Andrew Yang’s new political party exposes farce of radical centrism
âMy fellow Americans, when I was young, I dreamed of being a baseball player. But tonight I say: we must move forward, not retreat; up, not forward; and still twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom. It may be a quarter of a century old, but the classic Kodos-as-Clinton by The simpsons has never really gone out of fashion or has ceased to be referred to as a shorthand for the absurdity of modern political rhetoric. After all, a phrase like “fly to freedom” is only a notch or two away from the kind of things mainstream politicians say quite regularly, and promising to “get things done” has become a piece of the liturgy. politics so omnipresent in the ideological world. spectrum that it is indeed meaningless.
To the extent that it conveys anything, “moving forward” is a sort of lazy appeal to an indeterminate but vaguely positive sense of movement, a signifier void of good intentions in the broad sense that usually only sheds light on it. very little. An arrow, by definition, is meant to point somewhere, and it inevitably comes down to us wondering what it is, exactly, we all move toward. In the mid-twentieth century, when dominant culture and politics maintained at least some ability to adapt to competing progress narratives, the rhetoric of “leading” could sometimes mean something. In an age when almost everything, including and most importantly politics, has been colonized by markets and brands, it is now virtually on par with slogans like “Choosing a New Generation” and “Think outside the bun. Â»: An ersatz call to the transgressive and avant-garde which speaks more of packaging than of use value and entirely concerned with present appearances rather than future destinations.
With exactly this in mind, various pipe-dreaming companies have periodically vowed to upset, disrupt, or transform America’s frozen political order while offering little or nothing in terms of structural change. The umbrella term âradical centrismâ can be applied to a wide range of applications and projects, but the basic model is now quite familiar. Starting from the (quite correct) premise that the country’s sclerotic party duopoly is unrepresentative and ill-equipped to tackle the gravest problems, the radical centrist promises to demolish the system while promising to leave it intact – in some case, highlighting its worst characteristics and committing to accelerate them.
In this vein, the years 2001 The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics, by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, argued that America was ready for New Deal and Civil War-wide “political transformations and realignments”, then argued for the “progressive privatization” of social Security. For so-called radical centrists, the journey from revolutionary premise to cookie-cutter platitude is invariably short, which is why passages from the book on “the technologies and circumstances rapidly emerging in the age of information âwould have seemed equally comfortable in your middle column of Tom Friedman.
Which brings us to the new party founded by former Democratic presidential candidate and New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, aptly named the Forward Party (a link to his recently published book Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy). As one would expect from a former political outsider, Yang’s opening speech for a third party carries a degree of obvious truth. “We are witnessing a cascade of crises, from a pandemic to a punitive economy via police brutality to the sale of our attention and our digital data to the highest bidders”, he argues in the introduction of the book . âOur democratic institutions falter to the right and to the left, and our systems are not designed for speed or significant change. . . . Confidence is fading. . . . Our political system is a fixed duopoly that will want to evolve slowly, if at all. Elsewhere he writes:
Our leaders are rewarded not by solving problems, but by accumulating resources and staying in office. . . . Media companies have their own set of incentives that cause them to operate on a different wavelength than most Americans. Local news is dying. And social media is pushing our daily talk and our sanity to unstable extremes. These are all crises, and they are all related in a way that we will detail in the pages to come.
While not exactly inflammatory stuff, there is some truth to this diagnosis. But, like all the projects of the radical center (the label being moreover a Yang seems eager to kiss), the effect is instantly blunted by the follow-up, which turns sharply into prescriptions that are both so vague and so bland and conventional that they ultimately raise more questions than they answer. Of the six guiding principles that Yang put forward as the pillars of his new party, four have nothing to do with politics. âEvidence-based governanceâ, âefficient and modern governmentâ and âgrace and toleranceâ are not just boring and nonspecific propositions; they are totally indistinguishable from the empty bromides uttered daily by mainstream politicians. âHuman-centered capitalism,â meanwhile, sounds like the kind of thread you’d hear someone like Bill Gates weave at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel sponsored by a consortium of tech companies – a clue as safe as any other it would be. The Protest Project operates for the most part on the same wavelength as the very system it claims to challenge.
âI am not very ideological. I’m practical, âYang wrote in a recently published blog post explaining his departure from the Democratic Party. “Make partisan arguments – especially by expressing what I often consider to be a performative feeling,” he continues,
is sometimes uncomfortable for me. I often think to myself, âOkay, what can we do to fix the problem? I’m pretty sure there are others who feel the same way as I do.
I saw politicians gut publicly and then act collegially or amicably behind the scenes minutes later. Much of it is theater.
Again, Yang is partly right. Much of what the public sees in televised debates and political speeches is theater, and the artificiality of mainstream politics is a big reason why so many people shy away from it.
But what does it mean to be practical rather than ideological? It is impossible to operate in politics without some diagnosis of what is wrong and some ideas on how to fix it. This diagnosis and what follows from it will inevitably express value judgments, which is just a more familiar way of saying that they will reflect some kind of ideology. This was one of the main reasons for the “Not left, not right, but forward” schtick (also kissed by Yang) that formed the basis of the supposed âthird wayâ between capitalism and socialism in the 1990s was so clearly wrong. (There is no non-ideological way to advocate for tax cuts, welfare reform, or welfare privatization, and those who insisted otherwise were actually telling us that their ideology was that of the dominant neoliberal capital.)
Yang’s other two structuring principles – open primaries and a universal basic income (RBI) – are at least semi-fleshed out political ideas. As for the first, there is at least a coherent rationale. Party primaries are a very restrictive model of electoral competition, and Yang’s accompanying proposal for the preferential choice ballot could presumably be an improvement over the status quo. It is far from revolutionary, however, and a somewhat shaky scaffolding on which to build a new political party. The same goes for Yang’s trademark proposal, which formed the basis of his Democratic presidential bid in 2020.
Without questioning the vast and extremely complicated debate surrounding UBI, it should be recognized that there are progressive versions of the idea. But, as Honda Wang argued strongly for Jacobin in 2019, Yang’s is not one of them: its philosophical roots can be found in Milton Friedman, and its assumptions about the relationship between individuals, society and the state reflecting a worldview that leans resolutely to the right (i.e. , that human freedom is best achieved by the market, which is better able to remedy social problems than the state). As Wang wrote, â[Yang] identifies the problems inherent in capitalism, but somehow believes that the same market forces that create these problems can solve them as well. When Andrew Yang says he’s practical rather than ideological, what he’s actually telling us is that his ideology is capitalism.
Like many projects of the Radical Center, Yang’s New Advanced Party rightly recognizes the many problems with the sclerotic two-party system in the United States and the compromised legislative results it generally achieves. Inequality, police brutality, media monopoly and political stagnation are all worthy and justified concerns. But they cannot and will not be dealt with by a pseudopopulism which is ultimately more of an effort to rebrand the status quo than to overthrow it. America is in dire need of a popular and transformative political movement. To build one, it will take leadership that points to a place other than the terrible present in which it is already mired.