We told you so: centrism can’t cure shit

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The Great Prevaricator strikes again : now in blackface. Obama, the silver-tongued opportunist, is a worthy member of the Centrist cabal in the power establishment. On Jan. 20, with his inauguration, America is likely to enter a long and painful period of extremely dangerous demagoguery. And, as all bright demagogues, he’ll work the symbols while betraying the substance. 

Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama Should Act Like He Won

By THOMAS FRANK | [print_link]

As we anxiously await the debut of the Obama administration, we hear more and more about the incoming president’s “post-partisan” instincts.  He has filled his cabinet with relics of the centrist Clinton years. He has engaged the evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. And according to Politico, he wants 80 Senate votes for his stimulus plan — a goal that would mean winning a majority among Republicans as well as Democrats.

Maybe these will turn out to be wise moves. Maybe they won’t. Audacity they ain’t, though. There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism. After all, as Mark Leibovich pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times, transcending faction has been the filler-talk of inaugural addresses going back at least to Zachary Taylor’s in 1849. When you hear it today

— bemoaning as it always does “the extremes of both parties” or “the divisive politics of the past” — it is virtually a foolproof indicator that you are in the presence of a well-funded, much-televised Beltway hack.

Centrism is something of a cult here in Washington, D.C., and a more specious superstition you never saw. Its adherents pretend to worship at the altar of the great American middle, but in fact they stick closely to a very particular view of events regardless of what the public says it wants.

And through it all, centrism bills itself as the most transgressive sort of exercise imaginable. Its partisans are “New Democrats,” “Radical Centrists,” clear-eyed believers in a “Third Way.” The red-hot tepids, we might call them — the jellybeans of steel. The reason centrism finds an enthusiastic audience in Washington, I think, is because it appeals naturally to the Beltway journalistic mindset, with its professional prohibition against coming down solidly on one side or the other of any question.

Splitting the difference is a way of life in this cynical town. To hear politicians insist that it is also the way of the statesman, I suspect, gives journalists a secret thrill. Yet what the Beltway centrist characteristically longs for is not so much to transcend politics but to close off debate on the grounds that he — and the vast silent middle for which he stands — knows beyond question what is to be done.

Here, for example, is centrist Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby, writing last October on the debate then raging over the role of deregulation in precipitating the financial crisis: “So blaming deregulation for the financial mess is misguided. But it is dangerous, too, because one of the big challenges for the next president will be to defend markets against the inevitable backlash that follows this crisis.”

Got that? Criticizing deregulation is not merely wrong but “dangerous,” virtually impermissible, since it problematizes the politics that everyone knows president 44 will ultimately embrace. As this should remind us, the real-world function of Beltway centrism has not been to wage high-minded war against “both extremes” but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism.

Centrism’s institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party. Its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own movement as a foil in his great game of triangulation.  And centrism’s achievements? Well, there’s Nafta, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There’s the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. 

There’s the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party’s left. Triumphs all. Histories of conservatism’s rise, on the other hand, often emphasize that movement’s adherence to principle regardless of changing public attitudes. Conservatives pressed laissez-faire through good times and bad, soldiering on even in years when suggesting that America was a “center-right nation” would have made one an instant laughingstock.

And what happens when a strong-minded movement encounters a politician who acts as though the truth always lies halfway between his own followers and the other side? The dolorous annals of Clinton suggest an answer, in particular the chapters on Government Shutdown and Impeachment.

That’s why it is so obviously preferable to be part of the movement that doesn’t compromise easily than to depend on the one that has developed a cult of the almighty center. Even a conservative as ham-handed as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seems to understand this.

As he recounted in his 2007 memoirs, Republicans under his leadership learned “to start every policy initiative from as far to the political right as we could.” The effect was to “move the center farther to the right,” drawing the triangulating Clinton along with it. President-elect Obama can learn something from Mr. DeLay’s confession:

Centrism is a chump’s game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating.

Thomas Frank approaches political analysis for the left.  His book, What’s Wrong with Kansas? brilliantly disssected the mentality of ordinary folks voting against their political and economic interests due to the eternal trash dished out by the media-political spheres, and their deeply entrenched socially conservative leanings. 


3 comments on “We told you so: centrism can’t cure shit
  1. The wonder to me is that this article seems to have first appeared in The Wall Street Journal! I guess you could say it’s the lotus on the scummy pond!

