The most tedious cliché in political writing comes from W.B. Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming”: “The centre cannot hold.” Yeats was anticipating the apocalypse, but it has become a convenient shorthand to describe any deviation from business as usual. According to The New York Times, the poem “was quoted more in 2016 than in any other year in three decades.”
The reasons for the resurgence are obvious. The election of Donald Trump made it difficult to be certain where the center even was or had been after eight years of ostensible ideological stability. As the 2020 Democratic primaries commence, the center is in question once again. The party appears fundamentally split. As New York’s Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, told New York magazine, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
Statements like this have made Ocasio-Cortez the object of suspicion in the Democratic establishment. “Political science has generally found that, all things being equal, the electorate tends to punish ideologically extreme candidates,” says liberal pundit Jonathan Chait at New York. His target, primarily, is Bernie Sanders—with some lesser admonishment reserved for Elizabeth Warren, who “at least tries to couch her positions in a framework of reforming and revitalizing capitalism that is intended to reassure ideologically skeptical voters.” The closer to the center, the wisdom goes, the better your chance of winning.
In The New York Times, Ezra Klein argues that “To win power, Democrats don’t just need to appeal to the voter in the middle. They need to appeal to voters to the right of the middle.” But this vaunted middle ground seems increasingly mythical.
Hillary Clinton described her 2016 strategy against Trump as “occupying from the center-left to the center-right.” The fetish for holding the center—and by implication, not troubling oneself unduly with coherent and consistent principles—was perhaps most candidly articulated by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer when he said, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” This was, of course, a losing strategy.
Barack Obama paradoxically defined and obscured the location of the political center. His pet aphorism for his approach to foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid shit,” epitomizes his stance. The structures of society are fundamentally sound, it suggests—so much so that they don’t even need much explication and should be allowed to operate without interference. Obama is rehashing this position for the current (deeply bifurcated) primary season. It should come as no surprise that he counsels inertia. Speaking to an assembly of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of liberal donors, he questioned the wisdom of “political revolution,” as Sanders has called for:
“Voters, including Democratic voters and certainly persuadable independents or even moderate Republicans, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain, you know, left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party. This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement…. The average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
That “average American” is the ghost in the machine of centrism. The center is meant not to articulate itself. It is the “silent majority” Richard Nixon invoked in 1969: those who did not attend anti-war demonstrations, whose silence was taken as consent. It cannot be defined on its own terms but only in relation to its surroundings. Yet the poles of a political system are defined by its outer limits. The assumption that those who are reluctant to take a side have occupied a middle position is a false one. The truth may be that they find themselves outside the system entirely, not seeing themselves represented in it.
After Trump’s election, the philosopher Alain Badiou suggested that “the contradiction between Hillary Clinton and Trump was a relative contradiction and not an absolute one; that is, a contradiction in the same parameters, in the same construction of the world.” Indeed, their membership in common social circles, captured on camera on many occasions, suggested that even the real differences between them had limits. It was at the margins, Badiou hypothesized, in Sanders’s candidacy, that it was possible to glimpse something “beyond the world as it is.”
Without this foresight, the limits of the centrist philosophy can become endlessly recursive, like a Mandelbrot set. Dismissing Sanders as too extreme, the Times’ editorial board elevated the pursuit of the center to new levels of farce in its 2020 presidential endorsement. After describing competing Democratic visions (one that considers Trump “an aberration” and one that considers him “the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced”), their resulting “break with convention” was an act of cowardice: the dual endorsement of chosen representatives of each vision, Amy Klobuchar and Warren.
This would all be comical if it were not so dangerous. It should be plainly clear, by historical example, by logic, by any semblance of a moral compass, that there are matters in which the truth is not in the middle but in what is right against what is wrong. This year, liberal equivocation is personified by Joe Biden, whose purchase on the electorate is rapidly declining, and Pete Buttigieg, whose media presence has been elevated to levels far beyond his meager support—effectively zero among African Americans, one of the most crucial Democratic constituencies.
While pundits call for a return to the center, young people have been energized to participate in politics by a candidate they see as taking a side, to a far greater extent than any other candidate in memory. The question is whether the rest of us will have the courage to share their vision. Those who continue to call for holding the center may do well to remember different lines from the same poet: “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.”