January 14, 2009
“The Jellybeans of Steel”

Thomas Frank does it again.

… 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.

He then points out that centrism is entirely a Democratic phenomenon, large D: the Republicans may be scummy but they’re not that dumb. It was Clinton, after all, who signed the repeal of Glass-Steagal, the single biggest reason we’re in the financial mess we’re in today.

The right wing, on the other hand, continues to stick to its idiotic and immoral principles through thick and thin. Sometimes ridiculed and sometimes accepted, they don’t change what they want, or how they’re going for it. They just wait for the Democrats to give up their principles, normally a short wait.

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.

If only the Democrats could learn that lesson. But then they wouldn’t be Democrats any more.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 14, 2009 06:27 PM
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Rick Hertzberg made the same point yesterday, in a different context. The item (in his New Yorker blog) is here:


A sample:

Centrism sometimes makes sense as a tactic or a strategy—in other words, when it’s a synonym for compromise. But it has no merits as a tool for policy analysis. I suppose you could argue that good ideas occur on a sort of left-right bell curve and that, therefore, an idea is statistically more likely to be located at the top of the curve, i.e., in the middle. But evaluating the merits of an idea on that basis would be like evaluating the literary merits of a novel based on how close its number of pages is to the average for all works of fiction.

Dogmatic centrism not only puts you at the gravitational mercy of whichever side is prepared to move furthest toward its own extreme, it also obliges you to reject certain ideas automatically, without any analysis except spectrum analyses. That’s brainless, and the point holds whether or not you agree with Matt on this particular issue.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 14, 2009 6:57 PM
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