Today the ground has shifted: thanks in large part to the way in which Occupy Wall St. and other populist movements provoked a reframing of our political language, the horizontal left-right axis no longer sheds any light on civic life. Occupy shifted the language from horizontal to vertical: in the 2010s left-right has slowly but surely given way to bottom-top as the framework that makes the most sense as we try to understand the policies and positioning of the major players impacting our political life.
In the old days, mainstream political players were never really comfortable positioning themselves as purely left or purely right. "Transcending" the left-right axis became known as "triangulation." Today there's a similar discomfort with being labeled purely bottom or purely top, and what we're seeing in response is a kind of vertical triangulation.
In the remainder of this post I want to briefly summarize key moments in the history of left-right horizontal triangulation, then refer to the gaggle of Democrats seeking to gain the 2020 nomination to face Donald Trump to identify what is fast becoming a case study in 21st century vertical triangulation.
On Horizontal Triangulation
Some of the most consequential parts of US history can be framed as the triumph of a restrained middle over more a more radical left and/or right :
*In 1787 those calling for the creation of a Constitutional Republic saw it as a middle ground between the pro-slavery fiefdoms represented by the then existing Articles of Confederation and the armed supporters of Shays' Rebellion who thought the values of the 1776-1783 revolution had been betrayed.
*Abe Lincoln running on a platform of "non-extension of slavery" in 1860 was a middle ground between the northern abolitionists and the southern slave-holding aristocracy that wanted to extend the evil from coast-to-coast.
*While the Republicans from the time Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office in 1933 called his New Deal recovery program "Socialist," the New Deal was in fact a middle ground between the GOP's inaction in the face of mass economic depression and actual revolutionary socialism on the left.
Post World War II, positioning in the middle became a more strategic, public relations industry style of re-branding a politician so that he seemed to "rise above" the left and right. This is what the political "professionals" mean by triangulation, and it's probably best exemplified by the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.
The Nixon campaign of 1968 emerged in a context in which President Johnson's "Great Society" programs opened up Democrats to being branded as the party of "big government" and "Washington solutions" to local problems. To his right, Nixon was challenged by segregationist George Wallace, the Alabama governor whose third-party campaign represented a complete rejection of the civil rights movement.
The Democrats in 1968 fielded Vice-President Humphrey as their candidate--an old school liberal fully on board with the Great Society. Nixon cleverly situated himself in the middle of Humphrey and Wallace, running on a platform of respect for "states rights" and for greater "law and order" as a response to urban and campus uprisings of the time. The Nixon campaign even ran some ads explicitly targeting African-American voters in an effort to show a middle-ground between the Dems' espousal of government programs to assist historically oppressed groups and Wallace's nostalgia for the pre-civil rights era America.
|In 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon ran ads explicitly targeting African-American voters. The ad is an example of political triangulation that's been used in many campaigns since.|
In a real sense, the Trump 2016 campaign was the natural outcome of many decades of triangulating. Finally, the most extreme elements of the Republican base found a candidate they could rally around, a man who channeled George Wallace with his overt racial appeals and call for the wall to keep "them" out of the country. In the Republican primaries, the more traditional triangulating of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and others was no match for Trump.
Probably the most extreme form of political triangulation occurred in Bill Clinton's runs for the presidency in 1992 and 1996. Clinton represented the "New Democrat," an ideology of "centrism" that attempted to rebrand the Dems as pro-business, competent technocrats. In Mr. Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination in July of 1992 we can find triangulation in its most pristine form:
We meet at a special moment in history, you and I. The cold war is over; Soviet Communism has collapsed, and our values -- freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise -- they have triumphed all around the world.
The Republicans have campaigned against big government for a generation. But have you noticed? They've run this big government for a generation, and they haven't changed a thing. They don't want to fix government, they still want to campaign against it, and that's all.
But, my fellow Democrats, it's time for us to realize that we've got some changing to do, too. There is not a program in government for every problem. And if we really want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again.
Now, I don't have all the answers. But I do know the old ways don't work. Trickle down economics has sure failed. And big bureaucracies, both public and private, they've failed too.
That's why we need a new approach to government. A government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement, more choices for young people in the schools they attend, in the public schools they attend. And more choices for the elderly and for people with disabilities in long-term care they receive. A government that is leaner, not meaner, a government that expands opportunity, not bureaucracy, a government that understands that jobs must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise. I call this approach a New Covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government, based not simply on what each of us can take, but what all of us must give to our nation.
