Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

The Once and Vital Center

What the middle meant in American politics.

Antón Barba-Kay

Colliding Dark Stars, twentieth century, by Ron Chapman (1931–2012); Photimageon/Alamy Stock Photo.

The more radical an online social experiment is claimed to be, the more
conservative, nostalgic, and familiar the result will actually be.

—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

Joseph Biden’s inaugural was well said and right—his hopeful vision of America’s common loves, his request for a minute of silence for the pandemic dead, his reminder that we are one link in the chain joining the sacrifices of the nation’s past to the promises of its future. The American president’s role is priestly in that it requires him to say the right words at times of crisis or ceremony—words invoking a reality larger than the speaker’s—and Biden assumed that role when he appealed to Americans as “We the People” questing after a more perfect union. It is in the nature of such rituals that, whatever else we think about them, saying those things in earnest continues to matter to making them come true. Here Biden breathed new life into truths lying dormant, retrieving us from stupefaction at the events of January 6 to voice the thought that joy cometh in the morning.

But for a culture as besotted with what is fresh, radical, innovative, and revolutionary as ours, the election of the oldest president in US history remains just remarkably uncool. Nostalgia, left and right, is one of our most powerful political motivations, and Biden is our vinyl president, an anachronism panic-purchased from an AARP catalogue to remind us of a simpler time when Congress legislated and the president was a decent, PG-rated man abiding by the laws of meteorology and object permanence. Biden expresses our collective wishful thinking that we might return to the old normal, or to the kinds of principles redolent of nowstalgic normality: bipartisan negotiation, basic technocratic competence, appeals to truths in common, deliberative persuasion—in sum, the unum part of the Great Seal, or, politically speaking, those characteristics making up the myth known as “The Center”—that thing Americans love to love and hate to hate, but are doing their best to keep unraveling.

It seems clear at this point, during this breathing space between Trump 45 and 47, that the center is not coming back. The new normal consists not in a new pattern but in the inability of a new pattern to settle into place. Even at his best, even when not precariously rifling his mind’s file cabinet for the mot juste, wobbling on the brink of a very senior moment, there has ever been an unsettling undertone to Biden’s moderate words—suppressed exasperation, a strained note of if-you-don’t-knock-it-off-back-there-I’m-going-to-turn-this-car-around, a grimace of worry, as if some part of him knows he is trying to force the convictions we would like to be convinced of, but no longer can be. The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was garlanded with the adjective “bipartisan” by all the friendly press, while the headline on Fox News (motto: “We keep your eyes on the Squad”) was “Biden, Democrats celebrate after $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passes—despite some ‘no’ votes.” Nor was it a given that the bill would pass at all, with its compromises decried as failure and capitulation up to the last moment. Far from demonstrating the continuing viability of the political center, it showed only that one can still motivate the party strays through fear of a new electoral whacking—and that a lot of pork can still buy a little love.

The mythic bipartisan center was never a matter of niceness; it was not a norm of comity, civility, deference, or bonhomie. People used to have more formal manners, but they did not necessarily exercise them in their dealings with one another. The aspersions cast on Lincoln, Hoover, Nixon, or Clinton are no different in zeal or degree from those cast on Trump and Biden—if anything, they were nastier.11x“Words at Play: Nine Insults That Make the Presidential Campaign Seem Civilized,” Merriam-Webster.com, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/are-presidential-campaigns-getting-nastier-not-really/hermaphroditical. Nor was the center a golden-mean position occupied by high-minded people forbearing from the fray. Politicians appealed to the center because it remained the best way to win the most votes—not because most people wanted to avoid taking extreme sides on any given issue. If Tom Daschle befriended Bob Dole, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia attended the opera together, that was an effect of the comparatively genteel 1990s rather than a cause.

But even if such a center is a retrospective fiction, or an imaginary aggregate occupied by no one in particular, it remained operative as an ideal measure of political difference. The political myth of the center consisted in the recognition that disagreement, pluralism, and multilateralism were valuable to democratic politics—not for their own sake, but as expressions of a single underlying civic care. It was this situated care that afforded us the conviction that disagreement was meaningful, that negotiation and deliberation served a common good, that having it all our way was not for the best. The center was therefore a commitment to a good that was notionally distinct from the vindication of one’s own political views, a second political eye lending us political depth-perception. It was the implicit hub through which the different spokes of liberalism came together to realize common, practical ends.

