IDEAS ABOUND TO RESCUE the Republican Party: more populist, less populist, more inclusive, more nationalist, less Trump, more Trump. By comparison, the way forward for the political center gets little attention.
There are a fair number of good reasons for this. A devoted centrist is now president. Everything from his early executive orders to his cabinet picks and the optics of his inauguration ceremony displayed an estimation of the ideology’s puissance — think Kennedy’s Camelot but more diverse. People who are paid to write about politics think that centrism is boring. Even avowed centrists think this sometimes — indeed, trumpet it as a virtue.
“Left” and “right” notoriously elude definition, and the situation with “center” is more slippery still. One useful way to think of it, abstracted from the work of political scientists and historians Corey Robin and Arno Mayer, focuses on popular opinion as a source of energy. Some — generally understood to be on the political left — want to use that energy to distribute power downward and outward, undoing established social hierarchies, often opposing the principle of hierarchy itself to some degree and supporting revolutions to undo it. Others — understood to be on the political right — seek to use that energy to bolster existing hierarchies and, often, the concept of hierarchy more generally, and support counterrevolutions to enshrine it as a principle. Centrists — and here we depart some from Robin’s and Mayer’s writings — can be understood as attempting to allay, divert, or depart from this dynamic of hierarchy versus liberation.
One of the bolder restatements of centrism in recent years comes from the British perspective of Marc Stears, a political scientist who served as a speechwriter for Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. His new book, Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again, combines history, polemic, and memoir in strange and fascinating ways. Whether it represents a viable way forward for the British Labour Party or not is an open question. But the work certainly stands as a timely and provocative work of centrism, a product of those two great motivators of political thought: genuine belief and panic.
Stears might object to being called “centrist.” A group with whom he sometimes works, the think tank Blue Labour, labels itself “Labour’s radical tradition.” There’s some reason for this. Arguably, the Labour Party put even more chips on a failed neoliberal model than the Democratic Party has, and Brexit was a Trump-level blow to their sense of self. Well before Brexit, factions within the Labour Party were looking for alternatives, including Blue Labour. They promote economically socialist, socially conservative politics, though the particulars involved — an attachment to “guild” socialism, the peculiarities of British conservatism, and the Acts of Union 1707 — make it difficult to translate Blue Labour into the American political idiom.
In Out of the Ordinary, Stears argues that progressive politics must root itself in “the everyday,” the experience and viewpoints of the Briton on the street, in the pub, at the soccer game. The book, though, spends little time with “ordinary” Britons, perhaps inevitably. Instead, Stears relates a short intellectual history of how cultural figures such as writer George Orwell, curator Barbara Jones, poet Dylan Thomas, photographer Bill Brandt, and a few others learned to love “ordinary” Britain during a period beginning in the 1930s and ending in the early ’50s.
Those less invested in cultural history or political strategy will find little directed at them in this book, though they may enjoy reading Stears’s agreeable prose and interesting stories. This book is aimed directly at politicians, intellectuals, and “content creators” as they might be called today, showing them what Stears believes is a path forward.
Beyond calls for more in the way of local input and participation in political decisions, Stears is vague as to what a “politics of the ordinary” means in a positive sense. We get a much clearer idea of what the everyday is not, according to Stears: it is not the thought or principles of those on either side of intellectual Britain’s political divide in the 1930s. As Stears tells it, nearly every Briton with a reading habit and some grudges was lining up into reactionary or communist camps once the Depression hit. Both claimed to speak for the people. Right-wingers like F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot believed themselves to speak for British tradition, while then-communists like W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender fancied themselves tribunes of the working masses. Stears’s version of the everyday is neither right nor left.
Stears shows enough perspicacity to hit good targets. None of the intellectual cultures of the ’30s were good at facing unpleasant truths. British intellectual culture, arguably, performed worse than most in terms of truth-telling. This extended from the ideological — communists denying Stalin’s atrocities or right-wingers denying Hitler’s — to the personal — public school boys pretending to be working class or T. S. Eliot acting as though he were born a wizened Anglican, not in St. Louis. It’s hard to imagine a better rogues’ gallery to knock around.