An America where we end welfare as we know it. We will say to those on welfare: "You will have, and you deserve, the opportunity, through training and education, through child care and medical coverage, to liberate yourself.
But then, when you can, you must work, because welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. That's what the New Covenant is all about.
Left-right triangulation has an addictive quality to it, and even though the ideological ground has shifted we find partisans doggedly reaching for the traditional middle ground. The best (or worst, depending on your point of view) examples are the "Never Trump" Republicans still in denial about how grassroots level frustration with their triangulated nonsense created Trump in the first place, and the dickhead plutocrats like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg who imagine some middle ground that might make them look like something other than brazen billionaire opportunists.
On Vertical TriangulationI’m in. We need someone in the middle. #2020 pic.twitter.com/IGt69bEQz1— James Comey (@Comey) April 1, 2019
We've come to a point in the United States where it is slowly but surely coming to full acceptance that we are not divided by Left and Right but by Bottom and Top. That we have a government--in Washington and most state capitols--of, by, and for the one-percent is no longer in any kind of serious dispute. Donald Trump's pledge to "drain the swamp" was a recognition of the problem. That he never really had any intention of draining said swamp, and that he has been, continues to be, and will always be the ultimate swamp dweller himself is something lost on his core supporters. Sad.
Given that the swamp does in fact rule Washington, we have no shortage of candidates literally in debt to the one-percent. But as the rest of us (the ninety-nine percent) become more aware that our division into left and right camps has been a sham orchestrated by one-percent interests, we begin to find populist ideas and candidates attractive. This presents a quandary for the one-percent candidates: how do they continue to serve their wealthy masters while simultaneously positioning themselves as great friends of the rest of us?
The answer is a new kind of triangulation. Just like Nixon and Clinton looked for ways to transcend the left-right axis, today we've got candidates trying to find a middle ground between the one-percent and the ninety-nine percent. Today, the best place to find vertical, top-down triangulation is in the Democratic Party contest for president. Bernie Sanders' surprising performance in 2016, helped along by the fact that he tends to be in a rhetorical war with the one-percent, looks poised to repeat itself in 2020. Many other Democrats, especially Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke, and Kamala Harris, appear to be setting themselves up as the "anti-Bernie."
Anti-Bernieism is vertical triangulation; it's a way of saying "sure our system is designed to benefit the uber-rich, but if we just tinker around the edges we can fix it! We don't need democratic socialism!"
Vertical triangulation can best be illustrated in the way Democrats talk about health care reform. Sanders' Medicare For All plan, a true single-payer plan that would cover all Americans and eliminate the private health insurance industry, has a high amount of support from Democratic base voters and even large numbers of Republicans. It is of course bitterly opposed by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both of which benefit immensely from the status quo. Because those industries wield huge influence in the political system, it is difficult for candidates to break free from them. So what the candidates do is triangulate: look for some kind of middle position that can somehow solve the health care woes of the ninety-nine percent while simultaneously pacifying the very interests that are creating the woes in the first place.
Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is already writing talking points for Democratic triangulators on health care, arguing that there should not be a "purity test" in the primaries and that a "Medicare For America" plan that preserves private insurance might be just as good as a real national health care plan. As the campaigns go on we are going to see more and more attempts to protect one-percent interests under the guise of actually helping the population at large. Expect to hear many of the candidates find ways to defend trade, tax, health care, jobs, environment, and other policies in ways that offer platitudes to the population-at-large while not offering any serious threat to the donor class.
Within Democratic Party circles, Bernie Sanders most offends those who see the one-percent as fitting under the Party's "big tent." That is, he offends the top-down triangulators. I don't think offending those folks will hurt him with at-large voters.
I'm not sure if Bernie Sanders is the best candidate to face Donald Trump. But I firmly believe that if the Dems nominate a vertical triangulator they will fall into the same trap that caught them in 2016: being perceived as the "business as usual" party and once again allow a swamp dweller like Mr. Trump to frame himself as the true reformer. A race that should be a landslide for the Democrats will once again become winnable for Trump in the antiquated Electoral College system.
So if not Bernie, then at least someone who stands clearly on the side of the ninety-nine percent in word and deed. Left-Right triangulation was a disaster for Democrats that led to huge losses in governorships, state legislatures, and the Congress. Left unchecked, top-down triangulation will be a similar disaster.