Deconstructing the Center of American Politics: A Wise Guys Conversation

Ron Berger, Jeff Berger, Charles Cottle, and Dave Gillespie —

Eric Levitz

Eric Levitz is a journalist, opinion writer, and associate editor of the “Daily Intelligencer” blog of New York Magazine. In July 2017, six months after the inauguration of Donald Trump, he published an article titled “Democrats Can Abandon the Center—Because the Center Doesn’t Exist.” In it he reviews contemporary polling data, political science research, and the historical record to argue that some of the conventional assumptions made by political pundits about the nature of American politics are wrong.


I was recently made aware of Levitz’s article by my friend Ann Manheimer in the context of ongoing Facebook discussions and sharing of articles pertaining to the 2020 presidential campaign. I was attracted to Levitz’s thesis because he seemed to be thinking “outside of the box” of conventional understandings of contemporary American politics, and I thought it would be informative to initiate a Wise Guys conversation about his thought-provoking ideas. I will begin here with a synopsis of Levitz’s thesis.

Levitz argues that the conventional view of American politics assumes that the “electorate is divided, almost evenly between liberal and conservatives, with moderate swing voters” lying between them. These so-called “centrist” voters are assumed to be the key to electoral victory in national elections. In this view, both political parties, Democrats and Republicans, tend to rally their bases during the primary season but then move to the center in order to win the general election.

Levitz believes that this view is inaccurate for a variety of reasons. For one, few voters hold “uniformly liberal or conservative ideological views.” Rather, they hold what pundits characterize as liberal views on some issues and conservative views on others. Moreover, the consensus or majoritarian position on any single issue “is rarely located at the center of the left-right ideological spectrum.” For example, survey research indicates that the most common positions held by respondents include raising taxes on the wealthy and expediting the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Secondly, conventional punditry often “presumes that voters’ positions on any given issue are static and coherent,” ignoring the possibility that a political party or candidate “could shift the views of the public dramatically left or right” through effective messaging or the sheer charisma of the messenger. Indeed, this is what political campaigns are generally about.

Thirdly, political science research indicates that “voters tend to pick a party or candidate first—and then adopt the ideological positions that rationalize their choice.” Research also shows that voters are often uninformed or misinformed about the actual positions of parties or candidates, and base their preferences instead on which party or candidate “seems to best represent people like them. … Few voters have sturdy ideological commitments, but virtually all have strong social identities.” One of these salient identities is based on race, and in November 2016, one of the best predictors of who voted for Hillary Clinton and who voted for Donald Trump was the level of animosity toward African Americans.

Levitz argues that part of what makes assumptions about what constitutes the “center” of American politics so problematic is that they are “used to legitimize the constraints that the powerful place on policy makers, by pretending that those limitations are actually being imposed by the will of the people.” In essence, what is really meant by centrist or moderate is what corporate America wants. “Within both parties there is the tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want” versus what the populist bases of the parties want.

Levitz, who admits to be on the side of “Team Blue,” believes that an economic populist message aimed at curtailing corporate power and the undue influence of the rich, such as the one being advanced by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, could very well be more effective than a middling message of curtailing the excesses of Trump and his Republican brethren. In other words, a campaign based on “polarizing the electorate” and bringing “class identities to the fore” may be the best way to break through the conundrum of identity politics.


First, I want to thank Ron for initiating a discussion of Eric Levitz’s provocative article. Political scientists have known for many years that the left-right continuum is a poor model of the distribution of political opinions. As Levitz points out, one can be a populist and a racist, or one can be a populist and an egalitarian. Likewise, one can be an evangelical and a corporate capitalist or one can be an evangelical and a socialist. The left-right continuum provides little guidance in classifying these combinations of political orientations. Suffice it to say that people are multidimensional when it comes to the structure of their political attitudes and opinions. For those interested in this topic, there is a wealth of literature available in the scholarly journals of public opinion and political psychology.

Although political scientists are generally aware of the deficiencies of the left-right continuum model for the distribution of political opinions, it appears that many journalists and political pundits are not. They continue to speak of left and right as if the meanings of those terms were self-evident. Even if we were to accept the validity of the left-right model, the meaning of those terms is a moving target and a position that is on the left today may be on the radical left in a month, depending on who is writing and the perspective they take. Thus, a political position that is described as the “middle” remains contextually determined and must be redefined in every discussion.

