My Turn: A thought experiment: Is the center naked?

  • mactrunk

Published: 1/18/2022 9:13:15 AM
Modified: 1/18/2022 9:12:10 AM

In the United States today, there is increasing concern about social and political polarization. The solution, many believe, is for individuals to back away from the poles and find common ground near the center. Lately, I have been wondering whether we might have the whole problem inside out.

It seems almost universally accepted that the central political and social dynamic in the U.S. is left-right, but what if an equally fundamental dynamic is center-periphery? Then the long-sought common ground might lie not in the “moderate” center but in opposition to it.

This question turns upon our definition of the “center.” If it is the zenith of an electoral system that expresses the people’s democratic will, its stability appears almost sacred. But if we think of it as the center of gravity, the vortex of power, then democracy may be located as much on the periphery as in the center. Washington’s left-right political tug of war might even begin to appear as a diversion that insulates the center of power from attempts to make it respond to real needs and aspirations.

Advances in science require paying attention to anomalies, things that do not fit into current conceptual frameworks. Could it be that, in the social and political world, those who do not fit — who do not count, who are pushed to the peripheries — are the anomalies of the current status quo? If so, they may be the locus of new possibilities and insights.

Many may find this idea troubling because it appears to equate those on all peripheries who seem so fundamentally apart. What they have in common is their distance from power, and their growing bitterness. Poor white workers did not benefit from slavery: the presence of unpaid workers decreased their wages. After “emancipation,” the workforce was effectively bifurcated by the color line which prevented organizing in common to gain leverage.

The center is not a stable North Pole: it shifts with the moving ice, but its gravitational pull continuously attracts those who wish to advance their careers and their status, regardless of the consequences to others. Prominent politicians of all stripes warn that questioning the sacred center will bring chaos or authoritarianism. I am not proposing that activists give up trying to affect the votes of their representatives, but that an equally effective path might be organizing to unite the peripheries against the power of the center.

The crucial question is this: To what extent has the center been captured by the power of corporate and individual wealth? If it has, there is little need to satisfy ordinary citizens because elected politicians, especially incumbents, are easier to sway with monetary rewards. Financial power prevails in a stable center loyal to the goal of increasing returns. Indeed this power has become a global force without loyalty to anything except those returns. This arrangement has produced a remarkable consensus among so-called “moderate” voices in Congress.

This consensus sent poor whites and blacks to wars in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. It secured enormous subsidies and tax breaks for multinationals and billionaires. It prevented a more equal distribution of wealth, health care and education. Is it any wonder that those on all peripheries have been hurting? Leaders who recognized their pain found some wind in their sails.

In the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders took Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Arkansas — all states Donald Trump won in the federal election.

The desperation of the peripheries is often channeled by consensus politicians. Biden pursues support from peripheral progressives but also proposes a return to the way things were: the status quo ante: the consensus. His history as a corporate enabler suggests loyalty to the power of wealth.

Trump promised to improve health care, stop “endless foreign wars” and confront big arms manufacturers, pharmaceuticals and other exploiters. Instead, he ignored the needs of his peripheral supporters by passing enormous tax breaks for corporations and billionaires. He encouraged a fantasy of challenging the center but remained loyal to its consensus positions.

Given the increasing concentration of power and wealth, we must ask whether the majority now find themselves effectively on the periphery. We are urged to blame our problems on the depravity of those on other sides of the periphery as if these problems were down to individual immorality rather than anything structural in the system that currently allocates power.

From the peripheral perspective, however, it might be possible to recognize that the center is undressed.

Patrick McGreevy lives in Greenfield. He invites comments at pm07@aub.edu.lb.


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