Sen. McCaskill demonstrates the limits of neo-liberal centrism
Claire McCaskill. | AP

Recently at a town hall forum in Fulton, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill demonstrated the limitations of neo-liberal political centrism.

When asked about the prospect of free college tuition, something Sen. Bernie Sanders and others have argued for, McCaskill quipped, “We can’t just start having the government pay for everything.”

At the heart of McCaskill’s comment are a number of interconnected and overlapping issues related to the role of government in a democratic society, as well as the class content of policy decisions often designed to benefit the wealthy.

In full disclosure, it isn’t hard to infer from McCaskill’s larger campaign contributions the class dynamics at work in her reluctance to support government funding of higher education. She has received nearly $120,000 from Washington University in St. Louis and over $61,000 from the University of Missouri from 2011 to 2016.

Cumulatively, McCaskill has received over $400,000 from educational institutions, their employees and families since 2011.

It would strain the boundaries of credulity to sincerely believe these bountiful campaign contributions didn’t influence McCaskill’s rather limited and limiting vision of higher education funding.

Unfortunately, McCaskill’s perspective on this and other issues isn’t unique. And her disingenuous comments only serve to demonstrate the boundaries in which democracy is placed if we limit our discourse to neo-liberal political centrism.

Arguably, neo-liberalism – as embodied by the Democratic Party – is on the decline. Hundreds of thousands of people have either left the Democratic Party or are actively trying to reshape it, especially, at a local level, into a vehicle for progressive social change. Local State Rep. and Aldermanic elections here in St. Louis exemplify the latter trend, while the near complete collapse of the Democratic Party in rural Missouri exemplify the former.

A similar contest for the direction of the Democratic Party is taking place all over the country, the Tom Perez – Keith Ellison DNC arm-wrangling is but one recent example.

Simultaneously, however, and probably not coincidentally, ‘alt-right’ radicalism is feeling emboldened, and possibly ascending. They know politicians like McCaskill offer little alternative to the status quo, to the policies that have already failed working families. They know people are eager for change, regardless of the direction and/or form that change takes.

They know the Democratic Party is in disarray.

They see an opportunity to deepen the chasm between deep-pocket, centrist Democratic Party stalwarts like McCaskill and the emerging grassroots leftist trend sweeping local ballots.

How we respond can and will define the terrain of struggle moving forward.

Arguably for us, those on the left, fundamental questions are emerging within the body politic, questions that could have long-lasting repercussions for our democracy.

These questions are: Can we afford to limit ourselves to the prescribed boundaries of neo-liberal political centrism? Can we afford to give politicians like McCaskill a pass? How do we challenge “centrism,” while not emboldening the right? And, most importantly, what is our vision of the role of government in a democratic society? What is our alternative? And how do we articulate it?

McCaskill obviously has one set of answers, some of which were put forth in Fulton. And while we may agree with her on other issues, like workers’ rights to form and join unions, that doesn’t mean we should support her unconditionally.

We would bode well to remember that political alliances are temporary and often guided by expediency and power.

Simply put, McCaskill could be more in tune with the shifting of the political winds, at least in rural Missouri, where the right is undoubtedly ascendant – as illustrated by the multi-year right-wing Republican domination of our state house. She could simply see political expediency as providing her with a better chance to serve another Senate term. She undoubtedly knows that Missouri’s unions are in a weakened position, and are largely unwilling to challenge her on anything unrelated to their core issues – primarily keeping Missouri from becoming the next so-called ‘Right-to-Work’ state, maintaining prevailing wage and project-labor agreements.

Additionally, she knows the left is relatively weak – protests against the Trump administration notwithstanding – except in the urban core, where progressive organizational infrastructure and capacity currently has the potentially to play an outsized role, if utilized strategically.

Further, she knows urban voters, predominantly African American, constitute only a percentage of the votes she needs for re-election next year. The political calculus of shifting to the right seems to be a sound strategic move on her part – if her goal is to stay in office.

Complicating matters though, is a reluctance by some on the left to deal realistically with the question of organizational political power.

Protests outside of McCaskill’s office won’t accomplish much, nor will spoiler campaigns that split the Democratic Party ticket.

Running candidates inside or outside of the Democratic Party framework can and will likely have different results in different geographies, depending on the grassroots organizational capacity and infrastructure of coalition candidates – something recent local elections here clearly demonstrate.

Further, protest tactics in and of themselves are a poor substitute for deep organizing. We can rally, protest and march until we’re blue in the face without challenging any of the structural components of oppression. Protests devoid of strategies designed to alter power relations and compel concessions are at best nothing more than self-satisfying.

Unfortunately, rooted in neo-liberal political centrism is a tendency towards moderation and inertia, a slow-motion train wreck if you will, which renders some incapable of a more nuanced and deliberate approach to social change, an inability to challenge power in a fundamental way.

While the ultra-right, currently embodied by the TrumpaAdministration and its Republican lackeys, are the main threat to democracy at this moment, McCaskill’s comments in Fulton reek of political hypocrisy and special interest pandering, part and parcel of neo-liberal political centrism – a dead end, as we well know.

However, we can do better if we’re willing to do the work!


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.