Remember the old hit by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”? That song comes to mind these days whenever I talk politics with the people with whom I’ve shared a political lifetime, friends who’ve witnessed the 1960s and Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan reaction, the Clinton years, September 11, the war in Iraq, the crash of 2008, the election of the first black president, the hesitant recovery from the Great Recession, and the cliff-hanger passage of the Affordable Care Act. A few have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but most are backing Hillary Clinton, albeit without enthusiasm: stuck in the middle with “jokers to the right,” as the song says, and while not “clowns to the left,” certainly, a mostly younger crowd, less chastened by bitter experience and eager to believe that radical—or let us say merely rapid and substantial—change is possible despite deep political polarization.
To tell the truth, I often find this “stuck in the middle” sentiment troubling. I see the candidate’s warts and flaws as clearly as anyone and didn’t need Doug Henwood’s energetically indiscriminate indictment to know that the Clinton record is far from spotless. But the uneasiness with the former first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state goes beyond the candidate to the position she occupies on the political spectrum.
The middle is despised for having no cachet, no glory, no heroic appeal. On the one hand, it is dismissed as the politics of the humdrum, Max Weber’s “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” On the other, it is denounced for having cunningly masterminded progressive politics’s alleged sellout to insidious repression at home, irresponsible interventionism abroad, and neoliberalism everywhere.
In the French Revolution the boggy middle between left and right was called “the swamp” and dismissed as soft and squishy, neither fully committed to a brighter tomorrow nor furiously consumed by passion to restore the hierarchies of yesterday. By contrast, critics of Clintonian “triangulation” see it as anything but squishy: Retrospectively, they attack the 42nd president for having honed the hard and polished spearhead that pierced the very heart of ‘60s progressivism, sweeping into power a rogue’s gallery of “Rubinista” economists, “banksters,” influence peddlers, corporate shills, and nest-feathering elitist experts with Ivy League pedigrees. In the eyes of critics like Thomas Frank, Bill Clinton’s presidency was “odious,” and Hillary’s will be no different.
Presidential election years unfortunately tend to distort history. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that parties make candidates “the personification of their theories.” They also impute outsized powers to the office, whether to create the impression that their own candidate will right every wrong or to blame past presidents for anything that is not right. What is plainly out of kilter today, they assume, has to be the clearly foreseen result of some past decision. No consequence is ever unintended, no development ever unanticipated. Politics is supposed to be like chess, a calculable game, and the presidency is Deep Blue, the all but unbeatable machine.
Thus, if Bill Clinton favored a North American free trade agreement or deregulation of the banks, the reason can only be that he wished to cede the powers of his office to a cabal of oligarchs and free-market ideologues, to inflate a series of economic balloons, and to heighten inequality of income and wealth. It cannot be that he struggled to make sense of the enormous changes sweeping the global economy at the time. It cannot be that he faced an electorate in which many voters had been convinced by Reagan’s apparent success in ending the stagflation of the 1970s the Democrats’ approach to macroeconomic management had been wrong. It cannot be that our ability to predict all the consequences of a major trade bill or change in the regulatory environment is sadly limited. It cannot be that a subsequent president extended or diverted his predecessor’s decision in such a way as to alter the intended effect. No: For purposes of present anti-Clinton polemic it is sometimes more convenient to pretend that presidents are nearly omnipotent, whether to discredit a previous one or to suggest that a candidate for the succession can correct every prior mistake with a stroke of the pen.
It is natural, too, to turn to the presidency as the primary agent of wish fulfillment when Congress seems paralyzed and public confidence in the legislative branch is at a low ebb. In a political system like ours, with multiple veto points, being “stuck in the middle” is almost a misnomer, because the middle is precisely the only place where the system can be unstuck. The middle is not without friction, as party chafes against party and ambition against ambition, as logs are rolled and horses traded. But in a veto-ridden system motion is possible only in the middle. When one party deserts the center, as Republicans in Congress have done under Obama, the machinery of government seizes up.
So why are my longtime comrades so dispirited (apart from the obvious answer, that these are dispiriting times)? Why do they feel stuck in the middle with Hillary rather than convinced that the center is the only realistic place to be? Why have they become cautious incrementalists at a time when the right wing of the American political canvas resembles a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, while the standard-bearer of the left is an avatar of those more hopeful times when everything still seemed possible—someone with whom they might feel an urge to identify?
Therein lies the rub. We have lived since those days. The times were a-changin’, and they have indeed changed. We know more about the past than we did when we were 20, and more about the present, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the future we anticipated. We know more about our fellow Americans, and darker things than we ever thought we’d know. We have seen the thirst for revenge spurred by terror, the insane accusations that the president is a foreign-born traitor, the shocking approbation of torture. We have also advocated for causes that required building coalitions of people with conflicting ideas of the good, and we have canvassed a wider circle of views than we recognized in those days when crowds chanted in unison and the generational bond trumped all others. Where once we used the word revolution with insouciant nonchalance, we now recognize the force of the second clause of the famous dictum that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” All our political instincts tell us that the “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” are not ripe for abrupt reversal.
We recognize that others with whom we are broadly in sympathy may not share these same instincts, because they do not share our history or are by nature optimists of the will or belong to groups of the like-minded, as we once did, who brighten every glimmer of hope and amplify every expression of support. We know these people. Often they are our children. We admire their fervor and envy their faith, but we ourselves are no longer believers. For some of us, this faithless fate is the mark of a fallen state. That is why they feel “stuck in the middle.”
I don’t. This is where I have ended up, by choice, after much thought. My judgments may be wrong, but they are considered judgments, and I embrace them proudly. By doing so I hope to encourage some of my comrades to shake off their shamefacedness and assert the privilege of age: This is what my life has taught me. You, who have lived a different life, are of course free to disagree.