democrats

What Is a ‘Centrist’ Democrat, Anyway?

We know Sharice Davids is a primary winner. But is she a “progressive” or a “centrist”?

The ever-present Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party, most recently seen in the endless relitigation of the 2016 primaries, has gained new life as a media and activist narrative during the 2018 primaries. That became particularly clear this week in the warring claims about which supposed crystal-clear faction won or lost in primaries in Michigan and Kansas.

It is reasonably clear that Bernie Sanders and his distinct movement (joined on the campaign trail by the new Democratic Socialist megastar from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), had a rough night on Tuesday, when candidates they had backed in person, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and Kansas congressional aspirant Brent Welder, both lost races many expected them to win, against (respectively) Gretchen Whitmer and Sharice Davids. But were those defeats for “progressivism” or victories for “centrism”? That depends on whom you ask.

The Third Way organization, an influential think tank that doesn’t do actual campaigns, was quick to get on speed-dial with political reporters and pundits and claim victory, as reflected in this quote from a piece by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel:

“This is a fantastic night for centrist Democrats,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the center-left Third Way think tank. “We nominated the right candidates who can win House seats and governor’s mansions for the Democratic Party. There’s a quiet enthusiasm in the middle. There’s a quiet voice that people are not hearing in the media, but it’s loud at the ballot box.”

A piece on the Democratic primaries by influential New York Times columnist Tom Edsall similarly described the primaries as pitting “Sanders-style policies” against the “centrist” advice of Third Way.

But The Nation’s Joan Walsh — a self-conscious “progressive” who is not, however, exactly enamored of the Bernie Sanders movement — pushed back on the whole narrative with gusto:

I’m not aware of Third Way, a centrist think tank, actually lifting a finger for any of Tuesday’s candidates, by the way. I’m not sure either Whitmer or Davids would label themselves Third Way centrists.


The real story is that progressives won big on Tuesday might, because by only the most cramped and divisive standards would Davids and Whitmer be considered “centrist.” Both are open to Medicare for All as an end goal but favor Medicaid expansion in the meantime. Both are staunchly pro-choice and pro–Planned Parenthood funding, favor gun-safety reforms and protections for DACA youth as well as comprehensive immigration reform. Whitmer supports a $15 minimum wage.

So how do you define Democratic candidates like Whitmer and Davids? They aren’t from Bernieland, and would actually fail some lefty litmus tests (like immediate and unqualified support for single-payer). But nor are they out there objecting to “class warfare” or criticizing teachers unions or separating themselves from their party on controversial positions.

Part of the definitional problem is the long war over ownership of the word “progressive.” During the 1990s, when after decades of demonization by the right the term “liberal” fell into disrepute, “progressive” more or less became a default term of self-identification for nearly all left-of-dead-center folk. It’s no accident that the think tank of the quintessential (if now defunct) “centrist” organization the Democratic Leadership Council named itself the Progressive Policy Institute (which is not at all defunct). And very term Third Way, in both the U.S. and U.K., originally connoted an effort to “modernize the progressive tradition,” not just to move the traditional left parties “to the center” (hence the names New Democrats and New Labour).

That all seems to be ancient history at this point, but the idea that “progressive” means following Bernie Sanders or espousing democratic socialism is most definitely disputed, as Joan Walsh’s argument shows.

Some prefer distinctions like “Establishment Democrats” versus “Insurgent Democrats.” That may be useful temporarily in primaries where one can track where official party and elected official money and endorsements are and are not going. Trouble is, though, that once primaries are over, the “Establishment” almost invariably backs Democratic nominees regardless of any prior “insurgent” labels. And in this particular election year, that sort of dichotomy (and for that matter, the “progressives versus centrists” framing) collides with the reality that a large number of “Establishment-backed” women are winning primaries with substantial help from EMILY’s List, a cause-oriented pro-choice group. Some critics claim that this powerful organization doesn’t like risk-taking progressivism these days, or is too beholden to rich donors, or is too close to the Democratic Party itself. But it has its own criteria for picking candidates (early, as its name suggests), and only someone who thinks “progressive” means “Bernie Sanders supporters” would call EMILY’s List “centrist.” It has supported all sorts of pro-choice Democratic women, including, as it happens, Gretchen Whitmer and Sharice Davids.

The bottom line is that left-of-center folk probably need a new vocabulary, or at the very least a clear and thorough debate over what the terms they actually use–actually mean. It would probably be wise to undertake that debate after the November midterms. At that point they may be in a better position to determine whether voters even care about all these labels.

What is a ‘Centrist’ Democrat, Anyway?