It had long been a truism—noted by observers from Tocqueville to Marcuse—that civil society in the United States was ideologically homogenous: that there was very little daylight between mainstream political alternatives (compared to France, say), that the middle class was too large to create the widespread discontent required for a proletarian revolution. It was this attribute that accounted for our relaxed and liberal attitude toward freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union could zealously defend Nazis’ First Amendment rights in 1977 because there was no great threat that the Nazi position would catch on. That Ira Glasser and David Goldberger should have to come to the rescue of National Socialism in such a context did not elevate that cause: It dwarfed and belittled it. It is a sign of a steady center that such exceptions are not only tolerable but supreme exhibitions of its strength. Similarly revealing was a moment during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial appearance at Columbia University in 2007. Asked about his regime’s persecution of homosexuals, the Iranian president replied that this was not really an issue because there were no such people in Iran. The crowd’s spontaneous guffaw was a perfect expression of the center. Laughter is not a rational refutation—it is something better, because the presence of a social common sense means that we can all agree that some things are not worth taking seriously, let alone arguing about.

It is safe to say that we find less to laugh at together now, when, as the cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han wrote in In the Swarm, our unit of political events has become the shitstorm.22xByung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017). The desire to cancel (or to cancel cancellation) is not a desire to win a discussion but to obliterate it in perceived response to Total Emergency. Our condition of permanent freakout consists in the inability to distinguish between exception and reliable rule—in the inability to judge the magnitude or significance of events relative to some common sense. Each extreme summons and creates itself in response to its compensatory extreme (such that, e.g., more registered Democrats than Republicans have heard of QAnon33x“Democrats Are More Likely Than Republicans to Have Heard of QAnon,” The Economist, January 19, 2021, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/01/19/democrats-are-more-likely-than-republicans-to-have-heard-of-qanon.). It is true that more voices can publicly express their views than before, but it has come at the cost of the public conversation itself. Opinions are no longer “representative” because there are few or no remaining organs of the center’s representation. The idea of the center itself has been weaponized into the false equivalence that there are good people on both sides of every issue—never mind what it is. Not all disagreements can or should rise to the level of debate. But this is precisely pluralism’s Achilles’ heel—its inability to dismiss its enemies without contradicting its commitment to free speech—and the basis on which it continues to be degraded from within.

The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote that television created the conditions for perestroika: Once TV revealed the workings of the Kremlin, a state built on terror, ignorance, and mystification melted away.44xRyszard Kapuściński, Imperium, trans. Klara Glowczewska (New York, NY: Knopf, 1993). So too did cable television first melt away the comity of the US Congress. Just as Supreme Court confirmations are now extended miniseries, the appearance of cable news and the televising of congressional proceedings changed the audience and therefore the practice of government, since representatives were no longer speaking to each other, but to the news. (It is no accident, in this regard, that the Supreme Court, the untelevised branch, remains the branch of government with relatively the most prestige.) Minute and partisan coverage is delegitimizing not because politicians and justices can no longer hide their sins, but because it selects for objects of attention that are widely and readily arresting (zingers, epic fails, the optics of personality). Our politicians must begin to act for us, and then we enjoy despising them for it.

Then we were digitized. The printed word was the center’s creative organ: In order to be widely read, newspapers educated and formed their wide readership. The digital word, by contrast, disrupts the center by casting our political life into specific kinds of polarized turmoil. Congressional gridlock has less to do with representatives’ orneriness than with their discovery that the performance of opposition is a more direct avenue to winning votes than watered-down, level-headed compromise. What’s more, reality partisanship—the operatic clash of franchised revanche—is fun, because it’s much spicier to school others than to learn anything from them. Say what you will, American politics is awfully entertaining. (Were you able to follow Germany’s recent elections in close detail? All those people who go to the same tailor making aggressively reasonable suggestions about the finer points of European fiscal rules? That highly efficient national process, the acme of whose wit is the phrase “Jamaica coalition”? Nor I.) When Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tub-thump, they do so with the intent of whipping their bases into righteous frenzy; they do not argue to persuade but For The Win. The one is an entertainer playing on our resentment; the other embodies the glamor brand of Instagrammed high ground. Both are political pornographers, prisoners of the roles they exemplify for our asking. The medium is the banter; the outrage is the message.

The conditions that govern communication also govern authoritative knowledge more generally. The notion of the center suggests overlap, cooperation, and accommodation; it demands a shared structure of authority to adjudicate differences. It is telling, by contrast, that the political struggles that most exercise us have settled on binary issues that are framed to admit of no compromise: the reality or unreality of climate change, the permissibility of abortion at any stage, the possession of guns of any kind, the effectiveness of vaccines or mask wearing, the need for reparations as a remedy for racial disparity, the funding or defunding of the police, whether the border should be completely open or completely walled off. I don’t say that these aren’t questions of serious moment to every citizen, but that their fault lines have been continually rewritten into a binary code that serves to aggravate difference. They have been reformulated so as not to be debated or responsive to new reasons. Discussion is possible only on the basis of partial agreement and common first principles, but where there are no widely acknowledged institutional umpires—either because such umpires have discredited themselves, or because our notion of credibility has become more exacting, or because there are too many alternative umpires—it no longer makes sense to speak of “public debate” or “public opinion,” or even to regard the emergence of bipartisan consensus as a good thing.

