The Financial Times editorial page is ground zero for liberal panic. Last week the normally insightful Martin Wolf penned a piece offering “10 suggestions for how to build an alternative to the siren song of the strongman.” Wolf implores center-right and center-left politicians to recognize “they are in for a huge fight.”
Democracy is in grave danger from would-be despots and scoundrels on the right and the left, Wolf warns. Unfortunately, the names of these left-wing scoundrels and would-be despots are left to our imagination. Perhaps Sanders is the scoundrel and Corbyn the despot? Or the other way around? Regardless, here are ten reasons why centrists won’t save democracy.
Despite railing against the siren songs of populists, Wolf starts his list by imploring centrists to be more charismatic — to “tell a good story.” Fair enough. People do love a good story. But what new stories can the centrists tell? The classics — Everything is Fine, Chill, and Neoliberalism Is Working, Just Not for You are a bit stale. A good story gives people something to believe in, so centrists are going to have to dig deep on this one. Something tells me that Joe Biden Saves The Day and Return of the Third Way won’t cut the mustard.
Wolf says that while the “demagogues of right and left” don’t need to bother with being competent because their power rests on being “oppositional,” centrists “need to know what they are doing” lest they make “big mistakes,” like the 2008 financial meltdown. No need to stop there! The greatest hits of liberal blunders also includes the Middle East catastrophe, crumbling public infrastructure, an out-of-control financial sector, suffocating student debt, an inhumane health care system, mass incarceration, skyrocketing inequality, a corporate-led environmental movement … Mr. Wolf is spot on here. Centrists lack competence and their tenure over the past four decades is marked by colossal errors.
We must value citizenship, Wolf says, because “without the idea that citizens come first, there can be no national community.” The only thing less clear than whatever Wolf means by “national community” is why he thinks liberals need to be reminded not to hand over the key to the city to refugees and the undocumented. Obama deported 2.5 million people during his tenure, more than the total of every twentieth-century president combined.
Wolf also urges centrists to address the issue of income inequality. No disagreement there. The divide between the richest Americans and everyone else has become so wide over the past four decades that a logarithmic scale is needed to even fit the country’s income distribution on one graph. This chasm is the direct result of policies — neoliberal globalization, deregulated financial markets, massive tax giveaways to big business and the rich — championed by liberals. So, we’ll believe centrists’ pronouncements that “inclusion matters” when they support much higher wealth taxes, shutting down tax havens, and socializing finance.
Wolf acknowledges problems with capitalism, but says socialism is not the answer. Instead, he encourages centrist politicians to focus on “greater competition” and “better markets.” Competition, better markets, lather, rinse, repeat. Blaming wage stagnation and increased precarity on “winner take all” markets isn’t entirely wrong, but it sidesteps the concerted drive (spearheaded by centrists) of business and elites to take back the gains won by ordinary people through decades of struggle. Moreover, increased competition does nothing to change a system in which capitalists decide if, when, where, and how workers are employed.
Emphasizing the Local
Wolf encourages centrist politicians to “give communities the means to revitalize themselves.” A great hypothetical no doubt. But more often than not, liberal tools for community revitalization mean charter schools and “opportunity zones,” while demands for rent control and a living wage are roundly opposed by center-right and center-left governments. No matter. As Fight for $15 and the recent wave of teachers’ strikes demonstrate, communities increasingly aren’t waiting to be given anything. They are developing the tools and networks to win without any help from politicians on high.
Challenging the libertarian ideal of a minimal state as “unworkable” and “incompatible with democracy,” Wolf says “politicians of the centre have powerful arguments in their favour when they defend the public services on which people depend.” They certainly do, which is why it is puzzling that so few centrists actually defend them. Instead, they’ve overseen decades of austerity, resulting in the neglect and dismantlement of public services.
Globalization and Global Cooperation
Third Way advocates such as Wolf are deeply disturbed by Trump’s attacks on the “stable and predictable rules governing [global] interactions” that have prevailed since the Second World War. Trump is deeply disturbing, but he’s also the result of a profound crisis of legitimacy for the global system that centrists built. The rules of global capitalism need to be rewritten, not rebooted.
If centrist politicians are to regain hegemony, Wolf declares, they must look ahead, crafting the terms of debate on climate change, artificial intelligence, and the rise of Asia. If they don’t “the Chinese party-state” will. Fearmongering is a classic move, but the horse is out of the barn for the liberal status quo. Young people everywhere are setting their own terms, crafting a new consensus that puts people over profit.
Humorist H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” “That is what charismatic demagogues offer,” warns Wolf. Instead, “the right response has to be a politics that bases hope on realism.” Actually, the problems of our society are not that complex. For decades big businesses and elites have enjoyed unchecked power to hoard wealth, power, and opportunity at the expense of ordinary people. The solutions, while not simple, are straightforward. Good jobs, health care for all, free higher education — security, justice. The fact that centrists think achieving these basic rights is a fantasy demonstrates not a firm grasp on reality, but a bankrupt ideology.