Bernie Sanders, the famously cantankerous democratic socialist loner, appears to have finally found a protégé of sorts in the form of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old leftist who pulled off a stunning upset victory in the primary for New York's 14th congressional district — knocking off the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House in the process. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have been touring famously red Kansas to enthusiastic crowds, stumping for Sanders allies in local elections there.
America's centrist grandees have reacted with slackjawed horror to this development. The United States needs wise, moderate leadership, they moaned in unison, not irresponsible leftism. Former FBI Director James Comey begged Democrats to not "lose your minds and rush to the socialist left." Third Way, the deep-pocketed centrist think tank, plans to fight Sanders just as hard as Trump, report Gabriel Debenedetti and Alex Seitz-Wald, supposedly because they want to win in 2020.
These people need to get a grip. Predictions are hard, but I will stake my left arm on this: America is not crying out for limp dishrag centrism.
Democrats have been the party of hesitant, timid, hanky-wringing moderation for the last 10 years, and it has been an epic political disaster. Barack Obama, it's true, did manage to win two presidential elections. But the rest of the party collapsed under his watch, losing 64 House seats, 12 Senate seats, and 968 state legislative seats. They capped that record off by losing perhaps the easiest lay-up presidential election in American history to a hideously unpopular reality show buffoon — by nominating a candidate only slightly less unpopular.
Hillary Clinton was (and is) unpopular in part for unfair sexist reasons, but it was also because she was patently the status quo moderate in a time of populist backlash. She was the candidate of secret buck-raking Wall Street speeches, raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the ultra-wealthy, and penny-ante policy tinkering. Perhaps most obnoxiously, she gave off a distinct air of wanting to be president simply because she deserved it — thus "I'm With Her" and "America Is Already Great," certainly two of the most tin-eared political slogans in American history. She was an appallingly poor fit for the times.
We just had about the clearest possible test of the viability of milquetoast centrism at this moment in history, and it failed spectacularly.
It's also worth interrogating just what is meant by centrist moderation. The Obama administration's economic record was disastrous, rescuing Wall Street with trillions in cash and loans but lowballing the broader stimulus package to win centrist votes — and conducting a homeowner assistance program designed mainly to help Wall Street even more, doing virtually nothing to stop over 9 million families getting kicked out of their homes. Then by early 2010, Obama pivoted to austerity, driven by idiotic centrist anxiety over the large budget deficit (at a time when U.S. debt was selling for literally less than free). The result was a devastating defeat in the 2010 midterms, Republicans taking control of the House, and locking in pitifully slow growth up to today.
Republicans bear the lion's share of blame for the stagnant economy, of course. But the fact remains that centrist Democrats had the run of government for two critical years, and bobbled their majorities directly because of centrist timidity.
Conversely, Sanders Democrats are not proposing some Marxist-Leninist overthrow of constitutional democracy. On the contrary, they want to strengthen democracy with automatic voter registration, restoration of the Voting Rights Act, removing money from politics, and so on. Their most consistent lines of attack are against outsize corporate profits and the necessarily concomitant low wages for workers — a leftward swing from current practice to be sure, but also part of an American tradition stretching back centuries. Most of their policy proposals come from copy-pasting programs from vastly more decent European societies, which provide universal health care, paid leave, generous retirement pensions, and much more while maintaining cutting-edge economies (indeed, it's increasingly clear that America's garbage welfare state is actually hindering the growth of economic productivity.)
And on the most critical emergency facing American society — climate change — leftists are the only ones proposing anything remotely as large as what needs to be done.
In other words, when it comes to actually addressing America's many problems, it is centrists who are not thinking straight, or really at all. Big problems require big solutions, but centrists tend to regard the political status quo, whatever it happens to be, as unchangeable and wise.
As Lionel Trilling once wrote about conservatism, this attitude is little more than "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." It's the weaselly carping of dim upper-class people who are doing quite well from the status quo, and want to keep the gravy train flowing, thank you. It is neither politically popular nor worthwhile on the merits.