Opinion | Campaign

The new American center

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America is broken. The middle class, once the largest and most robust American cohort, now struggles for economic survival. Employment is rising, in terms of jobs growth, but salaries are not keeping up with cost of living and federal benefits that Americans pay into and count on, such as Social Security and Medicare. 

In this environment of economic insecurity for many American families, we have come upon a new center. It is neither right nor left, in the previous meanings of those terms. The political party names may remain constant, but that's about all that has stuck from before 2016. Moderates, such as Democratic machine politician Joe Biden, and old-time Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, are the outliers now. Welcome to the new centrism.

President Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are the most representative manifestations of the current U.S. electoral map. The polls make that clear. They are the flip sides of the same populist coin. Both have expressed concern about the use of identity politics, honing in on a populist model of the middle class and working poor v. elites as the most accurate way to frame American politics today. As Sanders was pushed out of the 2016 race by the Democratic National Committee, lifelong Democrats in blue-collar communities across the country voted for a populist Republican, in spite of multi-generational labor union Democratic ties. Sanders activated the young who had less economic prospects than their parents and grandparents, and some of those disenfranchised who didn't swing over to Trump.

In today's stratified economy, where typically a college degree has one of the best chances to get an individual out of a contracting working class, the American laborer has little opportunity, unless a member of that family is exceptionally entrepreneurial or breaks into the white-collar workforce. Is that really the kind of society we want, or need? Not everyone is going to be Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. Not all, but an awful lot, of those wealthy business leaders already came from the elite. Gates came out of Harvard, and Bezos out of Princeton. We also need people who run "mom-and-pop businesses," work with their hands, and sustain our neighborhood civic organizations. The middle class is now the smallest part of our population, and yet, it is the most vital resource for a viable democracy.

President Obama's typology of working Americans as "bitter clingers," and Hillary Clinton's pejorative follow up term "basket of deplorables," finally alienated enough of that critical mass from the power elites who have managed our government agencies, industry, legal system and electoral politics since the New Deal. Whether one likes it or not, power has slipped from the grasp of the old-time protectors of privilege who promised, but never delivered, change from the 1990s Clintonesque policies of an entrenched, inter-generational minority of "Dream hoarders" who have siphoned off educational resources and quality job opportunities for the top 20 percent of this country. 

American democracy, typified by the idea of equality of opportunity, almost died, but we are a hardy nation. Democracy, in the form of the new populism, is alive and well. There are fits and starts in any new system, but its framework is now evident. It is a populism that wants deregulation of U.S. businesses except when it comes to salary and worker protection; protections also from foreign manufacturing taking advantage of relatively lax American markets; disengagement from endless foreign entanglements; a clearer, more equitable tax code; and a revamping of entitlements, however that may look, whether more private or public. Those are the issues truly up for debate. 

As for the politics of identity, political scientist Morris Fiorina demonstrates that only a tiny fraction of Americans actually care. Fox News gets about 1 percent of viewers from the American electorate, and MSNBC gets even less. There is no so-called "cultural civil war." Most Americans believe in "live and let live." The only structural cleavages that seem to consistently resonate with the electorate are driven by economics, as both Trump and Sanders have emphasized. Just to drive home this point, each in his own way, Trump, often accused of anti-Semitism, has locked in the bulk of the Orthodox Jewish vote - the most identifiably Jewish sector. Sanders, maligned for being anti-woman, has attracted young female voters in very large numbers. 

The real solutions to structural discrimination are the hardest for the coastal elites to swallow; paternalism makes identity an easy fallback, but "Nimby" - the "not in my backyard" argument - is closer to the truth. One scholar at a Washington think tank has come up with some solutions that, to no surprise, have been avoided by the white-collar elites to whom his policy proposals are addressed. Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves suggests cutting out, for example, exclusionary zoning of affordable housing, which prevents not only middle-class housing opportunities, but socio-economic integration. Social scientist Robert Putnam laments that working-class and affluent schoolchildren no longer meet each other during school or after school. 

These are the kinds of in-touch possibilities the new populist centrism can work on. They are doable, and can revive a fundamental sense of American equity, having slipped away from the lenses of our non-representative, ever distant elites. For all those corporate leaders, media figures and political experts warning of the death of democracy, it's just the opposite. American democracy is alive and well. It's just not the version the punditocracy prefers. 

The vocabulary of American politics has been transformed from one of incremental change to one of basic equity. It's time to recognize that the two major political parties leading our government are now populist. American democracy is working because our leading candidates really reflect where Americans are today. Even Trump, for all of his bravado, may recognize in Sanders a kindred spirit, and before this current competitive campaign season, Sanders recognized the same thing. The electorate is clearly intuiting this, and it is acting on this emergent truth through its surging enthusiasm for Sanders and strong continued participation at Trump's rallies. 

The old-time political machine, whether party apparatchiks or journalists operating in their "media bubble," has not been able to digest this new class driven electoral reality.  But it's here. America is resilient. The middle class is the heart and soul of this country, and again has taken its rightful place at the center of our politics. Trump and Sanders overlap and differ within the same political discourse. The current terms for the American public conversation on policy are set. The new, post-partisan center once again has converged on the historic American aspiration for equal opportunity. All else is commentary. 

Abraham Unger, Ph.D., is research director at Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform, an associate professor and director of urban programs at the Department of Government and Politics, Wagner College, New York, and Visiting Research Scholar in the Political Science Department at Fordham University. He is the author of "The Death and Life of the American Middle Class" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

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