The media is now reporting on the debate among Democrats and activists about what the party should stand for, and how it will win elections.
Establishment Democrats are said to fear that the populist reform energy represented by Bernie Sanders and rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who upset Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, in a New York City primary) will turn off the moderate, upscale, white suburban Republicans who they believe are appalled by Trump and the key to taking back the Congress.
A Wall-Street-funded group known as the Third Way — which might better be known as the Wrong Way since it has been wrong about every major issue facing the country over the last years, championing disastrous corporate trade deals, deregulation of Wall Street and the Iraq War among other calamities — even convened a small gathering, “cohosted” by a billionaire real estate developer to map out how to counter what the media describes as the left.
The very terms of this debate are misleading. Ideas that have broad public support, such as tuition-free college, are labeled “left.” Ideas that offend philosophical conservatives, such as subsidies to big oil companies, are tagged as on the right, championed by Republicans.
We’d be wiser to focus on common sense and basic principles. When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke forcefully against what he called the “triple evils” of “racism, economic exploitation and militarism,” he was criticized for weakening the cause of civil rights, for getting out of his lane by talking about economic inequality and against the Vietnam War.
He responded, “I’m against segregation at lunch counters, and I’m not going to segregate my moral concerns.” Cowardice, he taught us, asks the question “Is it safe?” Expediency asks, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks, “Is it popular?” Conscience asks, “Is it right?”
We are a nation faced with great perils. Inequality has reached new extremes and, even with the economy near full employment, working people still struggle simply to stay afloat. Big money corrupts our politics and distorts our government. We are mired in wars without end — 17 years in Afghanistan and counting — and without victory or sense. We have a president who believes he profits politically by spreading racial division, appealing to our fears rather than our hopes.
This is the time for citizens and for true leaders to move not left or right, to the expedient or the cautious, but to the moral center. Affordable health care for all isn’t left or right, it is the moral center. Jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, public education, college without debt, clean water and air, action to address catastrophic climate change that literally may endanger the world — these are not ideas of the right or left. They are the moral center.
Holding to the moral center has its own power. Opposition to slavery started as a minority position, but its moral force was undeniable. Integration seemed impossible in the segregated South, but its moral force could not be denied. In this time of troubles, I believe that Americans in large numbers are looking for leaders who will embrace the moral center, not the expedient, the safe or the fashionable. They are looking for champions who will represent them, not those with deep pockets.
That may be the final irony. The most successful political strategy may well be not to trim to prevailing opinion or compromise with entrenched interest but to stand up forcefully for what is right.