The Center Cannot Hold

Published August 22, 2019 in Warp & Woof


The Center Cannot Hold

A Primer for 21st Century Political Labels
William Sundwick
Left and Right. It all started in 1789 with Louis XVI and his National Assembly. The body was reaction to the revolution that year, and the storming of the Bastille. The king knew he had to listen to people with differing views. The deputies supporting crown and church found themselves sitting together to the right of the Assembly President. Those who supported the revolution on the opposite side of the chamber, left of the President. The framework of this seating arrangement held in the Legislative Assembly of 1791, despite all new deputies.

The press picked up on the seating arrangement quickly. Soon everybody was talking about Le Droit and La Gauche in all discussions about the future direction of the monarchy. The coup d’etat of 1792, and the Terror following, emptied the right side of the chamber, when the Girondins , the more moderate of the Jacobins, were purged.  Survivors from that side moved closer to the Montagnards on the Left, but not quite with them, sitting closer to the Center of the chamber. That Center grew during the Thermador period (1794-95) and after the restoration of the monarchy in 1814-15.

Political clubs, then formal parties, emerged as the century progressed, over the objections of monarchists. A similar process had been underway in Britain since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where Parliament emerged triumphant and immediately began to differentiate itself between “constitutionalism” and “divine right.” The Glorious Revolution also introduced another social and political philosophy into European history – liberalism. Inspired by John Locke, it established the notion of a “social contract” between the people and their ruler. Liberalism has remained the dominant philosophy for most western European governments, the United States and South America ever since.

In 19thcentury America, however, a unique political structure developed. Slavery, and the compromises it necessitated, from the Constitutional Convention onward, made European political labels on any Left-Right spectrum difficult to apply. Our political structure has been charitably identified as “American Exceptionalism.” It reduced to two big themes: 1) slavery; and, 2) the frontier. Neither was an issue in Europe. Ending slavery required a violent Civil War, which only replaced it with the demi-slavery of Jim Crow and white supremacy. And, the existence of an empty frontier throughout the century made escape from political labels too easy! Our compromised political system might be described as “centrist,” accommodating both white supremacy and the liberal ideal of self-determination.

Liberalism in the United States became associated more with property rights than social equity. Abolitionists were not liberals, but radicals. In Europe, Marx and Engels created a Left for the industrial revolution, but wrote a series of articles for the New York Tribune before the Civil War where they identify a peculiar American strain of class conflict, literally between slaves and their masters.

Since the frontier was rural – not urban industrial – it was naturally attractive to the aspiring “petty bourgeois” of independent farmers and artisans. That was not the milieu of Britain’s growing textile industry, familiar to Engels, where workers controlling the means of production would lead to “socialism.” The struggle for socialism  would adopt a more European complexion. Not American.

Yet, by the end of the century, America had managed to create a movement of rural “populists,” who later joined with urban workers in a “progressive” coalition led by disaffected members of an elite capitalist class (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette). Progressivism expanded the liberal idea of property rights to workers, perhaps not in Marx’s terms of “seizing the means of production,” but still making great strides toward establishing “social rights.” From the Civil War through the first two decades of the 20th century, it was the progressive Republican Party, more than Eugene Debs’ socialists, that spearheaded the closest approximation to left politics the country had known up until that time. Progressivism’s purpose was clearly to save capitalism, not destroy it. Likewise, FDR’s New Deal.

American political labels began including the term “conservative” in the mid-20th century. While certain cultural drivers had always existed in the U.S., as in Europe, toward traditionalism, primacy of property rights, and religious freedom, people who felt these drivers most strongly still found themselves in the broader European liberal tradition — until that conservative brand was invented by William F. Buckley and others. Robert Taft emerged as the Republican Party symbol of conservatism, not Dwight Eisenhower (a military man averse to political labels and perhaps still tied to the midwestern populists, or progressive wing of his party).

This spiffy new brand of conservatism captured the imagination (and wallets) of media influencers, including television, convincing people that Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was defending our democracy against an insidious plot of Soviet Communism. McCarthy was a Taft Republican who exploited the fears many average Americans held for the “other.” Communists made a convenient other. Richard Nixon was a McCarthy acolyte, and Ronald Reagan gave the hysteria some slick Hollywood PR.

The hysteria faded but still left a mark on political labels. There had never been a strong identification with socialism, or anything smacking of the Left, in U.S. politics. Even labor unions eschewed the label. We remained a Centrist nation as McCarthy and, later, the John Birch Society, were discredited. More people began to see some value in the concept of “social rights” – now expressed as “civil rights.” It was the new face of liberalism. John F. Kennedy was elected, then Lyndon Johnson.

But, alas, American political compromise with the Right was still necessary. Just as it had been with slavery from the birth of the Republic.  The cultural divide between regions, between urban and rural, between religious and secular, could not be eradicated. “Socialist” remained a nasty word. It was popularly associated with communism. You could safely call yourself only “liberal” or “Democrat,” never socialist, in public. We were still a Centrist nation.

Even after Nixon’s humiliation and resignation, we merely advanced to Reagan. Jimmy Carter campaigned in 1976 from the center. Bill Clinton and his Third Way responded to Reaganism by stripping the Democratic Party of any vestiges of social rights. After two terms of Barack Obama, one might think it was time for the Party to feel more comfortable moving left. Apparently not. Donald Trump managed to squeak out an electoral college win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And, now everybody on the putative political left is convinced that Obama could have done more, save for the country remaining “moderate” – i.e., Centrist. Sigh.

The ”establishment” in the Democratic Party, which includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is now identified as “neoliberal”– meaning, generally, that they believe in capitalism and the primacy of markets. They are not socialists. ONLY Bernie Sanders claims that label. And, we all know he will never be president.

We live in a shrinking “flat” world. Yes, it is governed by neoliberal capitalist interests. Those of us who want to change that must accept the widest possible spread from left to right of center in that chamber where we all sit. Imagine it is Paris, 1789. Parties have not been established. We all have our opinions, and we should understand where they come from. We should own them. Left, Right, and Center all have their place in our National Assembly. Even if the Center, changing its positions over time, always holds in the end!

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