There was never much impartial debate about the Trump presidency. It is not clear to me even now what it would have taken or meant for that to happen. Its genre—a mashup of Juvenalian satire and the Power Rangers—and the sensibilities it thrived on were obnoxious to discussion by design. Its partisan lines, once drawn, were progressively dug into each of us. And so Trump’s exit, pursued by The Steal: a falsehood so steep, a lie so gross, that it is substantial enough to serve as a profession of political identity. Whereas disagreements about policy can at any rate be traced back to disagreements about the common world, The Steal was a further iteration of our polar logic: a disagreement about believability as such, voided of substance and contrived for the purpose of cementing partisan difference. Party disagreements were once about ideas, then later about “values”—about different orientations and priorities. They are now disagreements about facts and about our loyalty to their sources and styles: not about how to interpret the same facts, that is, but about the credibility of their existence. Such facts are our new values, our most powerful expressions of what is authoritative. Truth is our moral equivalent of war. (Pravda!) It is not relativistic indifference to truth but disagreement centered on matters of fact that characterizes our “post-truth” incoherence. It is zeal for the deciphering of facts that accounts for the paranuminous tinge around Q’s next drop. So that when Trump recently called on a rally of his supporters to get vaccinated against COVID-19, he was himself booed for it—much as Jesus might be booed for recommending the Bhagavad-Gita, or (rather) as Will Ferrell would be booed if suddenly unveiled for us as the next James Bond.55xMartin Pengelly, “Trump Booed after Telling Supporters to Get COVID Vaccine,” The Guardian, August 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/22/donald-trump-rally-alabama-covid-vaccine.

Such all-or-nothing issues are also preferred for the more basic reason that we are increasingly looking to them to define who we are. As our party affiliation becomes more central to our account of ourselves, we need there not to be a center in politics to the extent that other kinds of institutional identities cease to matter. “Science is real” offers a more satisfying profession of faith than “Reducing carbon emissions should be a more important policy priority than the short-term prosperity of industry and commerce,” or whatever. We are looking for a fight. The ideal of a generous and moral patriotism, a citizenship rooted in the sovereign concerns of place and responsive on that basis to the claims of others, cannot hold online, where events must egregiously not make sense in order to attract attention.

We need contrast and conflict in order to take shape—we bring ourselves into focus by clarifying what we are not. Where our higher loyalties lack meaningful contrast, we will contrive one from nothing. Our defining Other was outside the United States for most of the twentieth century. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the failure of the war on terror, it was Donald Trump’s genius to have understood that we were looking for a new Other, that the fact of otherness mattered more than its significance, that social life could be permanently mobilized for and saturated with reality politics to this purpose, that politics could be shifted from the consideration of practical issues to the affirmation of culture and identity, and that there is therefore no incentive or point to pretending that there is a discussion about identity, since it is exactly what it is—a fact about us, something out of the question and in any event. Being pro-gun or pro-choice, Republican or Democrat, is no longer a “position” exactly—a view one might independently adopt on the basis of better reasons—but a characteristic inhering in our given selves. What makes American politics so entertaining now, in other words, is that it is only ever about you (and the news that you’ll consume to prove it).

Here’s the paradox, though: To the extent that politics is sublimated into performative rage and enacted through symbolic gestures, what actually obtains is a profound underlying stability. The more we disagree virtually, the more we show ourselves to be basically satisfied with or resigned to changeless practice. Compared to the transformative social changes of almost any decade of the twentieth century, those of our own last decade resemble either trench warfare or a dumb show of it: pitched fighting over inches, tweaks, and scraps. The political center is necessary precisely in order to pass momentous legislation; the Madisonian system works only by refining opposition into negotiation, not by petrifying it. Our apocalyptic anxiety is in inverse proportion to the practical significance of what has happened—for instance, to the economic state of the middle class, or to the degree of urban segregation, or to the condition of public schools, or to the social safety net, or to our environmental trajectory, or to America’s promotion of democracy abroad. President Biden is, in this sense, precisely not the opposite of our radical days, but the clearest statement of them. He, too, has been canny enough to signal support for positions far to the left of Barack Obama’s, even as he is the incarnation of our political life ground to a standstill. Old Uncle Sam: still virtually Trump, still practically Biden.

