Middle America: No More Middle-of-the-Road – Progressive.org


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Republican victories in statewide elections on November 2, especially Glenn Youngkin’s win over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, prompted a flurry of punditry blaming progressives for Democrats’ losses and doubling down on the idea that President Joe Biden, whose approval rating sank to 45 percent in late October, has strayed by taking progressive policy positions. Centrism, we’re told, is the only way forward for the Democratic Party.

“Strategists in both parties said that the Virginia race was heavily shaped by Mr. Biden’s falling approval rating, and that the downward Democratic trajectory had begun when the President stumbled through the troubled pullout of American troops from Afghanistan,” The New York Times reported.

The truth cannot be in the middle when one side is telling outright lies.

“Democrats’ deeper problem,” opined New York Times columnist Bret Stephens the morning after the election, is that they have alienated “middle-of-the-road voters—the kind who still decide elections in purplish places like Virginia.” He accused Biden of bumbling too far to the left on everything from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan to the massive infrastructure deal that has divided his party.

Mainstream voters, Stephens wrote, now see the Democrats as a party comprised of “fake moderates” like Biden and “dissembling radicals” who won’t acknowledge that leftwing ideas like “critical race theory” are anathema to American meritocracy and common sense.

The New York Times’ other token conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, seconded this analysis in an election post mortem titled “Republicans Schooled the Left in Virginia.” The Democratic Party’s future, he wrote, “depends on its leaders separating themselves, to some extent, from academic jargon and progressive zeal.”

It’s not just conservatives who are interpreting the election results as a dire warning about the excesses of progressivism. Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, an upset in a state that went for Biden in 2020 by more than ten points, gives the GOP “a successful template for 2022,” according to Newsweek.

That template involves winning back suburban voters with more attacks on “critical race theory” and a “moderate” position on the Big Lie. “He’s spoken about election integrity and endorsed audits of voting systems,” Newsweek notes of Youngkin, “but stopped short of endorsing Trump’s claim that Biden didn’t properly win the election.”

Never mind that the Big Lie is, well, a lie. Or that the angry parents stirred up about so-called critical race theory and COVID-19 safety rules in schools are hardly a genuine, grassroots movement but part of a coordinated national campaign that includes dark money- sponsored TV ads and white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys.

The ubiquitous analysis of McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia—that Democrats must move to the center or suffer more losses—ignores the fact that McAuliffe, a banker, big-donor fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, and former head of the Democratic National Committee, is hardly a progressive.

Moreover, it is based on the easily disprovable bromide that “purple states” are populated by “centrist” voters with moderate views who are turned off by the excesses of both the right and left. In fact, purple states are not filled with purple people who swing back and forth between parties. Instead, they are increasingly, dramatically divided, with roughly equal numbers of voters falling into opposite political camps. And guess who’s driving the politics of division?

Republicans, still captive to Donald Trump and the Trumpian approach to politics, are stoking nihilistic rage. This has led to physical threats to school board members across the country who dare to vote for common-sense public health measures during a pandemic and teachers who tell children about the United States’ history of slavery, inequality, and racism. But on the same day that McAuliffe lost the governor’s race in Virginia, four school board candidates in Wisconsin, another purple state, retained their posts despite a recall effort in the Mequon-Thiensville School District in a suburb of Milwaukee.

The recall campaign that divided the district was backed by high-profile Republicans—including Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch and rightwing Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein. Its failure was welcome news during a school year in which angry citizens have been harassing school board members all over the state.  

Sparta school board member Eric Solberg resigned after he was targeted for recall by a group of citizens who were angry about the board’s vote to reinstate a school mask order. In Beaver Dam, school board member Tony Klatt resigned after his votes supporting masks in schools drew threats.

“It isn’t in my family’s best interest for me to try to appease a vocal group that continues to try to intimidate, harass, insult, and throw civility to the side,” Klatt wrote in a Facebook post, describing how someone had taken a picture of his house while his daughter was home alone.

Sowing anger and stirring up vigilante-style attacks on ordinary citizens who are trying to serve their communities is a new low in Republican politics. Unfortunately, heading into the 2022 midterms, the GOP seems to regard it as a winning strategy.

Despite all of the hype about suburban swing voters—hardly a new obsession for political advisers who make their money telling candidates how to woo an increasingly narrow slice of the electorate—the more important reality is the deep sense of alienation that has driven rural voters to throw a rock at the system by voting for Donald Trump.

This was the analysis of the Virginia election results from Chris Gibbs, an Ohio farmer and board chair of Rural Voices USA. “The disconnect between rural America and Washington, D.C., only continues to widen,” Gibbs said in a statement on the Virginia governor’s race. “The divide is evident in one-sided election results in rural counties that are increasingly frustrated they are not being heard and that lawmakers are not delivering on their priorities.”

The lesson for politicians, Gibbs suggested, was not to accommodate cranks who believe in nonexistent voter fraud or the dangers of  “critical race theory,” but for politicians to actually deliver something to rural voters. He said Democrats needed to quickly pass Biden’s Build Back Better and bipartisan infrastructure plans and then hit the road to take credit for doing so.

“We need meaningful engagement on how universal preschool will create opportunities for rural parents and kids, how construction projects will create good jobs locally, how broadband will expand in their communities and more,” Gibbs said. “The only way smart rural policy beats cynicism about government and far-right wing talking points is if rural folks can feel and see it in their everyday lives.”

The least political reporters and columnists can do is to avoid conferring false legitimacy on the anti- mask, anti-critical-race-theory, Big Lie brownshirts through lazy, truth-is-in-the-middle reporting and analysis.

Now, more than ever, the wrongheadedness of that approach is obvious. The truth cannot be in the middle when one side is telling outright lies. Is the truth in the middle about whether children should wear masks in school during a pandemic? About whether the 2020 election might have been “stolen”? Or whether our current racial caste system grows directly out of the country’s history of slavery?

No. It isn’t.

Nor is there a convenient middle ground on the major issues confronting our nation and the globe. Take climate change, where Biden’s efforts to make the kind of drastic carbon emissions reductions necessary to save the planet from looming climate disaster have run into a wall from Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s agenda has been cast in countless news stories as that of a “moderate” objecting to “progressive” goals. But in truth, Manchin, who pockets hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by selling coal to power plants in his home state, represents the interests of a polluting industry trying to protect its ability to profit through planet-destroying energy extraction.

Likewise, Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s much-discussed “moderate” pushback to Biden on prescription drug price reform is propelled by Big Pharma, which gave the Arizona Democrat $121,000  in campaign donations in 2019 and 2020, and won her support for its efforts to continue scalping sick people by charging U.S. patients four times as much as people in other countries for brand-name prescription drugs.

These are not the thoughtful positions of moderation and common sense. These are self-interested politicians representing greedy, big money donors.

And those are just Biden’s opponents inside his own party.

On the Republican side, the stirring up of violent racism and paranoid delusions about a stolen election has already led to physical violence and the storming of the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob. The authoritarian tendencies Republicans are feeding are leading us down a dark road.

Democrats including Biden must stand up to lies and demagoguery—not accommodate them. It’s the only way to defend our democracy. If our political leaders can’t do that, we are all lost.

November 22, 2021
3: 00 PM

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