As Levitz notes, anyone who adopts the left-right continuum as a model of the political distribution of political opinion adopts a straw man that Levitz proceeds in a scholarly way to knock down. Levitz notes that pundits often assume that the left-right continuum is a valid representation of the distribution of political opinion. If that is so, then there must be a middle position somewhere along the continuum, and many argue that the middle position must be the position adopted by the Democrats if they are to defeat Trump in the coming election. But Levitz then references numerous sources to show that the left-right continuum and its supposed middle position are not a valid model of reality. And thus, there is no middle position which must be supported by Democrats to win the election.

Levitz proceeds to advance an argument supporting the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I also support this position, especially the views of Warren. I have been dismayed that both the Democrats and the Republicans in general have not focused on the economic issues faced by an overwhelming number of U.S. citizens. In a previous post on Wise Guys I cited some of the indicators of the economic insecurity facing millions of our fellow citizens. I don’t think it inappropriate to repeat them here.

  • 40% of Americans do not have $400 for an emergency.
  • 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
  • Middle class incomes have stagnated for the last 40 years.
  • Manufacturing jobs have disappeared on a massive scale.  In 1970 26.4% of all jobs in the U.S. were manufacturing jobs. In 2019 that number is only 8.5%.
  • Over 80% of U.S. jobs are in the service sector.
  • As of 2017 the official poverty rate is 12.3%. Near poverty plus poverty, however, reaches nearly one-third of the population.
  • 58% of the population has less than $1000 in savings.
  • Automation is now taking more jobs away from U.S. workers than is the export of jobs to China, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere.

This list could go on and on. Indeed, Levitz also provides a number of discouraging economic indicators.

Apart from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to some extent, Andrew Yang, the Democrats are not addressing the serious economic problems facing the country in the near future. Thus Levitz advances a left-wing egalitarian populism to confront the right-wing racist populism advanced by Trump and the Republican Party as the platform that will win the election.

Levitz is correct to note that identity, either by party or other criterion, is important in determining voter choices. Trump, unfortunately, was able to mobilize white racial identity by demonizing racial minorities and immigrants in order to win the 2016 election. That challenge remains. Thus Democrats will have to convince many Trump supporters that Trump’s economic policies, not people of color, are responsible for the continued downward slide of the working class.


The conventional view, which in my lifetime was first advocated by Richard Nixon, is that a candidate should run to the extreme during the primaries and then turn to the middle in the national election. I believe that was, and still is, an effective way to get elected president, because it all comes down to mathematics. It is mathematics because the center of the Democratic Party is far to the left of the center of the Republican Party, and there are not enough votes at the left end of the political spectrum to win a general election. But what is more important, as Donald Trump demonstrated in 2016, is to focus on the center in terms of the center states—that is, the swing states, especially the states that have a lot of electoral votes. Thus today if a candidate can win the 29 electoral votes of Florida, he or she is very likely to win the national election. I would add that no candidate in recent memory has won the presidency without the 18 electoral votes of Ohio. So, if this is what candidates try to do, it is not wrong to think of elections in this way.

Levitz argues that voters are not uniformly liberal or conservative on all issues, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea of a left-right continuum. For example, if you are against deportation, then you are on the left, and if you are for it, then you are on the right. Likewise, if you are for taxing the rich, then you are on the left, etc. All this makes it difficult to predict how different issues affect voters in the swing states. But perhaps a more interesting point is that the far left and far right may agree on some issues, for instance, limiting international trade deals that prioritize corporate profit making in the global economy over the vitality of the national economy (also known as neoliberalism), non-interventionist foreign policies, and libertarian lifestyles with respect to behaviors such as drug use and sexuality. On these issues, it may be best to view political ideologies as circular rather than linear.

Regarding the circular metaphor, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the ideological “center” of American politics is where there is agreement between Democrat and Republican politicians—the “establishment”—if not the electorate at large. But to me, the more important questions for Democrats do not involve locating the center but rather: Which issues should the Democratic candidates focus on? Which issues should they be willing to compromise and which should they stand firm on?