The reader learns about journeys of discovery to the beauties of quotidian Britain. At first, many of Stears’s subjects, especially Orwell and Thomas, were spiteful about their country, associating it with the imperialism and jingoism that got so many killed in World War I. But by and by, they learned to love. Here, Stears is once again vague, leaving the reader to wonder what exactly they learned to love. In his attempt, Stears conveys some of the energy of a high school teacher trying to get a room full of indifferent teens to feel the inspiration of a poem as he explains what, supposedly, inspired his subjects.
He is more precise in the negative than in the positive. “Everyday Britain” isn’t the placid, traditional squirearchy imagined by the right nor the immiserated, rebellious proletariat claimed by the left. It appears to be a farrago of things understood to be what the lower middle class at the time liked — suburbs, fish and chips, soccer matches, going to the beach — with a healthy dash of wartime civilian solidarity and shared suffering to act as an essential binding mechanism. J. B. Priestley celebrated these things in poems; Barbara Jones curated exhibits of their artifacts; Bill Brandt photographed them.
Analytically, Out of the Ordinary places a great deal of weight on the heroic reputation of its subjects, especially Orwell. What the book does not do is list concrete political accomplishments. It sounds like the cultural movement that Stears describes put on a pretty good fair, the 1951 Festival of Britain, and that’s about it. One might expect another written document to come up alongside Orwell’s essays and Thomas’s poems: the 1942 Beveridge Report, which laid the basis for the British welfare state and which came out of a wartime milieu similar to that of many of the cultural productions that Stears explores. It seems like a natural fit, given how the policies recommended in the report allowed the everyday people Stears lionizes to enjoy ever more fish and chips and pints and matches and grandchildren for longer, healthier periods of time. Alas, it is not to be. In Out of the Ordinary, the Beveridge Report is made to represent big government dominated by experts, the postwar Labour government that put much of it in action, a sinister foreclosure upon the possibilities of the everyday.
The reader is again left to infer what an everyday politics looks like through Stears’s critiques. It has something of an allergy to expertise, apparently, and bigness is suspect. This is consistent with the scenes that Stears paints of church congregations, local clubs, and the inevitable pubs. Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of society aren’t name-checked, but their spirit lingers: Stears suggests a national government should promote these little platoons, nurture their growth like a gardener rather than a central planner. It would go against the feel of the book — aimed at conveying a spirit — to end with policy proposals. One suspects that Stears, who runs the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney, has some. A few in an appendix would not have hurt.
What, then, is a reader left with at the end of Out of the Ordinary? They probably leave knowing more about British artists. They get some nice personal anecdotes involving Stears and his family. If they are on board with Stears’s project, then they might be compelled to do some soul-searching: are they a bad kind of intellectual or politician, the kind who devalues the quotidian? Ironically, Stears charges the contemporary left with an anti-quotidian wokeness, but one could see readers who agree with Stears engaging in the sort of second-guessing of their own motives and actions that characterizes the woke, directed toward their supposed elitism and disregard for the everyday.
Above all, what makes the book a work of centrism is Stears’s effort to mediate between two radically opposing forces. Unlike many contemporary attempts at mediation, this doesn’t end in “Go hug someone from the other side.” Stears is more ambitious than that. Out of the Ordinary proposes that we short-circuit the conflict between right and left, between affirming existing social hierarchies and tearing them down. Like a thief in a heist movie using alligator clips to bridge an alarm circuit, Stears plugs the everyday into the circuit of power conflict. Whether the everyday can handle such a heavy load is up to question.
Stears is either quite sincere or else does a superb job of performing sincerity. But what uses for the “everyday,” the “ordinary,” or the “normal” (Stears avoids that last term, thankfully) could other, less idealistic political actors find? Do Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz mean it when they come out swinging for the everyday American? These constructions of normality are always suspect and not just for what they bode for the not-normal. What can a politics of the everyday mean to someone who by definition does not live an everyday life, that is to say, someone paid to do politics? It can be a con, as in the case of right-wing populists, or a bolster for a flagging sense of self, as in the case of some left-wing populists. It can even be an interesting and charming fantasy, as it appears to be for Stears. Can it be a meaningful way forward in the case of centrists?