The Radical Center

Image by Clay Banks.

“Still got that glint in your eye
Like you did the very first time
Oh, it’s like we never said goodbye”


Dean Phillips stands alone within the Democratic Party as resistance to Joe Biden. How did this happen and what does this say about the supposedly left flank of the Democrats that Phillips is the only one who refuses to kiss the ring?

In general I defend the Berniecrats, the Squad and others considered to be progressives on the grounds that if the plan was to get a legislative majority for reforms they are more plausible than other people in Congress to fit the bill. Not that they are very plausible but if such a plan exists, they would be the last ones I would criticize.

At this point that path seems disingenuous. If those politicians want to play ball then what is their plan to move the ball forward? Dean Phillips is not someone I agree with but I am finding his intervention to be surprisingly interesting.

When I wrote about Cornel West some people were upset with me for not taking much of a side in his campaign. And I would argue that West has proven this position is the only one that fits. If someone wants to make an impact they should dial in on a few specific demands and repeat them over and over again. We must address specific contradictions to overcome. We must let go of our ideals and examine our own contradictory survival. Where can we humbly intervene? There is no philosophy that will square capitalist contradictions. Where can we put effective pressure? It can’t be everywhere. It can’t be everything. It can’t be all at once.

Attempts to do so have a place but that is more in the intellectual realm. We should value this part of life as a means to building up individuals and communities. But we can’t take our fantastical ideas as practical. We must not abandon them, for that would be to kill the human soul. But we also must not pretend as if they are reality. Not yet at least. To build a fantasy takes a lot of work. A lot of boring, humbling, painful, tiring work. We must keep the fantasy going both for its own sake and for the sake of the mission. But we cannot snap our fingers and will it.

Dean Phillips is detailing precisely how the Democrats are suppressing the vote in their primary process. He is hammering this point again and again. He is accurately comparing Joe Biden’s grip on his party to that of Donald Trump’s. He correctly says that the Democrat’s primary suppression has the same goal as Donald Trump’s insurrection: to suppress democracy.

The disenfranchisement of Democrat voters by their own party is happening in several states. Florida cancelled. New Hampshire’s votes don’t count. Tennessee, North Carolina and Massachusetts are making it difficult for non-Biden candidates to get on the ballot.

But besides the most egregious voter suppression in individual states is the lack of dissent within the Democratic Party. As Phillips points out, if a bigger name entered the race they could do better than him. But all of them are compromised by their desire to have a political career.
This should make us examine the model of small dollar donations by the Berniecrats.

While it is appealing to have candidates who are not bought and sold by corporations, what good are these candidates if they are reliant on a political party who is? This is not to say that these candidates are not preferable, but rather to ask if they are the best use of money for people who don’t have any. Surely there are more effective local groups who are not compromised in the same way. I’m talking about a structural, not moral compromise, but feel free to see it as both if that helps you see my point.

So we are left to figures like Phillips and Trump to be outsiders. Businessmen who see politics in a way politicians cannot. Businessmen who are not culturally or materially compromised in the same way. Businessmen who know how to save themselves but not our political system or our communities.

Phillips nonetheless has more of a backbone on this issue than the Democrat’s left flank. If no one in the Democratic Party believes Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump, why promote him? If they really believed Donald Trump was an existential threat how could they justify supporting who they see Biden as? The answer must be that they don’t really care about Donald Trump winning.

I won’t go into Phillips’ politics because that will derail my entire piece quite quickly. But I will point out a few traps he is avoiding which we could learn from.

His belief that American democracy is dead isn’t leading him to become a supporter of Donald Trump.
Interestingly, he isn’t allowing this opposition to Trump to lead him to demonization of Trump’s supporters.
He isn’t focused on promises he can’t keep, even if he makes them. Rather he is focused on the task at hand which is to expose the lack of democracy within the duopoly, even if it is only for his own reasons.

The first trap of supporting, or more often, dismissing the threat of Trump, as a solution to the crisis of capitalism or the crisis of democracy is a trap too many of us fall into. We tend to think of Trump as someone who will shake things up but really he is just here to shake us down.

The false dichotomy that emerges when we make the correct choice of seeing Trump as an existential threat is to blame his supporters and defend his supposed resistance on the other side of the aisle in Washington. I have been critical of the naive and gushing approach in regards to Trump supporters. If you try to campaign for a Democrat in much of Trump country, there is danger and you should take those second amendment signs they have quite seriously.