    Frank is spot-on. I think I was in the first grade when some fellow snot-nosed kid assured me solemnly that his opinion was as good as mine, and, in fact, as good as anyone else’s because “all opinions are equal” (except, of course, for the teacher’s–the authority figure’s). Americans have been deluded with this sort of nonsense since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton and they’ve generally gotten around the need to make careful moral choices and honed judgments by shrugging off the issue at hand, refusing or neglecting to get informed about it, and allowing their “leaders” to sloganeer them into absurd, centrist dead-ends where dragons lurk (Wilson’s “War to End All Wars” or Bush’s “Global War on Terror” spring to mind).

    I’m not telling you, Virginia, that there is no Santa Claus, but I will tell you this, frightening as it may be to realize: all opinions are not equal. “Media tutissimus ibis,” the Romans advised–one goes most safely in the middle. Next time you’re in Rome, try navigating the hectic streets in your little Fiat and you’ll probaly develop axioms of your own–execrations included!

  2. I share Mr Corseri’s bewilderment at seeing this kind of article on the WSJ. But then, again, the machinations of the bourgeoisie and their inconsistencies are legion. At one point they also ran Alex Cockburn’s columns.

    Disgust with the center is slow to coalesce into a national mood of revolutionary fury because it is never allowed to reach boiling point by the constant disconnects and trivializations the media rains on the American population, already tremendously burdened by enormous ignorance and confusion. Among these, one of the greatest impostures is the notion of “classlessness” and, as Mr Corseri points out the idea that “all opinions are equal.” This is the sort of professional pandering that you see in a nation such as America to keep the people quiet, a form of what i would call “hyperdemocracy” that leads nowhere.

    And Thomas Frank is damn right. Centrism is a fraud, and those who promulgate it are nothing but con artists.

  3. I admit that I am not overjoyed by some of the choices for the Cabinet that Obama has made. Certainly I am unhappy about Warren’s participation in the inauguration. However, I am reserving judgment on Obama and where he might go.

    Maybe I am just throwing my hope on the fire for the last time, but I think that Obama may be just as special as I sense he is. He is different from any politician I have seen since Bobby Kennedy.

    “Centrism” is an interesting concept. Whether it is very bad, kind of bad, ho-hum, or kind of good, depends on where the “center” is. An historic point that burns in my mind is the redefinition and movement of the “center” way to the right. It happened during the Clinton campaign when Clinton was labeled as a “card carrying member of the ACLU.” That was redefined as the extreme left. It went down hill from there.

    I believe that we can all agree that “Bill” was far from the left. Wherever he saw himself, he led as a moderate to conservative Republican. Unfortunately, he remained the nominal cultural anchor of the “far left” in the public perception. That perception seems to have shifted to some extent after 8 years of blatant neo-conservative evisceration of the country.

    This did more than move the center – it narrowed the recognized continuum. Those even nominally on the left were out of the park entirely, and the fringes of the far right became the dominant voice.

    As I watch Obama, I am not seeing an appeal to centrism – nor even to bi-partisanism. I see him doing something that I try to do in my classes as a teacher. That is to create a civil dialog; find some common starting concerns; then moving the group forward. The purpose is not to compromise, or create a center. At the end, people are wherever they have ended up, but something is built in the process. I know from experience that what comes out a successful venture in this direction can be pretty remarkable.

    Maybe I am misinterpreting what I am seeing from him. If I am correct, there is certainly no guarantee that what I have seen happen in classes and community groups is going to work in a political environment. However, to even attempt the approach is a bold experiment.

    I have watched the Pre-Inauguration event in Washington today. It has been a remarkable tour de force of progressives and even a smattering of radicals. Including Pete Seeger singing ALL of the verses of “This Land is My Land” – you know, the “private property, no trespassing” verse.

    I am by no way arguing that we should not push Obama and push him hard. He has raised a lot of people’s hopes – and not just in the US. Because I think he has a heart, I think that all that hope will weigh on him.

    I am in no way arguing that we should stop the effort at constructing a different world, and reformulating a different approach to all life. I do think (and once again I am seeing this in my students) that folks are shifting sharply in our direction. Resource extinction – they don’t think I’m nuts. THEY bring up global warming, and environmental destruction. THEY are angry at the massive exploitation of the capitalists.

    My students are not “kids.” The average age (according to the school) is 38. I see a definite movement, and engagement. That gives me hope as well. I am seeing it in the “public” as well. We are at not only a critical moment in the life of the planet – we are at a critical “teaching moment.” What we do is important and urgent. Frankly, whatever Obama does, I will be fighting the same battles I have been. Nothing has been wone in that regard. My hope is that more folks will be with us.

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