Centrists Aren’t Political Realists. Leftists Are.

Barack Obama’s call for Democrats to stay grounded in “reality” has it backward — it’s centrist liberals who are living in a fantasy world.

Former US president Barack Obama speaks during funeral services for late US representative Elijah Cummings at the New Psalmist Baptist Church October 25, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. Julio Cortez-Pool / Getty Images

Decrying the party’s “activist wing,” Barack Obama last week issued a characteristic warning to Democrats not to stray too far to the left:

Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality. The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.

Obama’s intervention — an obvious jab at those who want Democrats to embrace an ambitious agenda centering policies like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All — was fittingly cynical for a man who began his ascent in national politics by preaching transformation and governed as a consummate Beltway insider. Nonetheless, in his appeal to realism, the former president touched on something vital about how liberals today understand their politics and role in the world: namely, as guardians of a rational, incrementally minded center synonymous with objective reality over and against the bonfire of enthusiasms that pervade on left and right.

From Obama to Hillary Clinton to Nancy Pelosi to nomination hopefuls like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, the language of pragmatic realism is everywhere used to justify the compromising, ameliorative approach Democratic leaders have long embraced as their trademark. As in Obama’s recent comments, this posture is most frequently used to draw contrast with a Left that is said to champion fantastical, unrealizable goals like transforming the American economy or creating a single-payer health-care system.

If some people, be they elites or ordinary citizens, continue to see politics in these terms, one reason is that their premise seems intuitively appealing: it will always be easier, after all, to imagine a slightly modified version of the present than a future radically different from it. Moreover, the obstacles facing any genuinely transformative agenda are undeniably vast. Oil and gas will certainly fight tooth and nail against any attempt to curb fossil-fuel production, just as the health insurance lobby will resist efforts to replace the model that guarantees its investors hundreds of billions of dollars in profit with one that privileges providing for human needs. Given the obstructionist nature of America’s political institutions, congressional opposition will be just as fierce, and the same might be said when it comes to any number of left-wing priorities — from tuition-free public colleges to setting a national rent control standard or shortening the working week.

In this sense, it will always seem more realistic to try to pass a bill incentivizing the production of solar panels than it will to realize something as sweeping as the Green New Deal. It will always appear more pragmatic to push reforms of America’s health-care system tailored to appease industry stakeholders in advance or try to game the inevitable congressional wrangling with preemptive legislative jiu jitsu (as Elizabeth Warren now proposes to do). For every ambitious, transformative policy goal conceived by the Left, there will always be a more “realistic” option that is more palatable to big institutional actors and people already in positions of power.

But this supposedly hardheaded outlook only makes sense if we take the narrowest view of “realism” imaginable and ignore the necessity of transforming the political status quo even when it’s staring us in the face. Those on the Left who advocate a sweeping overhaul of the country’s economic and political institutions aren’t, after all, proposing to remake the system for the sake of it, but because the consequences of failing to do so are often too catastrophic to fathom.

Thousands will continue to die every year unless the world’s richest country guarantees health care to all its citizens as a right. Unless we take a positively sociopathic view of human life, how can it conceivably be considered realistic, let alone “pragmatic,” to allow the current system to continue with only minor tinkering? Similarly, the global scientific consensus makes it abundantly clear that only swift and profound changes in human activity can possibly avert worldwide environmental catastrophe and the innumerable horrors it would inevitably bring with it.

The same applies on a wider scale when it comes to how we view the current political moment and reflect on what our response to it should be. A world of breathtaking poverty and injustice that may well be on the brink of a cataclysmic civilizational collapse is hardly one crying out for another round of centrist meliorism, just as a political system that enables Donald Trump to become president is clearly in dire need of overhaul. How blinkered does your worldview have to be to hold that minor policy changes tempered by conservative realism are the most advisable or effective responses to reactionary fanaticism and looming ecological calamity? How many shades of myopia does it require to think that technocratic measures like tax credits or expanded personal savings accounts could be the foundation stones of a durable electoral alternative, let alone ever be sufficient to give the average person a more secure and dignified life?

If the ultimate goal is actually to provide quality health care to everyone, meaningfully improve the average American’s standard of living, tackle the root causes of Trumpism, or prevent planet-wide environmental collapse, only the Left’s preferred course — to stake out clear ideological terrain, marry it to an ambitious, transformative policy agenda, and build a mass movement to carry it through — can reasonably be called “realistic.” By failing to recognize the necessity of change on a massive scale, today’s self-identified liberal pragmatists in fact show themselves to be deeply naive about the world they inhabit – and indulge in a fantasy that endangers us all.