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David Sirota Headshot

The "Center" of What, Exactly?

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That's really the problem with the term - and with Washington's definition of it. "Centrism" as defined in the political dialogue today means "being in the middle of elite opinion in Washington, D.C." But if you plot this "center" on the continuum that is American public opinion, you will find that it is nowhere near the actual center of the country at large. The center of elite Washington opinion is ardently free trade, against national health care, opposed to market regulation, for continuing the Iraq War, and supportive of the flattest tax structure we've had in contemporary American history. That center is on the extreme fringe of the center of American public opinion, which is ardently skeptical of free trade, for universal health care, supportive of strong market regulations, insistent that the war end soon, and in favor of making the tax system more progressive.

This is not some conspiracy theory I'm putting forward here - it's all out in the open, proved by public opinion data readily available to anyone who looks for it (I wrote an article on this for the Nation with some of it a few years back). I've long hoped for a day when the media references to the "center" meant the center of the United States of America, not merely the center of K Street, the National Press Club Building, The Palm at Dupont Circle and Fox News's Capitol Hill studio green room. Perhaps that's too wishful.
"If a lefty solution works, that's great," Kevin Drum writes today about proposals to fix our country's problems. "But sometimes it doesn't, and if a wonky centrist solution works better, then that's what we should rally around." I guess I agree with this in theory, but forgiving my annoyingly obsessive focus on the issue of "centrism" for a moment, ask yourself: what are all these people who worship "centrism" using as a reference point for the "center?" Put another way, sure, the center can be terrific, but it can also be horrible. It all depends on what you are aiming to be at the center OF.

So what to do? Well, for starters, when you hear anyone use the term "center" or "centrist" - whether it is me, Kevin Drum or some Washington blowhard - start getting yourself used to immediately asking: the center of what exactly? Because when you answer that question, you will really see where the purported believer in "centrism" is coming from.

Second, stay focused on the real center in your political work. For example, in my work with the Progressive States Network, we have developed a truly centrist agenda, in that it represents positions that are widely supported by most Americans. Now, I know that reporters and lobbyists will look at the Progressive States Network's agenda and say its "leftist" - but it is only to the left of THEM, not of the country.

Finally, as I point out in the lead editorial of the just-released edition of In These Times, we should embrace the Era of Populism, and stop focusing on trying to change the attitudes of those in Washington who have a direct interest in trying to preserve the status quo. We will never be able to convert those people, because their livlihoods depend on a pay-to-play to play politics that deliberately distorts the definition of "center" in order to justify an agenda that sells the rest of us out. With the rise of blogs, the netroots and the new people-powered media, we don't need the Old Media filter as much as we used to - we can speak directly to people.

Everyone knows where the center of America really is. As progressives, we must find the focus that lets us hone in on that center and ignore all the noisy misinformation that is designed to take our eye off the ball.