The three organising myths of centrist establishment Democrats and what’s wrong with them

Centrist Democrats often claim not to be tied to any specific theory of how politics works. However three central ideas reoccur over and over again in the rhetoric of centrist democrats. The cumulative effect of these ideas is to marginalise, in theory and practice, the left flank of their own party. However these ideas are deeply flawed, relying on simplistic conceptions of how humans and politics work.

These ideas are: The myth of the all power centrist swing voter, the myth of abstract policy choice and the myth of policy precision.

1. The myth of the all powerful centrist swing voter

The first organising myth of centrist establishment democrats is that the party must appeal to the voters in the middle. The logic of appealing to centrists in the middle might seem to be impeccable, after all don’t these swing voters  decide elections? Is it not logical that swing voters must be positioned somewhere between the Democrats and Republicans in their preferences? There’s even a mathematical theorem, the median voter theorem, that purports to show that the centrist swing voter is king. Thus, the centrist democrat concludes, the party must go towards the middle.

I don’t deny that the median voter model has a rational kernel in some circumstances, but I think it is overdone for two reasons.

The first is a quibble- but an important one. In a voluntary voting system with low turnout like the United States, there is not a fixed population of voters. Rather you must try to excite potential voters, and watered down centrist policies may not be the way to do this.

The second, more philosophical and fundamental, problem is that the myth of the centrist swing voter assumes a model of the voter according to which voters have clear pre-existing political preferences, and select from a marketplace of political parties to best meet their preferences. On this model, the swing voter is evenly positioned between the two parties with “moderate” preferences. This is a false model of how people work in general, but I think it is especially false of swing voters.

Instead people have a vast array of always tangled and sometimes contradictory values, ideas, hopes, plans, idiosyncratic theories, pet peeves, secret lusts and fears. The party that wins is not necessarily the party that appeals to well defined and pre-existing preferences, it’s the party that can articulate the different thoughts and wants people have into new political visions and perhaps even new political identities (e.g. “Reagan Democrats”). The right has traditionally tried to re-articulate people’s values around identities like “citizen” and “taxpayer” while the left has tried to articulate their values and social position around identities like “the working class”, reflecting the situation their material situation. It is no coincidence that the centrists, who think in terms of meeting prior preferences, and not transformation, have been extremely bad at creating these kinds of identities. 

2. The myth of abstract policy choice

The second organising myth of centrist establishment dems is the myth of abstract policy choice. The idea that policies can be assessed in a social vacuum.  All we need to do, says the myth, is ensure that we have policies that benefit a majority of the electorate and logically a majority of the electorate must vote for us! Policy becomes separated from politics, people are modelled as omniscient interest maximisers, and the dirty work of coalition building and organising is abstracted from.

In truth, policies have to be both implementable and sustainable. Implementable in the sense that a large segment of the population will go to bat to get them put in place, sustainable in the sense that they are difficult to knock down or modify once put in place. To make implementable and sustainable policies you’ve got to make it very obvious what you are doing and how it is helping people in order to cut through the static- basically, you’ve got to help people in concrete and obvious ways.

The beloved tool of technocrats- tax credits, are uniquely bad at this, given the total opacity of the US tax system to most people, and the fact that tax returns are only done once a year. I wonder, for example, whether the majority of people receiving the earned income tax credit are even aware of it.

Means testing also tends to weaken implementability and sustainability, because it shrinks the constituency that wins from the program, and because people may not even know if they are currently gaining from the program, or if they will continue to gain from it in the future. How can a strong and coherent base form around supporting and defending a policy under these conditions.

A good example of the dangers of focusing on policy detail, and forgetting about implementability and sustainability is Obamacare. Part of the reason the Republicans were able to repeal part of Obamacare, and come close to repealing the rest, is because only a tiny fraction of the population has anything like a complete understanding of the affordable care act. It’s mystifying, and the winners often don’t know that they are winners.

3. The myth of policy precision

The third myth is the myth of policy precision. The myth that the most important factor for good government is policy expertise. According to this myth, good policy is generally policy made by skilled policy makers. At first glance this seems plausible, but things are more complicated than this. Focusing on technical details misses the fact that all policy reflects values and goals, and those values and goals differ in important ways along political lines.

If we all shared the same interests, then indeed the most important issue in policy design would be getting the details right. The problem is that in questions of the distribution of resources, there are almost necessarily differences in interests. If the left is correct that some necessary changes in policy for the good of the vast majority of people are going to negatively affect the 1%, it matters less how carefully crafted your policy is, and more which side you are on, or, if you don’t like the idea of sides, how inequality averse you are. It doesn’t matter how clever your policy is, if it primarily reflects the interests of plutocrats, it will generally be more harmful than good.

To clarify I don’t disagree that well crafted policy from the left is better than poorly crafted policy from the left, but I believe what generally matters more than good policy is a fundamental commitment to redistribution and social justice. If this is lacking, a good eye for policy detail is absolutely irrelevant. It’s like being proud of walking fast when you’re going in the wrong direction.

We can see a manifestation of this myth in the centrist obsession with calling Republicans stupid. Doubtless, many Republican legislators are stupid, but this isn’t the major problem with Republican legislators, the major problem is that they either don’t care about inequality, poverty and oppression, or actively support it.

4. The functions of these myths

The function of each of these myths is to dis-empower and dis-articulate the left.

The myth of the centrist swing voter gives a rationale for not caring about the opinions of the left- only the almighty median voter, serenely and rationally choosing from a menu of options, matters.

The myth of abstract policy choice abstracts away the activist element of making policy- the coalition building, in doing so it reduces the role of extra-parliamentary rank and file activists, who tend to be further left.

The myth of policy expertise locks the majority of people out from criticising or arguing about policy, by turning policy discussion from a discussion about justice, to a discussion about complex technical detail.

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