Centrism and the Debates of the Early ‘90s

To those old enough to remember the period the early ’90s can seem like a time of relatively vigorous public debate in the U.S. over the country’s economic and social life, certainly compared with what came afterward. Indeed, Emmanuel Todd speaks of debate over the economy in the U.S. having come to an end in 1995, which exactly matches my personal memory of the time.

Still, considering that debate critically in recent years I have been struck by just how limited that debate was — and indeed, limited in very specific ways, conducted according to the centrist pattern in the neoliberal and rightward-moving America of the ’90s. Four featurs of that pattern stand out in my memory as particularly relevant, namely

1. A hostility to big picture, theoretically-informed, systemic thinking, and indeed a disapproval of those who find connections between one thing and another and important realities beneath the surface. All of this reduces the problems of our collective life from, for example, the failings of an economic system to a handful of disconnected concrete problems to be separately treated. (One can speak of, for example, the problem of housing or health care — but one had best leave the economic system out of the discussion.)

2. A view of politics as properly “pluralist,” “pragmatic” and “civil,” which means that ethical judgments about such matters as inequality and injustice are not welcome — society instead a collection of interests all assumed to be equally legitimate, and none of which are assumed to have more power than the others. (Significantly the claims of the poor have no moral weight than those of the rich, of workers no more than those of investors, while the question of whether corporate interests have too much power is treated as flat-earthism. Equally one had better be very careful about accusing anyone of bad faith — for instance, using junk science to advance an anti-consumer or anti-environmental agenda.) Given equal legitimacy, the only way is compromise (with, again, no one asking questions about whether the course taken is right or wrong from an ethical perspective or even the standpoint of “solving the problem,” or worrying about whether the “consensus” by which the centrist sets so much store is not simply the powerful doing what they want and then saying it’s what everyone wants).

3. In line with all of the above, an inclination toward minimalism in the address of said issues — opting for course adjustment rather than deeper reform. (If the job report is disappointing adjusting monetary policy to make lending to investors cheaper is one thing — but a public employment program that must be paid for with taxes is something taken much less lightly, so much so that even in the “Keynesian” era there was very little of this.) And finally,

4. The necessity of excluding anyone not accepting these rules from the discourse as an “ideologue” and an “extremist” — with the interpretation of those rules typically hitting the left, its conventional wisdom being, as none other than Irving Kristol remarked, that ideology is a leftist failing and not a conservative one.

Thus was it not only that capitalism was not up for discussion as such, but, amid a popular backlash against neoliberalism, neither was that version of it (the term little used by non-academics at this time, and virtually unheard of in the mainstream press). Thus was it that one heard of factories closing, but only rarely heard of “deindustrialization”; one heard about, for example, other countries handling their manufacturing bases differently, but less often of “industrial policy” as such, and this typically as an exotic and un-American notion with which many quite rightly said we ought have naught to do.

Likewise, while one heard complaints that the policies of the Reagan era had made “the rich richer, the poor poorer,” talk of a more equal or fairer society tended to be hazy, especially in relation to many of the more concrete matters. The concern for America’s perceived failings in “education” had less to do with the right of individual to develop, or equalize economic opportunity, but rather “competitiveness.” So did it also go in health care, where, if it was impossible to wholly overlook the tens, even hundreds, of millions whose needs were being unmet, a prime issue was the drag that a bloated insurance sector and high bills imposed on employers and the economy at large relative to America’s foreign competitors. One might add that the squeamishness about calling out the agendas of the rich and powerful was very much in evidence here, as in that matter of education — virtually no one pointing out that panic over failing schools was a matter of blaming supposedly gold-bricking or incompetent schoolteachers and kids “too lazy” to study engineering in college so as to avoid blaming the investors and executives who preferred speculation to “real economy” investment, chasing cheap labor abroad to raising productivity at home, etc., etc.; while often being a cover for the crush-the-teacher’s-unions-and-privatize-everything crowd (whose agenda became so mainstream that a Democratic administration made it its first order of business in the Netflix remake of the BBC’s House of Cards).

And of course those same centrist traits were evident in the slightness of the proposed remedies, reflected in a comparison of Bill Clinton’s record with Jimmy Carter’s sixteen years earlier. Carter delivered a stimulus package in his first month in office that expanded the public employment program he inherited from Republican Richard Nixon, and signed a Full Employment Act into law. By contrast Bill Clinton treated a comparable stimulus package as so large and radical a policy that his supporters were asked to choose between it and his health care plan (which he failed completely to deliver, and never tried to deliver again), while anything like Nixon’s public employment program, let alone the Full Employment Act (which was admittedly not respected by the Carter administration, and dead by the Reagan era) was not even to be talked about.

As all this implied the dialogue was thoroughly bounded indeed, with not only the left that the centrist has always treated as the prime enemy shut out of the dialogue, but what had even been plausible for the center- right a mere fifteen years earlier (as, again, one sees when looking at Nixon’s policies, and remembers that Carter was from the more conservative wing of his own party). Indeed, it does not seem unfair to say that the dialogue came down to a debate between plain old enthusiastic neoliberals, and more grudging neoliberals who tempered their neoliberalism with a bit of pragmatic economic nationalism. Clinton showed the latter face on the election trail — and in office, consistently acted the former, crowing in his administration’s Reinventing Government reports that “the era of big government is over” in the most Reaganite conceivable language. In short, the change was really no change at all. And that can only make the skeptic wonder just how much substance there really was to that debate — if it was not indeed a pseudo-debate, in the end only underlining the sheer force of the neoliberal turn at the time, and what that may mean for us now as some talk of life beyond that model in a world where, love it or hate it, there is no denying the fact of the model’s grinding on ever more creakily and painfully, without serious indications that the world’s muddling its way toward anything else as yet.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.



Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.