But that doesn’t mean our political project should be to demonize these people. What’s the point? Just look to the working class, who don’t support Trump or Biden first, and you’ll find there is so much work to be done with them that you’ll forget all about those Trumpsters.

The third trap is the trap of the left, which the radical centrist Dean Phillips avoids, albeit for the wrong reasons. The trap of promising the right things and taking the right stands while not connecting to the human element is not serious politics. The message must be hidden. The goal is to connect, relate, trust, and laugh. The socialist platform informs a few specific policy goals in a few specific areas with friends in hand.

Bob Menendez was purged for bringing up the bipartisan assault on human rights on the border. Dean Phillips was purged for bringing up the non-democratic nature of the Democratic Party. These are our radical centrists. Our ideological purity is a mask we hide behind because we don’t want to get our hands dirty.

The constant whining by pundits that the country has gone too far left post-Trump is dead wrong. What people are longing for is not political centrism which fails to solve anyone’s problems and empowers the rightward and downward spiral. What people are looking for are people who aren’t bullshiting them.

The honest truth is that things are awful. Far worse than we can admit to. When I look to Dean Phillips it is not because I feel betrayed by the left flank of the Democrats. I am not using their hypocrisy to minimize Trumpism or Bidenism or even Phillipsism, if that becomes a thing. Nor am I using that hypocrisy to prove that capitalist politics are hopeless or that these people are morally bankrupt.

Rather I am saying that from a psychological level we cannot be lied to. We want to find out the truth and when we do we turn on those lying to us. The job of the politician is to lie, which is why they are unpopular. And I’d rather have them lie about being a leftist, because if one tells that lie enough, they know they have to at least in small part make good on it.

But we’re lying when we say that the Democrats are practicing democracy in this primary. We are lying when we say they have any strategy but to bar Biden’s opponents from the ballot, whether they be primary challengers or Donald Trump.

Donald Trump’s scandals escalate along with Joe Biden’s wars. The appearance, and I for one do not see this as reality, but the appearance is that we should be taking the personal character flaws of Donald Trump which we find relatable, to be more dangerous than Joe Biden’s genocide. Anyone who was serious about defeating Trump would see this as a weak strategy.

But we all want to keep our jobs and hang on for another day. In this way the question of how we are any different from other totalitarian societies comes up. The answer is that we not only have a rigid party structure, but also a radically free market that is destroying our means to survive through its environmental degradation.

In closing I will use the term left in a way that doesn’t refer to progressive democrats who aren’t left, but rather to the actually existing left, which as Noam Chomsky points out, has never been stronger or more popular. I will point out that this left cannot be radical in the same way the center or left can because such a left faces mortal danger when doing so and we retreat to abstractions and divisions to hide the ball. The radical left won’t get their public applause. Doing so would put them in danger and we must protect the left at all costs. So today we give a hand to the radical center, which, like the radical right, does make an intervention that we can learn from.

The difference between the radical center and the radical right is that such a centrist doesn’t necessarily need to demonize the left in order to get its intervention done. Rather such an intervention can have some sort of substance to it. One of our most corrupt politicians Bob Menendez found himself surprisingly in the role of standing in the way of Joe Biden’s Trumpian border wall. Can Dean Phillips stand in the way of Trump himself? Or will the Democrats bet that Biden’s lies, which entail covering for genocide that Phillips or Trump would likely also support, be less glaring than Trump’s lies, which deal with scandals of a conman? That is until he gains political power in which his lies will become our truth.

If Phillips and Menendez united on a unity ticket they would be as shameless as Trump and they’d stand a chance against him. But Joe Biden, despite my relative confidence in his victory, stands as the symbol of shame. His humanitarian wars, his crusade against fascists while he suppresses the votes, his family separations and drilling, are shameful because he shames. He shames those who don’t do these things as the reason for them if we don’t support him while he is doing them. The logic of our system may dictate he is right insofar that our complicity is the only thing that can stop Trump. But betting that shaming can work is a misinterpretation of human psychology. We want to strike back and if the radical left is banished and the radical center suppressed, then there really is only one avenue for resistance. That resistance is a mean orange man who, like us, is hunted, and unlike us, can be resurrected.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at