Moderately Anti-Democratic: The Lie Of The Political ‘Center’

We keep using some words in our political debate, but they don’t really mean what we think they mean.

The think tank Third Way released a poll last week showing a commonplace fact about U.S. politics: “more than a third of American voters call themselves neither liberal or conservative but moderate.”

It’s pretty obvious that when you offer people the chance to self-define, they’re often going to pick the self-definition that seems more thoughtful and rational. When you give people the chance to identify with terms that have positive connotations — terms like “independent” or “moderate” — there’s a strong incentive to do so. What this doesn’t indicate is what these voters think about policy issues.

Third Way has an obvious incentive to latch onto and promote this poll, as does any organization that produces a poll meant to justify its existence. They put forth a set of policy positions, call them “moderate,” and carefully use voters’ self-description as “moderate” to seem like an endorsement of their policy beliefs — even when those policy beliefs, like their deep desire to cut Social Security and Medicare, are held by very small minorities.

But “moderate” is a style, an affect, not a set of policy positions. Be wary of anyone who talks about the former as though it means anything about the latter.

The pundits who most loudly proclaim that we’re in a moderate, independent moment are themselves deeply ideological. But it’s an ideology of style and process rather than policy. They’re committed to that “centrist” pose as surely as the most die-hard partisan is committed to party, and it makes them act as foolishly as they insist partisanship does.

Take David Brooks’ column this week, which makes a sort-of-coherent argument that voters aren’t well-represented because the system is just too democratic.

On issues like immigration reform, Brooks suggests we “use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions … small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms … then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through.”

But here’s the thing: there is already a bipartisan, heavily compromised, hammered-out-among-multiple-stakeholders vehicle for immigration reform. It’s the bill that passed the Senate almost a year ago. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and outside groups ranging from labor to business to civil rights and Latino advocacy organizations all took part, and all of them got some of what they wanted and sacrificed some of what they wanted. It’s David Brooks’ dream come true.

The only reason it isn’t law today is that all the establishment browbeating in the world hasn’t been enough to get Republican Speaker John Boehner to bring the bill up for a vote, because the majority of his caucus holds a fringe opinion on immigration and might oust him over it.

Brooks is so committed to ignoring this very simple fact that he demands a frankly undemocratic solution to this problem. He’s not a dumb person by nature, but he’s opting to pretend that his preferred solution doesn’t already exist.

(And it leaves a pretty important question hanging out there: if we really are in such a banner moment for “independent” and “moderate” views among voters, why do you need self-proclaimed undemocratic means to push through “independent” and “moderate” policies?)

You saw something of the same thing from Ron Fournier last week. Based on an excerpt from Tim Geithner’s book, Fournier went into another of his predictable spates of advocating for a deficit-reducing grand bargain and insisting that President Obama blew it by listening too devoutly to his base. Obama’s failure to offer big enough Social Security cuts, in this telling, sabotaged the deal we all needed to have happen.

(Never mind that the actual book, beyond just the excerpts, makes the opposite case. The key to Fournier’s pose is that it’s about feelings, not facts.)

Fournier’s ideology of centrism means that if his preferred policies don’t get done, then it’s clearly the fault of politicians being immoderate and paying attention to their base rather than common sense. There’s something deeply undemocratic in it: Fournier’s definition of “leadership” is when politicians give him his way, rather than defending the priorities of the people who voted for them, as though there were something unseemly about elections having consequences.

Fournier already has the leader he wants: a president who, on multiple occasions, offered unpopular concessions that angered the people who voted for him in the interest of deficit reduction. (Professional ideological-centrist John Avlon even called Obama’s proposals “courageous,” the highest praise available from a group of pundits mostly obsessed with appearances.) But Fournier thinks taking his own side in this argument would be too partisan, so he’s left insisting that President Obama just didn’t compromise hard enough.

I don’t often say this, but thank goodness for the intransigence of the House Republicans in this case – it’s the reason the social safety net stayed intact. The shift to deficit reduction, and the repeated efforts to offer a grand bargain on the deficit, were economically damaging and gratuitous; the only reason they happened is that Obama was fruitlessly chasing the ideals of the Brooks-Fournier-Third Way style of elite centrism.

These elite pundits practice their own sort of intransigent ideology. They insist in every possible instance that The Problem Is Both Sides and that whatever the right answer is, it’s clearly at the midpoint between Both Sides. And they assume that the terms “moderate” and “independent,” so beloved as self-descriptions, correspond exactly with their preferences in both policy and style. Like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know he’s wet, they push deficit-reducing grand bargains that cut the social safety net as though it’s just common sense, not a choice based on political belief. It’s advocacy journalism that imagines itself objective.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare are really popular and really important to keep people out of poverty. Cutting or privatizing these programs is a fringe position pushed by the kind of “unrepresentative groups” with “disproportionate power” that Brooks pretends to dislike — including Third Way.

And the midpoint between Both Sides is defined by where those sides are — and as parties have to chase a small number of big donors, that midpoint shifts to the right on basic economic issues. But the ideology of showy centrism refuses to look at where the goal-lines are, and keeps chasing the mythical point right between them where they imagine the public sentiment lies.

Indeed, Washington’s Republican leaders have figured out how to use the ideology of moderate style to their advantage. As Jonathan Chait aptly puts it, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “hacked American politics” by exploiting the impulse to prefer bipartisanship and compromise. The way to do it is easy: you just deny Republican votes to proposals from the administration, no matter where they fall on the ideological scale, and suddenly they become “partisan” and the administration needs to compromise more. Simply by denying “broad agreement,” McConnell forces the debate to the right, away from the electoral winners — and pundits like Fournier and Brooks buy it completely. Their pose of even-handedness is so important to them they that can’t see McConnell’s strategy even when it’s in plain sight, made explicit by McConnell himself. The “centrist” pundits create the incentive for the polarized behavior they claim to oppose.

The chief problem in D.C. is not, contra Brooks and Fournier, that there’s “too much democracy” and not enough elite consensus-building. The primary problem is that the majority in the U.S. House was elected by a minority of voters, and the majority’s caucus is overwhelmingly controlled by a hard-right fringe that doesn’t represent the majority of Americans on issues like Social Security, Medicare, immigration, and the minimum wage.

And a secondary, related problem is that many of the people who get paid to tell us how politics works are so wrapped up in their moderate pose and their ideology that they’ve willfully blinded themselves to what’s going on.

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.

Photo: Shutterstock / Brian A Jackson

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