Another of Levitz’s ideas that I dispute is that corporations and corporate money have the capacity to affect the public’s perceptions of the center. For one, corporate America is not a monolithic force, and it is also rather liberal on many issues. Corporations favor immigration. By and large they are for LGBTQ rights. Nike even supports Colin Kaepernick, or at least believes it can make money off of him. Most of them are against white supremacy and fascism. Most of them are for fighting global warming—with the exception of the fossil fuel industry. Many of them favor raising taxes. Sometimes we find the CEOs bickering with each other, as is the case where Tim Cook criticizes the social media companies.

Donald Trump and Roger Ailes

In my view, the most influential (and corrupting) element in shifting the center of American politics is Fox News. I have recently  watched “The Loudest Voice,” the Showtime mini-series about Roger Ailes starring Russell Crowe. Ailes was an evil genius in his ability to manipulate unsuspecting voters. He took advantage of right-wing extremism and made it commonplace. By doing so, he polarized the nation and shifted the center far to the right. By lying and repeating those lies over and over again, the Fox News audience could no longer see the truth. They just live in a fantasy world. (Or should I say they live in a nightmare, where they fear everything.) Ailes was not influenced by corporations, though he had the backing of Rupert Murdoch. But even Murdoch did not tell him what to do and tended to follow his lead. In many ways it is Ailes who is most responsible for creating the Frankenstein monster who currently occupies the White House.

Regarding the 2020 election, Levitz’s belief that Sanders or Warren could win with a message about corporate power and the rich is a good one, because that is where Tea Party libertarians and far-left liberals have some common ground. In fact, by advocating tariffs and hurting global trade, Trump has himself struck a blow against neoliberalism. On the other hand, by lowering corporate taxes and taxes on the rich, he helped corporations and the rich. The consensus of most voters appears to favor increasing taxes on the rich, but voters in the red states don’t want their own taxes raised and they don’t care that voters in the blue states lost all of their tax deductions due to Trump’s tax plan. This just goes to show that most voters want somebody else to pay the price to solve their problems. Most voters are interested in solving global warming, too, but most refuse to give up their gas-guzzling SUVs.

In any case, I believe that Sanders’s problem will continue to be that he is too old, and Warren’s problem is that she is perceived as too wonky. There is an anti-intellectual attitude among too many voters, especially in rural areas, but it’s the voters in Florida and Ohio who concern me the most. I presume that Joe Biden is the candidate whom people most associate with the center of the Democratic Party these days. However, Biden has a long history in politics that leaves him prone to attack from both sides. And some voters might not like him just because he is old. So even if Biden were nominated and lost the election, it would not invalidate the proposition that a centrist candidate had a better chance of winning than a far-left candidate. It would just mean that Biden was a weak candidate.


I thank Ron for lifting up for our consideration the article by Eric Levitz, and I am pleased to take part with him and Charles and Jeff in this discussion of it.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

Team Blue, the Sanders-Warren Progressive Wing. That is where Levitz places himself, and I appreciate this forthrightness which he brings to his article. The author’s candid self-placement should serve as a caveat to the reader. Here Levitz is serving not principally as a scholar assessing the current state and ongoing transformation of the Blue and Red parties and of the duopoly in which they currently dominate. His is the offering of an advocate for the hegemony of one wing of the Blue party; and like any good and effective advocate, he carefully selects and utilizes the data which serve his particular advocacy purpose.

The article itself is filled with significant findings of political scientists, and the author’s presentation and interpretation of them are worth the reader’s serious scrutiny and consideration. The notion of the ideological spectrum does vastly over-simplify reality. Placement upon that spectrum changes over time. For example, “public attitudes” (actually a composite of individual ones) on same-sex marriage, on the legalization of marijuana, and even on health care as a human right have “shifted left” over recent years, bringing affirmation of those policy positions closer to the center.

It is also the case that many voters select a party, Blue or Red, and, with it, the ideological and policy perspectives of the chosen party. And it is true that the chosen party may often lead its partisans in the direction of the party’s positions and position changes. But what else should be expected of voters who realize that they act within the electoral constraints of the partisan duopoly and that as a result they must pick one or the other if they wish any influence in those “representative” election and policy processes? This duopoly is the fruit in part of the Founders’ decisions, but also (and increasingly) of deliberate engineering by elites within the Blue and Red parties.

