On Charlottesville and How Centrism Led Us Here

Andrew Shurtleff/ The Daily Progress

As I begin the writing of this article, the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, called Unite the Right, is still underway. The gathering, touted as an opportunity for various right-wing coalitions to unite together, seems something like an experiment with which we can judge the state of the alt-right. The combination of events from the previous night and those of today have been flooded with Nazi imagery, recorded chants of “blood and soil,” (a direct reference to “Blut and Boden” from early Nazi writings in Germany) yelling “Jews will not replace us,” and groups of men with torches sieg heiling and shouting, “heil Trump!”

Reportedly, the police have attempted to disperse Unite the Right, with many of them leaving the site, but some have remained along with counter-protesters from groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, Industrial Workers of the World, and Black Lives Matter. Now a car, driven by a man named James Fields, has rammed into a dense crowd of the progressive coalition, injuring 19 and killing one. In a conclusion which is likely shocking to no one, he had social media filled with alt-right memes and his previous history teacher has come out stating that he had an obsession with Hitler and Nazi war history. The woman who was killed, named Heather Heyer, was a paralegal from Virginia and a staunch leftist and IWW organizer. Scouring her social media uncovers her vocal support for Senator Bernie Sanders and the last post on her Facebook read “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Heather put herself on the frontlines of the struggle against fascism.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first in the cold-blooded killings by people mobilized through hateful fascist rhetoric in recent memory. Others have come before this, such as the man who stabbed people to death on a train in Portland, while saying “that’s what liberalism gets you” or a man in Kansas who shot an Indian engineer shortly after asking if his status was “legal.” Tragically, the list goes on. But the method of this white supremacist terrorist attack should seem especially pertinent to activists, given the proposed bills in states such as North Dakota and Iowa which would allow motorists to claim it was an accident after running over protesters. North Carolina has even passed such a bill.

Meanwhile, centrist pundits like Neera Tanden sit around on Twitter trying to find some way to turn these events into propaganda against the progressive left.

Of course, the comments section spares no vitriol in pointing out that it is almost exclusively the progressive left coalition, who oppose Neera’s beloved establishment Democrats, that are there in Charlottesville opposing white supremacists. Although Neera goes on to say that it was simply a call for unity, it seems rather obvious that it was just another opportunity for her to paint a layer of insulation on the Democratic party.

Or take for example Markos Moulitsas, co-founder of Vox and DailyKOS, who posted this tweet:

As almost everyone has assessed by now, the “alt-left” is just a euphemism for “the left.” And when the fascists flooded the streets it was not the members of Third Way think tanks that came out to bravely oppose them; it was Marxists, unionists, socialists, communists, anarchists, anti-racists, and their coalitions who showed up. Those groups, not centrists, are the natural enemies of fascists. Those groups, not neoliberal Democrats, are the ones who filled the streets and were ultimately maimed and murdered to defend against the rise of America’s ethnonationalists.

So what has brought us here, where supposed left-wing Democrats see a rally of men literally wearing swastikas and shirts with Hitler quotes on them, and think to themselves, “this will be a good opportunity to smear progressive leftists”? The first thing to understand in seeking that answer is that establishment centrists are not allies to leftism. They are allies to the Democratic party. And these sorts of Democratic centrists have enabled our descent to this point.

To clarify, what I am not saying is that centrists are fascists. And I am also not saying that they must take the sole blame for the actions of fascists. But what they are, is weak opposition with no principles. They worship at the altar of capitulation, cooperation, and bipartisanship. And when you live in a system which is already very right-wing and authoritarian, centrism means capitulation to right-wing ideologies and authoritarianism. Over time, when those are what guide you, you will end up supporting right-wing and authoritarian measures.

As Thomas Frank lays out in painstaking detail in his book Listen Liberal, since the loss of McGovern decades ago, the party has become nothing more than a vehicle for electoral victory through callous triangulation. And this callous triangulation has been utterly co-opted by the natural political forces in the nation, those of corporate interest and of governmental and militaristic monopolization of power.

