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.

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