Is there any wonder then why so many voters still cynically refer to voting for the “lesser of two evils,” why so many self-identified independents really “lean” Blue or Red at election time, or why the true independent is likely to reside among the least informed and most inactive citizens? Levitz and his readers would be wise to consider more carefully the finding that Blue and Red partisans are much more inclined to despise the other party than to love their own. (Events over the eras of presidents 42-45 have effectively turned Red vs. Blue politics into something perceived by the elite and rank and file as very close to zero-sum.) Survey data collected by Gallup since 2003 reveal that usually a majority of respondents find that the two-party system is not adequate and that they favor the advent of a “major third party.” Over the last five years that majority has ranged from 57 to 61 percent.

In 2016, two presidential candidacies bearing many of the characteristics of third-party challenges to the duopoly actually assembled themselves within the formal structures of the Red and Blue parties. Both embraced in some sense the populist mantle or handle, though on opposite sides of the political spectrum. One, the Sanders movement, failed to overtake the Democratic Party and surpass Hillary’s quest for the nomination. The other, Trump’s, succeeded in capturing the Republican Party and then winning the presidency. Will the Trump machine continue to possess the GOP through and after 2020; and if not, what will be the future of Team Red in the post-Trump era? Good questions, those.

Joe Biden

As is generally known, based on the polls, the three current front-runners in the bid for the Team Blue presidential nomination are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Each is an honorable person, far superior in ethics, previous governmental experience, and in a wide range of other ways to the present presidential office-holder. Biden believes in public service and has a long record of it. He carries so far the strong loyalties of millions of African Americans, a group whose support is crucial to Team Blue presidential nomination, and he presumably carries real bona fides in reaching out to workers and farmers of the Rust Belt states who voted Trump in 2016 even though many voted Obama-Biden in the previous two. Both he and Sanders carry the burden of age, gender, and race in a party showcasing its diversity. Biden also totes the baggage of being a declared gaffe machine.

Warren is a brilliant policy wonk and many of her policy platforms are laudable. But it may be rightly said about her that she is either naïve to the ladders to the stars it will take to enact them or is not prone to articulate these to supporters whom she is soliciting for financial support and votes in the primaries. This is surprising from a Senator who has to realize that Blue Team control of that body is crucial to transforming her most far-reaching policy visions into policy. At least Warren does not wave the provocative Socialism shirt as Sanders does. As a social democrat, I have no problem personally with Sanders’s use of that s-word. I do know that Trump will do his damnedest to bolshevize that word just as he will throw “Pocahontas” at Warren. He is already doing this, regularly, while not forgetting to trivialize “Sleepy Joe.”

A conservative friend whom I doubt has ever voted Team Blue though he has been anti-Trump from the start describes the president as “a bigoted blowhard who is a genius at branding and promotion.” All Team Blue candidates and their supporters must be attuned to the certainty that Trump will seek to suck the oxygen right out of the room as well and to his capacity, certified in his handling of all his GOP presidential competitors in 2016, to do that. A recent Fox News poll produced results showing that any of the top four Team Blue candidates could defeat Trump by margins ranging from 6 to 12 points. But that is information which should be laid aside, with the instruction to forget about it.

Finally, this rejoinder to one of the Levitz premises. I have never seen a national poll that asks people about their self-identification which reveals that liberals have come anywhere close to numerical parity with conservatives. And although there may be no one out there who is precisely a centrist on every policy point, I suspect that there are many people who will reject a candidate they become convinced is “too extreme.” Stereotypically there are the Soccer Moms in Northern Virginia and nationwide and also those Obama-and-Trump farm and working class voters of Michigan and Wisconsin whose votes may be crucial for a Team Blue presidential win in 2020. Warren or Sanders may be the most effective messenger for envisioning the society we may all want to see. Biden may be better in assuring these and other voters that America and its democracy, savable after four years of Trump, may not be after eight. And that with Trump out on January 20, 2021, things will be better.


