Sharp Left: When the ‘Common Ground’ is a Swamp


There is an intoxicating and surprisingly tenacious myth in American politics, one seemingly oblivious to the distasteful reality that increasingly contradicts it. Nevertheless, it continues to waft happily down the hallways of banks, Congress, and indeed this college. Behold the golden calf of centrism, our lionization of some fictional, proverbial middle point from which great insight and brilliantly objective policies naturally come rushing forth. The great yet endangered achievement of the post-WWII  consensus . . . flowery prose aside, it’s more than time to take aim at this most tempting target in our diseased political culture.

I’m personally astounded that in 2017, a time of profound ecological crisis, soaring income inequality and a resurgent wave of far-right nationalism, we at Middlebury apparently can only look for answers from two septuagenarian ex-politicians who both took retirement gigs at the very sorts of firms that profit off the above problems (more on this later). There’s plenty of common ground between former Representative Barney Frank and Governor John Sununu, participants in our college’s most recent “Critical” Conversation — it’s called capitalism. And while their approaches are different, they basically accept so many of its terms that “meeting in the middle” is a matter of inches, rather than miles.

This is the key problem with a centrist political philosophy — the center is a relative point. By limiting the scope of a debate to the ideas that can exist between mainstream neoliberalism (Frank) and hardline fiscal conservatism (Sununu), Middlebury is willfully omitting the large chorus of voices to the left who are proposing solutions to our various crises that don’t involve a nostalgic regression to the 20th century and its supposedly beautiful bipartisanship. When the accepted discourse is a conversation between those with an almost blind faith in the forces of capital and private power, and those who only want to cautiously manage it, it is unsurprising that so many Americans feel disenfranchised. 

As I mentioned earlier, Frank and Sununu seem to have found some significant common ground in their post-political careers. According to the International Business Times (not exactly a left-wing outlet), Barney Frank is now a board member of Signature Bank, a $33 billion investment firm that was recently sued for its implication in a Ponzi scheme. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising of a move for someone who received around $1 million in campaign donations from the financial services sector, and penned a 2015 masterpiece in Politico entitled “Yes, I Took Bank Money, and it Made Me a Better Regulator” (or was that The Onion?). Sununu, that bastion of New Hampshire-style fiscal conservatism, managed to prematurely end his career as Bush the First’s chief of staff by using $615,000 in military jet travel to take him to golf courses, fundraisers, his Boston dentist, and most infamously/hilariously, a rare stamp auction in New York. However, according to his profile on Bloomberg, he’s seemed to make out fine in the corporate world, being variously a director of Anglo-Asian Mining PLC, Optima Bank & Trust Company and Hampton Financial, among others.

Today we are left with a governmental system that still externally conforms to the structure of left and right, liberal and conservative, blue and red. But these are hollow forms. In the past few decades their actual substance has become intensely conservative, such that the “liberals” have become deeply beholden to interests of their wealthy corporate donors, and the “conservatives” lead the way as a gruesome mix of unscrupulous businessmen and quasi-fascist media shills (both elements being embodied in our current President).

The defining political characteristic of modern liberals like Frank or Hillary Clinton is a general ethic of social liberalism and moderate economic interventionism, necessary in order to differentiate them from the radical conservatives whose free-market ideology and hyper-militaristic foreign policy they’ve now mostly adopted (Frank, for example, is an ardent supporter of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories). This has clearly been a poor electoral strategy for liberals, as the most recent elections show, because voters aren’t actually given a substantive choice on the fundamental structuring of our society.

I’m not arguing that we should expect anything else from these men, or even that their careers somehow totally ignored the public interest due to some slavish adherence to capitalist dogma. What I’m more annoyed about is that Middlebury,  a supposedly “critical” institution of higher learning, subscribes to such a limited perspective on what can be discussed in politics. This completely ignores the large amounts of people who support more radical social democratic policies or combative corporate regulations that go far beyond Frank’s business-friendly, slap-on-the-wrist approach.

It’s time that we stop assuming modrn capitalism is the only viable way to structure our society, and start to openly assess it. There’s not enough room in this column today to fully explain why that is, but I guarantee you that this assessment won’t happen as long as we hold up the “common ground” of capital’s political surrogates as the entirety of the acceptable debate.