As the March 3rd Democratic primary approaches, I have been arguing with just about all of my centrist Democrat friends. It was interesting to come across an essay about the centrist-progressive dispute by Jim Hightower, who may be best known (at least in Texas) as the agriculture commissioner whom Rick Perry unseated. For progressives Hightower is probably best known for the many causes and candidates the sprightly 77 year-old has worked for, including Bernie Sanders.
In an essay entitled “The Irony of the centrist-progresssive Debate” Hightower argues that centrists “tinkering around the edges” aren’t going to fix America’s problems, and those who fear to make real change won’t appeal to voters in numbers sufficient to vote Trump out of office. Moreover, Hightower writes, polls show that voters want substantial and progressive change, not centrist diddling.
So — forget moral arguments for a moment and focus on tactics — you can’t replace a solid, political platform with a vague appeal to throw some bum out of office. Voters are not going to vote the bum out if Democrats propose the same cold, cautious, poll-tested and spreadsheet-engineered technocratic B.S. they always come up with.
Instead, Democrats ought to be appealing to people’s hearts — you know, like the Republicans do. More importantly, I completely agree with Hightower’s South Texas dictum — grandes males, grandes remedios. Big problems, big solutions. And we have some incredibly big problems.
But — aside from nostalgia for a democracy centrists themselves had a hand in vandalizing when they voted for the Patriot Act, FISA courts, ICE, 287g, border walls of their own, the war on drugs, the war on crime, wars, wars, and more wars — centrist Democrats don’t really have a problem with the nation’s staggering economic, military, foreign policy, environmental, and race problems. If they did, we’d be seeing them proposing ambitious platforms like progressives. But for centrists a little tinkering suffices and no big solutions are necessary.
The centrist argument seems to boil down to this — that America isn’t ready for a progressive agenda and that Democrats can win only by being slightly less depraved than Trump. Specifically, that Democrats must align their own platform with Republican values. And more specifically, that Democrats have to embrace white Republican values. Flag-waving, red-baiting progressives, going soft on abortion, avoiding national conversations on reparations and criminal justice reform, and showing they can pray as fervently as Evangelicals is now their ticket to Democratic victory.
This is not only distasteful but a fool’s errand because common sense dictates that nobody is going to rush out to buy a case of Pepsi when they already have a pallet of Coke in the garage. If you want flag-waving, god-fearing patriots, NATO, corporation-friendly trade agreements, a belligerent foreign policy, regime change, wars of choice, saber rattling with China and Iran, a new Cold War, coddling Israel, and the defense of private insurers and bailouts for Wall Street, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the centrist Democratic playbook.
Republicans do it so much better.
What America is desperately looking for are real solutions, and Democrats had better offer them now — or lose the next presidential election.
Hillel the Elder famously wrote in the Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Desperate Americans have been asking the first of Hillel’s questions — “who will be for me” — and have yet to receive an honest reply from either party. In 2016 Republicans lied to voters, and continue to do so. As 2020 unfolds, Democrats — rejecting “identity politics” and unlikely to make desperately needed structural changes in a broken America — appear to be ignoring Hillel’s last two questions.
If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Great questions for Democrats.