also need a substantive public debate. Senator Warner is one of the few centrists with enough street cred to help the Democrats deliver both.

In the meantime, we in Grassroots Alexandria are standing up for democracy. We work to register voters, dismantle white supremacy, oppose the growing threat of ICE in our community, and defend democracy against white-nationalist Islamophobia. It would be nice if more of our political leaders had our backs.

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