“My fellow Americans, as a young boy I dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say: we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.” It may be a quarter century old, but the classic Kodos-as-Clinton bit from The Simpsons has never really gone out of fashion or stopped being referenced as a shorthand for the absurdity of modern political rhetoric. A phrase like “twirling towards freedom,” after all, is only a notch or two removed from the kinds of things mainstream politicians quite regularly say, and promising to take things “forward” has become a piece of political liturgy so ubiquitous across the ideological spectrum that it’s effectively devoid of meaning.
Insofar as it does convey anything, “going forward” is a kind of lazy appeal to an unspecified but vaguely positive direction of travel, an empty signifier for broad good intentions that generally illuminates very little. An arrow, by definition, is supposed to point somewhere, and it inevitably falls on us to ask what it is, exactly, we’re all moving toward. In the mid-twentieth century, when mainstream culture and politics maintained at least some capacity for accommodating competing narratives of progress, the rhetoric of “forwardness” might have occasionally meant something. In an era where most everything, including and especially politics, has been colonized by markets and brands, it’s now basically on par with slogans like “The Choice of a New Generation” and “Think Outside the Bun”: an ersatz appeal to the transgressive and avant-garde that’s more about packaging than use value and entirely concerned with present appearances rather than future destinations.
It’s in exactly this spirit that various quixotic ventures have periodically sworn to shake up, disrupt, or transform America’s sclerotic political order while also offering little to nothing in the way of structural change. The umbrella term “radical centrism” might apply to an unhelpfully broad array of candidacies and projects, but the basic template is by now familiar enough. Starting from the (entirely correct) premise that the country’s ossified party duopoly is unrepresentative and ill-equipped to solve most serious problems, the radical centrist promises to tear down the system while simultaneously promising to leave it intact — in some instances singling out its very worst features and pledging to accelerate them.
In this vein, 2001’s The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics, by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, argued that America was ready for “political transformations and realignments” on the scale of the New Deal and Civil War, then proceeded to make the case for the “progressive privatization” of Social Security. For so-called radical centrists, the journey from revolutionary premise to cookie-cutter platitude is invariably a short one, which is why the book’s passages about “the rapidly emerging technologies and circumstances of the Information Age” would have sounded equally at home in your average Tom Friedman column.
Which brings us to the new party founded by former Democratic presidential contender and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, aptly named the Forward Party (a tie in with his just published book Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy). As you might expect from an erstwhile political outsider, Yang’s opening pitch for a third party carries a degree of obvious truth. “We are witnessing a cascade of crises, from a pandemic to a punitive economy to police brutality to the selling of our attention and digital data to the highest bidders,” he argues in the book’s introduction. “Our democratic institutions are faltering right and left, and our systems are not designed for speed or significant change. . . . Trust is fading. . . . Our political system is a fixed duopoly that will want to move slowly, if at all.” Elsewhere, he writes:
Our leaders are rewarded based not on solving problems but on accruing resources and retaining office. . . . Media companies have their own set of incentives that lead them to operate on a different wavelength from most of the American people. Local news is dying. And social media is driving our everyday discourse and our mental health to volatile extremes. These are all crises, and they are all linked in ways we will unpack in the pages ahead.
Though not exactly firebrand stuff, there’s some truth to this diagnosis. But, like all projects of the radical center (the label incidentally being one Yang seems keen to embrace), the effect is instantly blunted by the follow-through, which veers hard into prescriptions that are both so vague and so blandly conventional that they ultimately raise more questions than they answer. Of the six guiding principles put forth by Yang as the pillars of his new party, four have nothing to do with policy. “Fact-based governance,” “effective and modern-day government,” and “grace and tolerance” aren’t just boring and nonspecific propositions; they’re totally indistinguishable from the empty bromides uttered by mainstream politicians on a daily basis. “Human-centered capitalism,” meanwhile, sounds like the kind of yarn you’d hear spun by someone like Bill Gates at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel sponsored by a consortium of tech companies — as sure a clue as any that this would-be antiestablishment project is mostly operating on the same wavelength as the very system it claims to be challenging.
“I’m not very ideological. I’m practical,” writes Yang in a recently published blog post explaining his departure from the Democratic Party. “Making partisan arguments — particularly expressing what I often see as performative sentiment,” he continues,
is sometimes uncomfortable for me. I often think, “Okay, what can we actually do to solve the problem?” I’m pretty sure there are others who feel the same way I do.
I’ve seen politicians publicly eviscerate each other and then act collegial or friendly backstage a few minutes later. A lot of it is theatre.
Here again, Yang is partly correct. Much of what the public sees in televised debates and political speeches is theater, and the artificial character of mainstream politics is a big reason that so many people are alienated from it.
But what does it mean to be practical rather than ideological? It’s impossible to operate in politics without some diagnosis of what’s wrong and some ideas about how to fix it. Both this diagnosis and what follows from it will inevitably express value judgements, which is just a more colloquial way of saying they’ll reflect some kind of ideology. This was a major reason the “Not left, not right, but forward” schtick (also embraced by Yang) that formed the basis for the supposed “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism in the ’90s was so transparently bogus. (There’s no nonideological way to advocate tax cuts, welfare reform, or the privatization of Social Security, and those who insisted otherwise were really just telling us that their ideology was the mainstream neoliberal capitalist one.)
Yang’s other two structuring principles — open primaries and a universal basic income (UBI) — are at least semi-fleshed-out policy ideas. As to the former, there’s at least a coherent case for it. Party primary contests are a highly restrictive model of electoral competition, and Yang’s accompanying proposal for ranked-choice balloting could conceivably be an improvement on the status quo. It’s hardly revolutionary, though, and a somewhat frail scaffold on which to build a new political party. The same goes for Yang’s trademark proposal, which formed the basis for his 2020 Democratic presidential run.
Without relitigating the vast and hugely complicated debate surrounding UBI, it’s worth recognizing that there are progressive versions of the idea. But, as Honda Wang forcefully argued for Jacobin back in 2019, Yang’s isn’t one of them: its philosophical roots being found in Milton Friedman, and its assumptions about the relationship between individuals, society, and the state reflecting a view of the world that tilts decidedly to the right (namely, that human freedom is best realized through the market, which is more suited to remedy social problems than the state). As Wang wrote, “[Yang] identifies the problems that are inherent to capitalism, yet somehow believes that the same market forces that create those problems can also fix them.” When Andrew Yang says he’s practical rather than ideological, what he’s really telling us is that his ideology is capitalism.
Like many projects of the radical center, Yang’s new Forward Party rightly acknowledges the many problems with America’s ossified two-party system and the compromised legislative outcomes it generally achieves. The likes of inequality, police brutality, media monopoly, and political stagnation are all worthy and justified concerns. But they can’t and won’t be addressed by a pseudopopulism that’s ultimately more an effort at rebranding the status quo than overthrowing it. America badly needs a popular and transformative political movement. Building one will require leadership that points forward to somewhere other than the awful present it’s already mired in.