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Race for the Center

There’s a saying in the American South that “being in the middle of the road either makes you a yellow line or road kill.”

The Democratic Party, here and nationally, must ponder this pointed, if crude, analogy. America’s working class peeks over the cliff into the abyss. They face not only deflating wages in the wealth gap economy, but an indefinite period of catastrophic job loss in the now exponential growth of the coronavirus allowed to rage unchecked by the Trump administration. 

Many of these issues are especially prevalent in the American South. Already poorer, less healthy and home to a large portion of the country’s African-American voters who are effectively disenfranchised in some states, neo-liberal politics will not change the bleak trajectory of history here. The region, after decades of free market economic development, has an excessively high infant mortality rate and nine out of 10 of the poorest states in the union.

Poole | File photo

James Clyburn serves as my congressman, something I’m proud of given his role in the Black Freedom struggle. I’m less proud of the clearly gerrymandered shape it cuts across S.C. It includes a sliver of my neighborhood downtown, stretches north to Highway 17, makes a serpentine angle to include part of Columbia, and then balloons west to take in a number of majority-Black counties until it trickles to the sea and absorbs the sea islands where Gullah Geechee culture remains. It’s gerrymandering at its worst and ensures Black ballots don’t affect the outcome of other races.

The mentality of the Democratic Party of the 1990s shapes his political views and others.’ While telling his colleagues that the House Democratic caucus must steer clear of “socialized medicine,” he also blamed the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to “defund the police” for Lindsey Graham’s recent defeat of Jaime Harrison. Clyburn suggested “sloganeering” around police reform ruined reelection hopes for U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a conservative Democrat who narrowly won in 2018.

But Cunningham’s loss didn’t come because anyone feared he might actually harbor Bolshevik tendencies. Cunningham tried his best to present himself as the plain, white-bread alternative to Nancy Mace, a Trump loyalist and a climate change denier in a coastal district afflicted with rising sea levels. In fact, during his two years, Cunningham attempted to find the center, in line with Clyburn’s prescription. “South Carolinians don’t want socialism,” he said in February, echoing what became one of Trump’s mantras about the Democratic Party.

Why are Democrats ignoring the possibility of growing their base while alienating significant swaths of their existing support? Part of the answer seems relatively simple. Democrats have not won the Senate as predicted. Republicans, including far-right candidates sympathetic to false QAnon conspiracies, have eaten into the House majority. So, recriminations from the Democratic leadership, eager to defend their own positions, have begun. 

They are wrong. Progressives across the country scored victories by putting proposals like the Green New Deal at the centers of their campaigns despite attacks from the far-right.

Moreover, Americans across the political spectrum are deeply concerned about the economy. In Florida, not especially known for progressive leanings, voters approved a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this in South Carolina, where minimum-wage retail and service-industry workers support the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

The op-ed pages of establishment newspapers are full of worries that our healthy, two-party system has degenerated or the notion that the nation needs a center-right party to stave off extremism. I’m not certain this has ever been true in American history, but it certainly is not now.

If there’s no clear message of economic populism in four years, the country will face a nationalist populism. It might come in a much slicker package, free of Trump’s vulgarities. A changing of the guard without systemic, definitive change will only give us a darker repeat of 2016. 

Scott Poole is a professor of history at College of Charleston. This column originally appeared at

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