I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful and valuable comments on Eric Levitz’s article. One of my takeaways from the discussion is how difficult (if not impossible) it is to talk about politics without falling back on the left-right spatial metaphor. In many respects, this is not only necessary but productive for analyzing current events and placing these events in broader historical context. At the same time, I am attracted to Levitz’s arguments precisely because it reinforced my current dissatisfaction with the ways in which this spatial metaphor is used to frame political debate in ways that are constraining and that put people in predefined ideological and policy boxes, often in ways that dispute the so-called “electability” of the candidates who espouse them.

I am also attracted to Levitz’s argument because my political views and electoral aspirations in the current election cycle are consistent with his. And as an admitted partisan, what particularly interests me, from a political tactic and messaging standpoint, is how to resist or rebut those who try to pigeonhole the candidates or policies I support into the so-called “far left” or “extreme” endpoint of the linear continuum when that view seems to be at variance with the perceived mainstream or centricity of the electorate—which we all agree, is a moving target. This is a reaction I encounter not only from moderates or conservatives, but also from liberals who agree with my vision of a just and equitable society but who think that the odds are too insurmountable or impractical for this vision to ever come to fruition. Call me naïve, but I am trying to get people to evaluate candidates and policies on the basis of their merits, which must certainly include considering the practical challenges involved in electing such candidates, passing legislation, and implementing these policies.

Before going further, some further self-disclosure about my political agenda is in order. During the 2016 presidential campaign, I was a supporter and volunteer for Bernie Sanders. Before Sanders announced his candidacy, I had been hoping that Elizabeth Warren, who declined a draft movement organized by, would run. Around the time Sanders entered the race, there were three other candidates who tried to challenge the Democratic Party establishment’s anointment of Hillary Clinton: Lincoln Chaffee, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb. The campaigns of these three candidates petered out very quickly, leaving Sanders as the last man standing against Clinton. In my home state of Wisconsin, Sanders won the primary, capturing 57% of the vote (and 45% of the primary vote overall). During the general election campaign, Clinton did not make a single campaign visit to Wisconsin!—and then lost the election in my state by just .77% of the vote.

All this is to say is that in this election cycle, for me, there is an alternative to Sanders, and that alternative is Warren, who I think has a better chance of becoming the nominee and winning the general election than Sanders. I am also volunteering for Warren and am well aware of the challenges that are mentioned by Levitz, as well as Jeff and Dave. I will have more to say about this shortly, but first I want to consider some other issues that have been raised in the discussion.

Let me begin by picking up on Charles’s and Dave’s comments about “populism” and the  distinction they make between the populism of the left and the populism of the right. Conventional pundits all too often use this term as a pejorative to refer to people who passionately (even angrily) hold views that are out of the mainstream. But according to John Patrick Leary, a professor of English who writes about cultural history and language, the term was coined by Kansas Democrat David Overmyer in the 1890s when he was looking for a term to describe members of the new People’s Party. “Then, as now, populists claimed to act in the name of ordinary Americans against an exploitative elite.” For people on the left, the elite are corporations and the wealthy; for people on the right, they are government officials, liberal intellectuals, and the mainstream media. But Leary argues that populism is “not ‘a thing’—a particular ideology or style of governance,” rather it is “a set of practices that partisans use to mobilize” supporters. And the important question to ask, Leary thinks, is not “whether a candidate or thinker is populist, but what the consequences of his or her populism are. Whose version of ‘the people’ do [they] want to empower? And whose version of ‘the elite’ do [they] seek to suppress?” From a messaging standpoint, to Levitz’s point, I think it would be best to eschew the label “left-wing” populist and instead use the term “economic” populist, which resonates better across the conventional political spectrum.

Turning now to some of Jeff’s comments, his use of the circular metaphor is an interesting way to look at some aspects of the electorate. But so is Mike McCabe’s populist notion of a vertical continuum of “haves vs. have nots” as a way to penetrate the constraints of conventional left-right thinking. (McCabe made an unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor in Wisconsin in 2018.) I also like Andrew Yang’s framing when he says that it is not about left or right but about forward.