The fact that universities have become the source of a larger part of our national politics—that language and its acceptable applications should have become so closely identified with the pursuit of freedom and equality—is an obvious extension of our virtual relations with one another. Symbols, gestures, words, and language categories are undoubtedly important, but they can never become independent or sufficient causes of the widespread transformation of beliefs, motives, and practices (as any Marxist will tell you)—justice will not roll down like waters, nor righteousness like a mighty stream, as a consequence of sensitivity training. The first axiom of virtual activism, on the other hand, is that if we can treat something as decisive, then it definitely should and must be so; since it is speech and signals that are voluntary, categorical, and unequivocal online, the dismantling of the system must surely take place through control of their uses. The classical liberal response to racial gaps in test scores is to help improve access to math or reading education; the progressive response is to scrap the test. In other words: not to eliminate either the causes or effects of racial disparity, but to insist that their manifestations are themselves part of the problem, to desist from noticing them, to erase the terms in which disparities are expressed, and then to congratulate ourselves on our progress.

One can only conclude that we intentionally misdirect our political energy toward what we can change either because we pretend not to know that no other change is possible or because we are basically satisfied with our material reality as it stands. The transformation of politics into culture and identity is likewise the sublimation of civic responsibility into consumption as the only action apparently left to us. The single greatest attraction of identity politics and its construal into digital tokens is its convenience. By virtue of leaving our material conditions unchanged, it lends itself to the cosmetic makeover of universities, media, corporations, and politics alike: an industry of administrative services that requires practically nothing of us as citizens other than buying the narrative—like ostentatiously giving up beef while continuing to guzzle and trash, or like appending #endcapitalism to one’s online brand. It is a way of going through the motions of political activity while neutralizing their headway. As if removing the gender from toys or dropping the “Mr.” from “Mr. Potato Head” (while continuing to sell him just the same) will raise our consciousness. Or as if taking down statues, renaming campus buildings, and taking care to write “Black” or “Latinx” made significant contact with the conditions that led to the murder of George Floyd.

The political mood I grew up with in the 1990s and early 2000s was one of disaffection and apathy—the sense that what happened in Washington did not really touch the ordinary life of most people, neither inspiring it with higher purpose nor making any particular demands on us. The situation has not changed. We have invented instead a way of attending to events that ropes us all into them, that simulates involvement and participation, that alienates by engrossing us. It keeps things interesting only by translating inaction into virtual action—at bottom, a way of staving off boredom paid for by the spectacular dynamiting of the center’s extant fragments. Every one of us knows at heart that it is better to persuade, to discuss, to befriend, to reach across the aisle—how else can we really know whether we are right? But it’s become too easy and too entertaining not to, to the point that a whole manner of political life has grown up to gratify the peremptory vindication of our view, to witness and to share our rage.

The center’s greatest virtue was also its greatest liability: It was an insipid notion, not uplifting in itself. Yet, precisely by virtue of being preferred by no one in particular, it also moderated all positions by resolving them into a form in which they could communicate with each other. Only to the extent that there was a center could there be a principled difference between right and left at all. (It no more makes sense to think of Stalin as a figure of “the left” than Hitler as of “the right.”) Absent the center, there can be no two “sides” to any argument, only splintered confrontations between friend and enemy. The center’s critics, from Carl Schmitt to Robin DiAngelo, will assert that it was never anything more than that—an atmosphere of hypocritical hot air promoting only certain interests. And it may well be that the center, reliant as it is on widespread mores, renders some forms of inequality intractable in the near-term. The very notion of a “myth” is of course tainted for us with the suggestion of ignorance or falsity. Yet the center was a myth not in that it (merely) blinkered us, but that, precisely by and through our commitment to it, it realized a working vision of this task we call “United States”—the hope whereby we staked ourselves to hold these truths self-evident. It was because we had the conviction that we needed to make sense of each other that there could actually be a creative political reality, rather than reality politics. If the center was slow to progress on some problems, it is far from clear how the alternative extremes account for the fact that we still must care to live together, making up one nation: Where we can no longer speak to each other, coercion comes to be the lingua franca. That myth of the middle ground, the common hope we still invoke as “reason,” is only lovable in retrospect—it is no longer a living option. If we are to work it out in a new dispensation, then we will have to rally to a principle in ways that withstand and outmatch the entertainment of Internet politics, eclipsing it with something politically more nourishing than the spectacular enactment of our own undoing.

Because some days I admit I miss the Donald; I miss the hourly ticker tape of florid apoplexy, his fabulous temerity, his red ties all a-waggle like hangry vulpine tongues, the exciting ambiguity about whether he was a titanic threat to American government or a grumpy princeling in a teacup—above all, I miss his aesthetic violence and the hectic he touched off in my responses. Will he pay for it, in reckoning? (Will we?) The center is as brittle as Uncle Joe’s hip; each day, reality politics is more real and less true. What will we yet do to wake the words of common love lying dormant? Or what enemy will rescue us from each other? Or what have we yet to learn by losing what we had? Will you bear with me?