There’s something odd about the self-described moderates and centrists considering a run for president. If “moderation” or “centrism” means holding broadly popular positions otherwise marginalized by extremists in either party, then these prospective candidates don’t quite fit the bill.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax on the nation’s largest fortunes is very popular, according to recent polling by Morning Consult, with huge support from Democrats and considerable backing from Republicans. But Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who has flirted with running for president as a moderate Democrat, rejects the plan as an extreme policy that would put the United States on the path to economic ruin. “If you want to look at a system that’s noncapitalistic, just take a look at what was once, perhaps, the wealthiest country in the world, and today people are starving to death. It’s called Venezuela,” he said during a January trip to New Hampshire. He is similarly dismissive of the idea of “Medicare for all,” warning that it would “bankrupt us for a very long time.”
Likewise, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, has staked out ground as a moderate politician, even as he opposes similarly popular ideas. A substantial majority of the public favors proposals to greatly expand college access or make it free outright. In a January op-ed for The Washington Post, McAuliffe dismissed “universal free college” as a misuse of tax dollars. “Spending limited taxpayer money on a free college education for the children of rich parents badly misses the mark for most families.”
And let’s not forget Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive who might run for president as an independent, who characterizes himself as a “centrist” despite holding positions that have little traction among the public as a whole. “We have to go after entitlements,” he has said, referring to the unpopular idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare to shrink the federal deficit.
In each case, these moderate politicians have positioned themselves against broad public preference. What then makes a moderate, if not policies that appeal to the middle?
You’ll find the answer in two comments from Joe Biden, who served two terms as vice president under President Barack Obama and is mulling a third run for the Democratic nomination. The first is from a speech in 2018, the second from more recent remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Speaking last May at the Brookings Institution, Biden rejected the confrontational language of some other Democrats. “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. I get into a lot of trouble with my party when I say that wealthy Americans are just as patriotic as poor folks.”
Speaking a month ago, Biden defended his praise for Fred Upton, the electorally embattled Republican congressman from Michigan whom he commended in a paid speech last year. Republicans used these comments to bolster Upton in campaign advertising, helping him win a narrow victory over his Democratic challenger. Biden’s response to critics was defiant. “I read in The New York Times today that I — that one of my problems is if I ever run for president, I like Republicans,” he said. “OK, well, bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Biden hasn’t endorsed a “Medicare for all” plan, but if he runs, he won’t be running on deficit reduction or modest tweaks to existing programs. He supports free college and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. He wants to triple the earned-income tax credit, give workers more leverage and raise taxes on the rich. This is a liberal agenda. And yet Biden is understood as a “moderate” like Bloomberg, McAuliffe and Schultz.
What connects them (and similar politicians) is a belief that meaningful progress is possible without a fundamental challenge to those who hold most of the wealth and power in our society. For Biden, you don’t need to demonize the richest Americans or their Republican supporters to reduce income inequality; you can find a mutually beneficial solution. Bloomberg, a billionaire, may have a personal reason for rejecting wealth taxes, but he may also see them as unnecessary and antagonistic if the goal is winning powerful interests over to your side. McAuliffe governed Virginia with an eye toward the business community. Sweeping social programs might be popular, but they might alienate that powerful constituency. And Schultz wants a Democratic Party less hostile to those he calls “people of means,” who otherwise back goals like gun control.
But this is a faulty view of how progress happens. Struggle against the powerful, not accommodation of their interests, is how Americans produced the conditions for its greatest social accomplishments like the creation of the welfare state and the toppling of Jim Crow. Without radical labor activism that identifies capitalism — and the bosses — as the vector for oppression and disadvantage, there is no New Deal. Without a confrontational (and at times militant) black freedom movement, there is no Civil Rights Act. If one of the central problems of the present is an elite economic class that hoards resources and opportunity at the expense of the public as a whole, then it’s naive and ahistoric to believe the beneficiaries of that arrangement will willingly relinquish their power and privilege.
If there’s a major division within Democratic politics, it’s between those who confront and those who seek to accommodate. Because we lack a varied vocabulary in mainstream political discourse, we call the latter “moderates” or “centrists,” which doesn’t capture the dynamic at work.
Anna Julia Cooper was an author, activist and public intellectual, a prominent voice in the struggle for black liberation. In her 1892 book, “A Voice From the South,” she ruminates on what’s necessary for “proper equilibrium” in society:
“Progressive peace in a nation is the result of conflict; and conflict, such as is healthy, stimulating, and progressive, is produced through the coexistence of radically opposing or racially different elements.”
Antagonism, indignation, anger — these qualities don’t diminish democracy or impede progress. Each is an inescapable part of political life in a diverse, pluralistic society. And each is necessary for challenging our profound inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity.
“The child can never gain strength save by resistance,” Cooper wrote, a little later in that volume, “and there can be no resistance if all movement is in one direction and all opposition made forever an impossibility.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.