Centrist activism, or economic royalism?
Tuesday, in a moderated discussion with economist Jared Bernstein, Alan Simpson (of Simpson-Bowles commission fame) repeatedly urged his audience to check out a new grassroots campaign, "The Can Kicks Back." it was a constant refrain for him -- a new movement that would finally bring sensible policy solutions to Washington, D.C.
I've written before about how there's no centrist activism in America. That was the basic problem with last summer's ill-fated Americans Elect party: The segments of the American public who pay any attention tend to pick a side. Leftover in the middle are low-information, disinterested voters. That's a hard base to mobilize. Americans Elect built an online centrist platform, then no one showed up for it.
"The Can Kicks Back" is a reference to the common refrain in deficit debates that politicians are just "kicking the can down the road." It's witty, albeit in a spent-too-much-time-watching-CSPAN kind of way. The campaign is a joint effort of Simpson's FixtheDebt.org and a "centrist" youth advocacy group called Concerned Youth of America (CYA).
Simpson argues that the looming fiscal cliff has changed things, finally bringing centrist leadership out of the woodwork. But looking at the brief bios on CYA's leadership page, a different story emerges. The six young leaders of the organization count Penn, Harvard, Duke and Georgetown among their alma maters. More strikingly, three feel the need to share that they had attended Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, MA. A fourth sees fit to share that she is a graduate of Georgetown Visitation Prep School.
I attended some good colleges myself. But y'know what? I'm pretty sure you don't care what high school I went to.
This point is only worth noting because of what it tells us about Alan Simpson and his merry band of centrist allies. Simpson likes to play the cranky realist, the former senator who now sees through all the posturing and politicking and tells both sides of our leadership to shape up already. In reality, he's pushing an agenda that may neither belong to Democrats or Republicans, but it can hardly be called centrist either. It's an agenda that calls for "fiscal sanity" without turning to actual economists for fiscal prescriptions. It's an agenda that sees greater urgency in slashing medicare and social security than reforming campaign finance laws or reducing the unemployment rate. It's the agenda of our economic elite, masquerading as moderation.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the bios these young leaders compile for themselves. They may vote for Democrats and Republicans both, but that does not make them the political middle. What unites this supposed "center" is its haughty elitism. The leaders of Concerned Youth of America are likely all wonderful, well-meaning people. I do not doubt that their belief in the cause is genuine. But that they need to display the trappings of privilege as though it were a coat-of-arms tells you much about their broader aims. The message of this supposed movement is "trust your betters."
What's ironic about this debate is that we are living through an era of extreme economic inequality. In the midst of it all, Alan Simpson's "moderates" are attempting to further convert their privilege into policy gains. It's economic royalism, in the age of Occupy Wall Street.
Simpson and his allies begin from an advantageous position, well-ensconced in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. In a few months, no doubt we'll be hearing about "The Can Kicks Back" on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. But these supposed "movements" will never quite gain a popular following, either through Americans Elect or through Can-Kicking websites.
The reason is simple: mass movements of the 1% simply aren't that massive.