Big government in America part three: towards “fourth-way centrism”

Getting the left and the centre on the same page.

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This is the third of a three-part series. The first instalment, which you can find here, argued that Americans are as open as ever to European-style protections against the vagaries of capitalism and the second instalment, which you can find here, argued that such a government expansion can be popular so long as it is perceived as fair.

Left-wing populism is simply the intent of the non-wealthy majority (including marginalised groups) to wield its democratic power in a way that prioritises its interests over those of the wealthy minority. Social insurance programs that are both progressively-funded and proportional – like Social Security and Medicare – are overwhelmingly popular with the non-wealthy majority. Therefore centrism – as the voice insisting that leftism is insufficiently popular – should embrace the expansion of social insurance, even if it requires new taxes on the wealthy minority.

Arguments against this logic come in two forms. The first is that it is unfair to make the wealthy contribute more to a social insurance program than they will receive back in benefits. However, as Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, there are plenty of other benefits that the wealthy have received for which they have yet to pay. Demanding a disproportionate contribution to social insurance is simply a fair return on public investment.

The second argument is that there are wealthy people who prefer Democratic Party positions on a variety of issues (eg, sociocultural, environmental), and it would be a mistake to alienate them by raising their taxes. Given that centrism is motivated by political expedience, and money is central to success in US politics, this argument must be taken seriously.

Campaign finance reform should thus be central to Democratic policy efforts, and the fact that the new Democratic leadership made the For the People Act – which contains campaign finance reforms designed to curtail the outsize influence of wealthy individuals and organisations – its first bill was an encouraging sign.

Breaking humanitarian habits

Some leftists believe that mobilising the liberal base is sufficient for winning elections, and that catering to moderates – as centrists insist is necessary – will only serve to decrease base turnout. Nevertheless, no one can deny that dissatisfaction with the Republican Party among moderates played a large role in the retaking of the House by the Democratic Party in the 2018 midterm elections. Thus, at least for the time being, it would be unwise for Democrats to ignore the concerns of moderates.

Trump is anti-humanitarian. Two examples (among many) of Republican anti-humanitarianism seemed to have played a pivotal role in turning away moderates in 2018: the child separation policy at the southern border, and the attempt to repeal health insurance guarantees for those with pre-existing conditions. It would thus be reasonable to conclude that moderates find humanitarian arguments persuasive. On the other hand, anti-anti-humanitarianism and humanitarianism are not necessarily the same thing, and moderates could well develop amnesia about Republican cruelty once the unsubtle Trump is gone.

The Hidden Tribes report, a comprehensive study of the American electorate released in 2018, offered a revealing glimpse of moderates and how they differ from other members of a broad left-centre coalition. Among the notable differences was that moderates were more likely than liberals to believe that individuals have personal responsibility for, and control over, their life outcomes.

When circumstances are clearly beyond one’s control – as is the case for poor Central American families seeking a better life, or people who have pre-existing health conditions – moderates are open to humanitarian appeals. However, moderates are less likely to be sympathetic to able-bodied Americans who have failed to attain self-sufficiency. Thus, when arguing for an expansion of the social insurance state, Democrats seeking to persuade moderates should recognise the limitations of humanitarian arguments.

It is also important to reiterate that when leftists use humanitarian instead of egalitarian arguments for their policy goals, they are inadvertently allowing right-wing opportunists to claim the populist mantle. A Democratic Party commitment to building egalitarian solidarity might be enough to combat Republican populism – assuming it has staying power – without resorting to a rightward shift on immigration, climate action, or culture war issues.

In fact, the Democratic Party has a greater opportunity in this regard than the centre-left parties of Europe, which have challengers to their left and centre (the Democrats do not), and fewer opportunities to offer voters improvements on already comprehensive, and expensive, social insurance systems (the American safety net, by comparison, has much room for improvement and investment).

On the other hand, Trump is a formidable opponent who supplements his anti-immigrant policies with trade and energy policies – ineffective though they might be – that enable him to claim that he has the backs of those who lament the decline of the domestic manufacturing and resource extraction industries. Hence, the Democrats need to avoid knee-jerk opposition to Trump on trade issues, and to promote energy policies that replace fossil-fuel industry jobs with green jobs.

Fourth-way centrism

Unlike third-way centrism, the fourth-way centrism proposed here is less concerned with the size of government than with its perceived fairness. Insofar as leftists have ambitious policy goals, centrists do not need to quash those ambitions as much as they need to remind leftists that the design and framing of a policy will determine the breadth of its popularity. 

Insofar as leftists want to redress inequality, centrists do not need to prohibit redistribution from rich to poor, but they do need to emphasise the importance of proportionality for those in the middle. Insofar as leftists are most worried about those left behind by global capitalism, centrists should remind them that simple, universal programs are less likely to cause resentment than complex, means-tested programs.

A third-way centrist is obsessed with entitlement reform, whereas a fourth-way centrist can unite with leftists in their demand for an expansion of social insurance. A third-way centrist is deathly afraid of raising taxes on the donor class, while a fourth-way centrist can unite with leftists in their demand for campaign finance reform. A third-way centrist hires wonks to design technocratic policies that inspire more confusion than enthusiasm; a fourth-way centrist says, “Keep it simple stupid.”

A third-way centrist acts as if nothing has changed about American society in the last thirty years; a fourth-way centrist knows better.

Dan Meegan (@DanMeeganJr) was born and raised in the United States and now lives in Canada, where he is a professor of political psychology. For a book-length treatment of the ideas presented here, see America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation.