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Sep. 15 2009 - 12:52 pm | 14 views | 5 recommendations | 10 comments

The scourge of sensible centrism

four horsemen

[Above: The Three Wise Men and One Wise Woman: David Brooks, Richard Cohen, David Broder, Cokie Roberts]

Astute observers of the D.C. scene have long been aware of a bizarre, though remarkably common, fetish shared by a number of its elite denizens. No, I’m not talking about leather, an fixation with feet or even a secret sect of furries lurking among the chattering classes. I’m speaking of centrism, in all of its guises. No matter what you call it, nothing gets an op-ed columnist short on time and original ideas hotter than a Third Way, middle-of-the-road, moderate, bipartisan, outside-the-Beltway, independent sensibility – emphasis on the sensible.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against actual moderates per se, and it’s hard to find fault with a sincere commitment to “working across the aisle.” Conversely, it’s also easy to see why someone would be disgusted by both parties and declare their independence in all matters political. Not my view, but there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

No, what I’m against is this nebulous notion of political Kumbaya – can’t we all just, like, get along? – that is constantly touted by certain inexplicably esteemed pundits. To the Brooks and Broders of the world, the only thing worse than gridlock is partisanship. And the cure for both is the Sensible Centrist . Eschewing the bitter and mean extremes to embrace the oh-so-reasonable middle, these brave public servants throw themselves on the grenade of politics for the greater good. I think this line is a load of bunk. Here’s why.

A Problem of Definition

Like a lot of political problems, this one begins with a mistaken assumption that everyone is talking about the same thing. What is centrism, after all? Is it the arithmetic mean of political viewpoints on a left-center-right axis?  First off, It’s far from obvious those most issues would fall neatly on one side or another of such a scale. And whose viewpoints would make up the poles, anyway – the public or elite opinion makers? Because they’re not the same thing. When mainstream columnists say “centrist”, they usually mean an economically conservative/socially liberal pol – because that’s where they fall on the spectrum. But the American public leans more economically liberal and socially conservative than the media. So which pol would be centrist? Or would it be someone who is “moderate” on both social and economic issues? Notice how muddy the waters have gotten, and we haven’t even mentioned foreign policy, an area where there’s a massive chasm between the public and Washington – with the majority of Americans much less enthusiastic than the elites about overseas adventures.  Think that might have something to do with the fact that their kids would actually be on the ones fighting?

A influential clique of self-styled Reasonable Thinkers take a thorough survey of their own beliefs, label those “sensible”, and pat their very satisfied selves on their very upright backs. Invading another country on a whim without cause? Very sensible. A public insurance option favored by the public? Off the map looney tunes leftism. And so on and so forth.

The Center is Not a Neutral Background


Another issue complicating the matter is the conflation of “center” with neutrality or objectivity. Those goals are probably illusory as well, but leaving that aside, we should remember that they are not the same thing. The center in politics, to the extent there is one, is a historically contingent midpoint on a constantly sliding scale. Contrary to popular claims, it is itself an ideology – based on prevailing winds. The center in politics means one thing in 2009 and another thing in 1969 and yet another in 1869. Issues that ignite our passions today literally didn’t exist a few decades prior: environmentalism and gay rights, to name just two. As the famed Overton Window model illustrates, new ideas usually follow a common trajectory:

• Unthinkable
• Radical
• Acceptable
• Sensible
• Popular
• Policy

Now, given that the ideas and opinions in the “sensible” column change from year to year, this predilection for centrist ideas would have you constantly shuffle along according to the whims of conventional wisdom. It goes without saying that following this strategy blindly would more often than not leave you in a state of being neither correct nor courageous. A politician cannot ignore the will of the people. But one thing we’ve forgotten in the age of focus groups and insta-polling is that we elect leaders, not followers. A politician with any kind of principles will see their job as moving the window of opinion to fit what they believe is right, not dancing around trying to be seen in the middle of it.

Indeed, those most praised for being reasonable centrists are often the most unprincipled. Despite the veneration of the Blue Dog leadership in some quarters, they’re not bravely bucking their party – they’re largely corrupt intransigents, using their privileged status as valuable ‘moderates’ to hold out for more power and influence. They don’t share positions –they share ambitions. They talk a good game of compromise while masterfully playing both ends against the middle, and the pundits lap it up, naively.

Issues Are Icky


But it’s the intellectual laziness of the Third Way proponents that really irks me. They look at contentious issues marked by huge differences in beliefs and worldviews and wonder why everyone doesn’t just split the difference. It’s a child’s view of the world, delivered in the pedantic tone of an extraordinarily pompous adult. This is never more evident than in some of the political dream-team matchups concocted by those with no appreciation of ideology. The word ‘ideology’ has taken on a pejorative tint in the last few years, but all it really means is a set of beliefs and values with a coherent structure around issues.

But since the sensible centrists put ‘pragmatism’ far ahead of principles, they’re always ignoring ideology – and, in turn, actual issues – and trying to team up politicians who have next to nothing in common. The funniest amateur examples from last year were the [apparently sincere] Kucinich/Paul signs, but the pros weren’t much better. Last year David Broder, tongue evidently nowhere near cheek, proposed a ticket with Michael Bloomberg at the top and Chuck Hagel as his V.P. Granted, he couldn’t name anything these complete ideological opposites had in common besides “leadership” and being “outsiders”, but they were going to Get Stuff Done. Just don’t ask What or How.

How Do You Meet a Lunatic in the Middle?

Perhaps the biggest turd in the post-partisan punchbowl is the little problem of what to do when your opponents are completely nutzo, a situation we’ve been in for some time. One look at the signs carried at the 9/12 march should disabuse any airy-fairy notions of compromise on health-care reform. By definition, people who aren’t dealing with a full deck can’t come to the table in good faith. As Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein recently said, the GOP have become political terrorists willing to blow the whole thing if they don’t get their way.

The centrist columnists are always pushing the Dems to meet the GOP in the middle, utterly ignoring the fact that the GOP hasn’t budged a inch in decades. They’ve long agreed with their guru Grover Norquist, who once compared bipartisanship to date rape, and said of the then-out-of-power Dems:

“Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don’t go around peeing on the furniture and such.”

Now that they’re the ones out of power, they’re content to sit on their hands and scream at the top of their lungs about birth certificates and Marxism. How can you possibly meet that halfway? Nevertheless, the president, the Democratic leadership, and the “sensible” pundit class all keep thinking up ways to compromise with the congenitally uncompromising and liberals keep slicing off the ‘offending parts’ – i.e. the most popular and effective sections – of their proposals in order to placate a party that’s going to vote “NO” no matter what.

Smack Dab in the Middle is Often the Worst Place to Stand

Regardless of what The Villagers would have you believe, the center isn’t always synonymous with sensible. Granted, there are some issues that require extremes to meet in the middle and shelve their differences in the name of compromise. But maybe just as often, one side is plainly right and one side is plainly wrong and the wrong side needs to lose – period. And refusing to pick a side in those circumstances is not only cowardly, it often ends up making things much worse – see the Missouri Compromise or Chamberlain’s appeasement, for example. Taking the middling muddling middle position can often mean intentionally choosing the worst of both worlds.

Politics is hard, and demagogues and ideologues are forever trying to make it easy by demonizing the other side. But I’d be equally skeptical of elites who tut-tut away differences, as if waving a post-partisan wand over our problems will make them go away. Having a reflexive policy of splitting the difference relieves you from either the hard work of policy analysis or the unseemliness of having unpopular passions. It’s a lazy and simple-minded approach to politics. After the last administration, I think we all know where that leads.


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  1. collapse expand

    Joe- interesting piece!
    There must be somewhere for people who approach the world from a “reasonable” point of view to go. I think reasonable can deal with one side being completely right and one completely wrong, if the side that is completely wrong is being unreasonable. At the same time, reasonable can appreciate that there may some “right” in both positions or the perception of right is legitimately different and requires a meeting in the middle.

    I suspect there has to be a distinction made between “centrist” who simply accommodate to better improve their own positions, as you suggest in the article, and “reason” which looks for the right answer without using ideology as a base.

    I’ve never been comfortable with hard core ideology as I’ve always viewed it as a way to simply avoid thinking through an issue. My “side’ is for X therefore I’m for X. That doesn’t mean that I can’t see the right and the wrong in the issue versus playing the center for the purposes you suggest- although I certainly agree that there are centrists who do so.

    I wonder if you agree that “reasonable” is a better option for “centrist” or if you think there is any difference at all?

    • collapse expand

      Rick says: “There must be somewhere for people who approach the world from a ‘reasonable’ point of view to go.”

      That is precisely the kind of “extraordinarily pompous” attitude to which Joseph refers: To infer that somehow those who find themselves more often on one end of the extremely narrow (and right-shifted) spectrum of U.S. politics are somehow being “unreasonable.” It’s only the “reasonable” centrist who’s the real individual, critical thinker, who doesn’t just “go along with the team.” It is only the centrist rebel who arrives at his position by applying his own sense of reason filtered through his own sense of morality and his understanding of socio-political dynamics.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Rick, I wanted to go into more detail, hedge my argument, and lay on a little more nuance – but I figured I was pushing it w/ 1500 or so words, already! ;) It’s tough, b/c I was trying to say about a dozen things at once.

      I had a mini-disclaimer in the second paragraph sort of saying this, but I’ll elaborate:

      I have nothing against being a moderate or being reasonable, obviously. My beef is w/ the specific strain of “centrism” and “sensible” sort of politics advocated by the four columnists pictured at the top. Their brand of beltway wisdom always functions as a bludgeon against liberals – and liberals only – to get them to move towards a more center-right outlook, because that’s where these columnists are at. It’s an insular and arrogant attempt to bound off debate based on their own ideology. (Though they would surely protest that they’re above ideology.)

      I consider myself a liberal on most things, but I hope that I don’t use that as an excuse to stop thinking – i.e. be reasonable – about issues. I definitely don’t think liberals have a monopoly on truth, and I think there can be ‘reasonable’ people on all sides of the aisle. Though granted, conservatives haven’t really put their best foot forward in that regard lately.

      So, I guess when I defend ideology, I’m defending a more neutral version of the term – analogous to a worldview. And I think anyone who has thought for a while about politics is bound to have a worldview, right? So, I take claims by centrists/independents/moderates to above ideology with a grain of salt. The key is just to not let that structure become a straightjacket. Not an easy task, admittedly.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Excellent outline of a dire problem plaguing our national… uh… er… dialogue.

    One reason Obama is so appealing to so many is that he appears to ‘rise above’ the partisanship. I’ll admit it’s one of the reasons i had stars in my eyes the last time i stepped into the voting booth; but as you skillfully argue, that particular spirit of cooperation we take at our peril. Some things are worth compromising on; and some, like the economic (and biologic!) health of the majority of Americans, are not.

    Corporate interests have continually chipped away at the standard of living of the middle class for 30+ years now – lobbying and deregulating and packing legislation with hidden agendas to raise their profits at the expense of our salaries and indeed our very lives. Where is the spirit of compromise in their actions?

    My only critique for you is one that i need to follow myself: to refrain from the engagement of pit imps like Dupray. You know he hasn’t corrected the erroneous number in the 9-12 post because that’s irrelevant to his nefarious deceptive cause. If you notice, the first two comments on that post are links to two other con-blogs. Need I say more?

  3. collapse expand

    This is the most sensible that has appeared on this site in a long time. The health care plan is a good example of how trying to negotiate deal can often at times be impossible. For a plan to reduce cost, increase care and offer insurance reform each individual idea must be in harmony. One cannot take this and leave out that in some haphazard fashion and expect the plan to work. If something is taken out that will reduce costs how does one make up the loss to the goal? Just like the Missouri Compromise if the solution does not solve a serious problem one is just painfully and recklessly kicking the can down the road for a future generation to trip over.

  4. collapse expand

    “Contrary to popular claims, it is itself an ideology”

    That’s a great point. I can’t believe no one else has made it. Kudos. Whenever one of these “centrist” commentators comes on NPR to endorse whatever the status quo is that day – the fluidity of their “centrism” seemingly on display for anyone to see – I keep waiting for some genuine voice of reason to interrupt. But of course, they never do.

    It may just be that any institution, like any organism, exists first and foremost to perpetuate its own existence. Hence these people serve a valuable function within mainstream media institutions: their presence creates the illusion of independence, while reassuring those in power that said news institution is no threat to them. That’s miles away from serving the actual public, of course, and that insularity is both their reason for existing and the reason we need a new word to describe these faux centrists.

  5. collapse expand

    Good post. I have often pondered the middle, and the fate of those who find themselves there.

    George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, was discussing the political spectrum, in his book, the Political Mind. He rejects the entire premise of a left to right view of political ideas. The whole of our political position is mix of liberal and conservative views, and what defines us is what we focus on. Not quite single issue voters, but close. If a priority for someone is immigration and domestic policy, their views on that issue will dominate their political position.

    I’m not sure if I totally agree with this idea, but, it sure makes sense to me.
    Thanks for this post.

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