More to the point of what I want to say, I have to disagree with Jeff’s emphasis on Florida and Ohio as the crucial states that Democrats will need to win (at least one) to garner enough electorate votes to win the 2020 election. Rather, it seems to me that the 2016 presidential election demonstrated that a focus on Florida and Ohio may be based on an outdated electoral map. I say this because the key to Donald Trump’s electoral victory was not that he won these two states, which he did, but that he won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, three states that were entirely winnable by Hillary Clinton if she had run a better campaign and was not so unpopular among some elements of the electorate across the political spectrum. (Of course, Russian interference and voter suppression played a role too.) And if Clinton had won the election, we would be having an entirely different discussion about U.S. politics at this time.

Jill Stein

Nevertheless, in 2020, if the Democratic nominee wins all of the states that Clinton won—which included Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia—she or he could win the presidency if they regain Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (a combined 46 electoral votes) without having to win either Florida or Ohio. Moreover, in 2016 Trump won these three states by a total of just 77,744 votes, less than the 132,476 votes garnered by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. (This observation about the Green Party receiving more votes than Trump’s margin of victory holds if we look at each of the three states separately.) Thus, one benefit of a strategy aimed at polarizing the electorate might be that Team Blue could attract more people who might otherwise vote for the Green Party. No doubt there are far more moderates than Green Party supporters, so I don’t want to make too much of this. But I don’t see how Dave’s observation about voters’ dissatisfaction with the two-party system leads to the conclusion that a moderate or centrist candidate works better for either political party. Indeed, much of the Republican Party’s electoral success since Newt Gingrich became a prominent figure in Congress in the 1990s and the Tea Party emerged after the election of Barack Obama has been due to its ability to polarize the electorate (with the aid of Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the Koch brothers, among other donors). I am also intrigued by the analysis of Belgium political theorist Chantal Mouffee, who has made a name for herself among the European populist left. Mouffee believes that “[t]oo much emphasis on consensus, together with an aversion towards confrontation, leads to apathy and to a disaffection with political participation.”

I also want to comment on Jeff’s disagreement with Levitz regarding the place of corporations and corporate money in defining the center of American politics. It is true that corporations are not a monolithic voice. But I would argue that the liberal positions held by the corporate officials whom Jeff mentions are in fact part of the corporate world that supports the establishment center of the Democratic Party. Be that as it may, for me the important issue involves the corrosive influence of “big money” in politics, which is why I think overturning the infamous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision—which asserted that money is speech and that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights protected by the First Amendment as individuals—is so crucial to the future of our democracy. Indeed, one of my litmus tests for a political candidate is their support of its reversal.

Finally, returning to the current election cycle, polling indicates that Biden, Sanders, and Warren are the top three Democratic contenders for the nomination. Among these three, most polls show that Biden is in the lead, Sanders has remained fairly stable, and Warren has shown a slow but steady rise. In many polls, the combined preferences for Sanders and Warren surpass the preferences for Biden and some 70% of the respondents support someone other than Biden. It is quite possible that none of these three candidates will acquire a majority of delegates to secure the nomination before going into the Democratic convention, which will be held in Milwaukee in July 2020. And this time around, superdelegates will not have a vote until the second ballot. It promises to be the most interesting Democratic convention since 1968.

In many respects, I think that Democratic primary voters’ decisions will come down to a choice between being cautious and being bold, about returning to normalcy or moving forward into the future. No doubt defeating Trump should be the number one objective for everyone on Team Blue. Dave is correct in suggesting that our democracy may not survive another four years under his despotism. But what none of us really knows is which of these choices will be the best approach to winning back the presidency. Biden is perceived by many as the safest bet. But is he? While Jeff thinks that centrism is a more winning message, he expects Biden to be a weak candidate. Both Jeff and Dave also mention Biden’s age, as well as Sanders’s. But while Biden does seem to be showing his age in terms of his mental acuity, Sanders demonstrates physical and mental vitality. Biden has always been prone to gaffs—it’s kind of his trademark—but there seems to have been a few too many of late. (In some cases, “gaff” is a generous assignation, because they are outright falsehoods.) And with the wear and tear of the campaign, which is a grueling ordeal, who knows how well Biden will hold up through November 2020.