The Democrats, in failing to fulfill the duty of the opposition party, have failed to quell the ascent of authoritarianism and right-wing ideology. And don’t think this is simply another article asking you to fight against the Democrats. I have written enough on the need to fight the Democrats elsewhere, but we would be remiss not to point out that the Democrats are supposed to be the brakes on a car which is accelerating down a hill toward a brick wall. But instead of putting on the brakes, these figures spend their time haggling with the crazed driver over how much to increase the acceleration.

Making it even more difficult, the Democrats have added a key ingredient to the mixture in the slide toward fascism; the weaponization of identity. When the weaponization of identity becomes commonplace, ethnonationalists can use these empty political attacks to delegitimize valid concerns about the treatment of people with oppressed identities. They point to all of the disingenuous usages of the opposition party and say to the angry white men in their presence, “See? It’s all brainwashing. You’re actually the oppressed one!”

And providing the final lethal component, the media, intended to be the arbiters through which governments must pass their rhetoric if they wish to communicate with the public, have utterly failed to discern truth and fiction in our dialogues. Their centrist “both sides” ideologies have allowed the Overton Window to slide dramatically rightwards and toward government authority.

The media companies, by contrast to the Democrats, worship not necessarily at the altar of capitulation, seeing as they do not make the laws, but instead respectability, civility, and politeness. These are the currencies of professionalism. And just as the Democrats are centrist, so too are the companies that publish their propaganda. Take, for example, Bree’s tweet below:

These media companies cannot even muster the courage to denigrate white supremacists, preferring to write articles about how they are well-dressed before they would ever dream of tearing apart their problematic views. Suffice to say, now that milquetoast media opposition has helped the ascendance of these figures, they will be first in line to condemn the violence which resulted from their fame. They will syphon the ensuing tragedy of ethnonationalist ascendance for every dollar of ad revenue they can manage.

Centrism is a non-ideology, a position with no principles and no rallying cry. It is a blank canvas masquerading as a political stance, waiting to be co-opted by prevailing power structures. It cannot stand on its own or enact its principles because it is nothing more than a rhetorical tool by which politicians get themselves elected. As a platform it inspires no one, instead telling people to lower their standards further and further, until finally we have the two least popular presidential candidates in American history competing against each other. Centrism enables fascism through its weakness.

So without either an opposition party or the media to slow the rapid descent into the natural inclinations of our authoritarian capitalist system, only we the people remain to stand against it. This is no longer some pedestrian concern for polemic newspaper entries or impassioned blogs. More than any time in recent history, there is an extreme urgency for progressives to begin organizing behind radical leftist platforms, to begin joining groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, to begin contributing time and effort to pushing progressive candidates in their area, to help organize unions in their workplaces, to begin having those uncomfortable, difficult conversations about leftist ideology with the people close to them. These are the methods by which the last progressive movement made its mark and gave us the best parts of the nation we have today.

Only radical leftism and dogged solidarity with the oppressed can truly oppose fascism. No lukewarm ideology of capitulation and incrementalism will defeat the radical persistence of the hateful, selfish nationalists who comprise the new right-wing. Choosing to radicalize ourselves and those around us, to work in creating a lasting leftist political infrastructure in our lives and in our government is not a matter of self-satisfaction, it is an ethical obligation. We must continue to meet them in the streets, to sacrifice, to expose them for their bigotry and foolish hatred. What we build in the years to come will be the safeguard that protects against fascism, against ethnonationalism, and against economic oppression for all of those who come after us. It is time for us to put in the work that our opposition party and our media have refused to do.

In honor of Heather Heyer and all other comrades fighting the inhumanity of fascism. Solidarity forever.

Written by Daniel Barham

Daniel Barham has worked as an interstate coordinator for Occupy Wall Street groups in the mid-west, as well as a regional organizer for central Oklahoma on a ballot measure to have marijuana decriminalized in the state of Oklahoma. He also worked as a volunteer, canvassing and phone banking on Bernie's primary campaign. Daniel graduated from University of Oklahoma with a Bachelors degree in Physics and a minor in Philosophy. Follow Daniel on Twitter @apeirophobic.

Daniel is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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On Charlottesville and How Centrism Led Us Here