The True Center
Yesterday I asked David Sirota and Matt Stoller what they thought Chuck Schumer meant when he used the word "centrist." We were soon on our feet, shouting and jamming our fingers at each other but not long in concluding that neither we, nor Chuck himself probably had any idea what he was talking about. If it's a term generally employed to describe those who are socially liberal but fiscally "conservative," then neither Shuler nor Bob Casey (who are usually touted as poster boys for this particular triumph) fit the bill. Rita Cosby in her stint with Cliff Schecter this morning presumes it means that anyone actually cared about Heath Shuler, or anybody else's position on abortion this election. They really didn't. As Harold Meyerson says:
Looking at the Democrats who picked up formerly Republican House seats, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch tallies 27 who defeated (or replaced resigning) free-trade Republicans and who campaigned against the kind of trade deals that Congress has ratified. The fair-trade 27 insist instead on deals that stress labor rights and environmental standards. In North Carolina, Democrat Heath Shuler — ostensibly one of the new conservative Democrats — attacked his opponent, Republican Charles Taylor, for backing off his commitment to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "It's not right when Congress passes trade bills that send our jobs overseas," said one Shuler ad.
In the incoming Senate delegation, the contrast is even sharper. The Democratic pickups — Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Montana's Jon Tester, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse, and Virginia's James Webb — all unseated free-trade incumbents with campaigns that stressed the need to pay far greater attention to the downward leveling that globalization entails. Tester ran ads attacking trade agreements for putting "our jobs and the viability of family farms and ranches across Montana in jeopardy." Webb's Web site states, "We must reexamine our tax and trade policies and reinstitute notions of fairness."
Exit polling made clear that the fair-trade Democrats have tapped into a profound national anxiety. When asked whether life for the next generation would be better, worse or about the same as life today, 40 percent responded "worse," while just 30 percent answered "better." That's a stunning figure to emerge from what has historically been perhaps the most optimistic of nations.
Sirota wrote an article entitled "Debunking Centrism" last year where he argued essentially that those who define themselves as such don't much like to ruffle corporate feathers more than anything else. Yet this is purported "centrist" Jim Webb in today's Wall Street Journal:
The most important– and unfortunately the least debated– issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.
Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic's range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.
This is where the "centrism" both of the country and this election probably rests, but I doubt it's what Rita Cosby or Chuck Schumer or anybody else who spits out the word like it was a cheap taco probably means. Webb's language is not the language of the Blue Dogs or the New Democratic Coalition who are quick to claim victory in this election expressly because they see themselves as an outgrowth of corporate culture. And I really just do not think that's what many people thought they were voting for.
As the Agonist's Ian Welsh said (via email):
The US is ripe for populism, and getting riper by the year. One day some politician is going to realize there's a bunch of nitro fuel lying around. I hope it's an FDR, but it doesn't have to be.
Predictably, Democrats are now lining up to receive the bounty of all that lobbying money which K Street has denied them so long. I think the spectacle of a few interesting political tightrope walks await us all.