As for Elizabeth Warren, the candidate I am supporting, it is true that she is intellectually brilliant, is an effective messenger (she is a professional educator after all), and has offered a plethora of very detailed policy proposals (more than any other candidate). But I admit to cringing when I hear people characterize her as “wonkish”—when this is done as a way to downplay her purported electability. (For an account that uses this moniker more affirmatively, see Julia Ioffe’s article in GQ.) It reminds me of the media meme that was floating round early in the campaign that Warren had a “likeability” problem. With respect to both of these memes, feminist writer Rebecca Soulnit says that she’s heard a lot of “men explain that Warren can’t win because she’s wonky, and then when I mention that our last two Democratic presidents were famously wonky, I get to hear why they had charisma and Warren doesn’t”—which is evidently not true for anyone who has watched or attended a Warren rally. (I would add that Warren has boundless energy, is a skilled debater, and has a compelling personal story to tell.) Soulnit continues, “What makes a candidate electable is in part how much positive coverage they get, and how much positive coverage they get is tied to how the media powers decide who is electable, and so goes the double bind. … [W]hat we say now is not just commentary about what is possible; it is shaping the possible.”

I also have to to push back on the idea that Warren is politically naïve or that she is hesitant to inform her supporters about how difficult it will be to implement her policy goals. In fact, this comes up routinely at her town halls and she has started to preemptively mention it at her rallies. For one, she has said that she is in favor of eliminating the Senate filibuster, so that 60 votes will not be necessary to pass legislation, a controversial idea to be sure, but one that other Democratic candidates say they support or would consider supporting. (Some measures can be passed through budget reconciliation with just a simple majority.) I also think that Pete Buttigieg is correct when he says that we may need to expand the number of judges on the U.S. Supreme in order to counteract a Republican-stacked federal judiciary that could likely rule that further federal interventions are unconstitutional.

Additionally, I think that what Warren (and Sanders) is proposing should be understood as policy goals, not necessarily as policy outcomes. If you’re going to enter into legislative negotiations, why start with your compromise position? More importantly, as Warren (and Sanders) has made clear, her campaign is not just about winning an election, but it is about building a sustainable grassroots movement that will continue to put pressure on elected officials once she is in office. Warren is well aware that such a movement is not only central to her ability to win the nomination and presidency, but also to her ability to accomplish her goals, even in compromised form. What she has also made clear is that she is willing to be a leader of this movement, that it will be difficult, and that she is “not afraid” to fight for the change we need.

Ron Berger is professor emeritus of sociology and criminology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Jeff Berger is a computer technologist and engineer who worked for IBM in San Jose, California

Charles Cottle is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Dave Gillespie is professor emeritus of political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Center of American Politics: A Wise Guys Conversation

  1. From “The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy,” the latest book by Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect:

    “The 2020 presidential election will determine the very survival of American democracy. To restore popular faith in government―and win the election―Democrats need to nominate and elect an economic progressive. The Stakes explains how the failure of the economy to serve ordinary Americans opened the door to a demagogic president, and how democracy can still be taken back from Donald Trump.

    Either the United States continues the long slide into the arms of the bankers and corporate interests and the disaffection of working Americans―the course set in the past half century by Republican and Democratic presidents alike―or we elect a progressive Democrat in the mold of FDR. At stake is nothing less than the continued success of the American experiment in liberal democracy. That success is dependent on a fairer distribution of income, wealth, and life changes ―and a reduction in the political influence of financial elites over both parties.

    The decay of democracy and economic fairness began long before Trump. The American republic is in need of a massive overhaul. It will take not just a resounding Democratic victory in 2020 but a progressive victory to pull back from the brink of autocracy. The Stakes demonstrates how a progressive Democrat has a better chance than a centrist of winning the presidency, and how only this outcome can begin the renewal of the economy and our democracy.”


  2. Ron’s excerpts from Kuttner’s book capture the essence of where the American republic is at. Though much can happen over the next 13-1/2 months to continue or worsen the partisan circus atmosphere evident across the nation, the issues Kuttner highlights (hopefully) will continue to incrementally gain traction with those who actually go to the polls to cast (again, hopefully) an educated, soundly informed vote. Agreed, the very survival of (an improved) American democracy is at stake.

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