On Centrism and the Importance of the Radical Left: Jones, Biden, and Electoral Strategies Going Forward

When Doug Jones won his Senate seat in the 2017 special election, some people were convinced that Alabama was ‘turning purple’ and that formerly Republican voters would be in play for Democrats in future elections. 

Jones, a centrist by inclination, doggedly marketed himself over the last 3 years to Republicans as their solid, responsible, near kin. He positioned himself as moderate and bipartisan, framing his voting record and his campaign rhetoric to appeal to red red-state voters. 

In a small forum with other activists, I once suggested to Jones that he had an equal responsibility to his constituents on his left – to listen with respect to our stories, to address our concerns, to speak for our interests, and to weave our priorities into his own. 

He didn’t take kindly to the suggestion.

In 2018 statewide elections in Alabama, Democrats were so soundly drubbed that few were willing to appear on the ballot in 2020. In 2020, Jones’ experienced a thorough thrashing at the hands of one of the most politically unqualified, Trump-sycophantic candidates in recent memory. 

The lesson: Jones won in 2017 only because Roy Moore was such an embarrassment that (a) even a small-but-critical mass of Republicans couldn’t stand to vote for him and (b) Democrats not particularly thrilled with Jones’ moderate politics nonetheless showed up on Election Day to support him. 

Faced with a more palatable Republican candidate in 2020, Jones got less than 40% of the vote. 

There’s an obvious parallel at the national level.

Biden won in 2020 because Donald Trump is such an embarrassment that (a) even a small-but-critical mass of Republicans couldn’t stand to vote for him and (b) Democrats and those further left not particularly thrilled with Biden’s moderate politics nonetheless showed up on Election Day to support him. 

The lesson for Democrats in Alabama needs to be the lesson for Democrats nationally – and I’m writing this this morning because I already hear right- and right-center voices complaining about and blaming leftists for any Democratic failings. 

It’s not our fault. 

The primary legacy of centrism over the last half-century has been collusion in a wholesale shift of public discourse and electoral politics way to the right.

It has substantively eroded an entire segment of serious, humane political discourse and policy. In many ways, Joe Biden is positioned to the right of Richard Nixon. The notion that socialism forms any part of the Biden/Harris agenda is blatantly absurd. 

Too often the center has turned its back on the needs of the People – rejecting a public policy commitment to housing, environmental protection. food security, racial and gender equity, access to quality healthcare and education – in an effort to appeal to monied interests and the voters they manipulate and buy on the right.

If the Democrats want to win elections in the future, they need to stop that. 

Voters are not inspired by anemic platforms, beyond the singular circumstances of the 2017 Alabama Senate election and the 2020 presidential one. That wasn’t about platform or policy – that was about electoral insight into obvious, corrupt, dangerous narcissism. 

But not all corrupt and dangerous narcissists are so obvious about it – and the next candidate will inevitably be smoother and more ingratiating.

I’m not saying that the Democratic Party has to immediately shift wholesale left (though that would suit me fine). It means that centrists need to embrace radicals with love and respect across our differences, not turn their backs and try to hush us up – and certainly not blame us.

Those of us making the radical claim that everyone should have clean air to breathe, decent food to eat, and an adequate roof over their heads are not the enemy.

Those of us who believe in public libraries and National Parks and other protected public lands, in broadband access as a guaranteed public utility and student loan forgiveness, in actual justice in a justice system, in environmental regulation that ensures clean drinking water, clean air, clean oceans and rivers, and protections for endangered species, and in a living wage as a minimum wage deserve to have that voice heard, respected, and accounted for in shaping policy platforms. 

The center needs to quit compromising with the right while treating the left like an exasperating addled cousin who can be abused at will, yet taken for granted for support.

As for those of us on the left, we need to do a better job of framing our message, so that we scold less and inspire more. Strategic awareness of how our message will be received is important. 

We also need to do a better job of allowing that incremental change that makes a material difference in the lives of people and the planet is better than no change – and that the struggle to re-open more left space will take time, patience, and genuine relationships. Strong stances matter, but all or nothing politics too often leaves us with nothing. 

We can and should be unapologetic for our commitment to the well-being of people, most especially the marginalized, and to the protection of the Earth. We also need to prioritize strategic and ethical commitment to *how* we talk about our message, as well as to the integrity of the content. 

(a tangent: in parliamentary democracies, a multi-party structure makes sense. In our system, it doesn’t. I think we’re better off to work with what we’ve got – but that’s a whole other post). 

As I have said before, attention to electoral politics is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for social change. We need to keep social movement engagement and pressure high in the days and months ahead. 

In the arena of electoral politics itself, the center and the left need each other – and we urgently need to find ways to create real respect and strategic alliances filled with integrity.