It’s impossible to open a magazine or newspaper these days without running across a fawning, completely credulous article that breathlessly describes a new breed of non-Democratic “moderates” and “centrists” who are said to be sprouting like mushrooms across the country.
These new moderates and centrists are profoundly different from the moderate and centrist political strategists of the Clinton era who sought to prod the Democratic Party toward the “center” in order to win the votes of political independents. Progressives strongly disagreed with these “New Democrats” on many issues but the vast majority of the Clinton era moderates and centrists (with the utterly dishonorable exception of the reptilian Dick Morris and a handful of other political chameleons) were at the time and have subsequently remained firmly and unequivocally committed to working within the Democratic Party.
The new breed of moderates and centrists, in very dramatic contrast, are described as being completely disillusioned with the Democratic Party as well as the GOP and currently wandering about in the political wilderness in search of a new third party or some innovative new technological platform that will allow them to create a political formation far beyond the snares of both Republican and Democratic orthodoxy.
In principle, it is possible to imagine a set of voters who might be attracted to such an alternative. There certainly are many moderate Republicans who feel deeply estranged from the current Republican Party and who yearn for “old fashioned” Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, George Herbert Walker Bush or Bob Dole but who, at the same time, simply cannot imagine actually voting for a Democrat. On the Democratic side, even though Obama is in many ways the most centrist Dem in recent memory, he is still sufficiently liberal to make some of the more conservative Democratic voters vainly wish for an alternative that is less liberal and more “traditional values” oriented than the modern Democratic Party.
But there’s a massive, unavoidable problem with the idea that the current self-appointed leaders of this potential voting bloc genuinely reflect the views of most “middle of the road/neither Democrat nor Republican” voters. A central pillar of any honest moderate or centrist perspective today must necessarily be the recognition that — while a moderate voter may feel deeply estranged from both political parties – it is also simply impossible for him or her to ignore the fact that the Republicans are vastly more intransigent, rigid and uncompromising in their positions than are the Democrats.
A genuine moderate or centrist is, by the very definition of the two terms, someone who wants to see sincere efforts at compromise coming from both sides of the partisan divide rather than the total capitulation of one side or the other. Yet only a person who is completely – and I mean completely — immersed in the conservative and Republican world-view can seriously believe and assert that the Republicans have actually been just as flexible and willing to compromise as have the Dems.
E.J. Dionne says it well:
Some of my middle-of-the-road columnist friends keep ascribing our difficulties to structural problems in our politics. A few call for a centrist third party. But the problem we face isn’t about structures or the party system. It’s about ideology — specifically a right-wing ideology that has temporarily taken over the Republican Party and needs to be defeated before we can have a reasonable debate between moderate conservatives and moderate progressives about our country’s future.
If moderates really want to move the conversation to the center, they should devote their energies to confronting those who are blocking the way. And at this moment, the obstruction is coming from a radicalized right.
In fact, opinion polls show that there are indeed many sincere moderates and centrists who do accept this basic reality. Progressive Democrats may disagree with this group on many subjects, but can nonetheless still grant that they are essentially honest and sincere.
On the other hand, however, a good number of the self-proclaimed leaders and theoreticians of this new centrist “movement” belong to three quite different and substantially less admirable groups. A quick rundown includes three distinct subcategories:
• “Tokyo Rose” Dems who gleefully bash all things Democratic on Fox News
• Faux-sanctimonious “both sides are equally to blame” hypocrites
• Double-talking “have it both ways” verbal gymnasts
Let’s look at them in turn.
There’s no reason to waste too much time on the first group – the phony “Fox News” or “Tokyo Rose”- Democrats who put on their most unctuous “more in sorrow than in anger” facial expressions during TV interviews over at the Ministry of Murdoch and operatically bewail the fact that the Democrats have lurched wildly to the left, leaving broken-hearted “moderates” like themselves hopelessly abandoned. These essentially theatrical performances are recognizable by the fact that the commentators in question, despite supposedly being Democrats, virtually never criticize Republicans and certainly not with even a tiny fraction of the gusto they reserve for bashing the members of “their” political party. As a result, their self-characterizations as moderates or centrists have about the same level of credibility as the howls and screams of the designated bad-guy villains in TV wrestling – you know, the guys with the silly sequined capes and names like The Undertaker, Jake the Snake, The Iron Sheik and Boris the Mad Russian. In fact, the reality is that the only people who can seriously believe that Fox News “Democrats” are actually authentic Dems are people who are also gullible enough to believe that professional wrestling is a genuine athletic competition.
A substantially more important group, on the other hand, are the advocates of the notion that “both sides are equally to blame.”
The acknowledged Poster Boy for this group is, of course, David Brooks. Brooks actually lost his way for a moment back in July and uncharacteristically scolded the Republicans for extremism in one New York Times column without remembering to immediately add that the Dems were at least as bad or actually even worse. Within a few days, however, he made a complete recovery from this temporary infection of objectivity and reverted to form as the advocate of a strict “plague on both your houses” Olympian condescension.
Here’s a typical Brooksian expression of the “both sides are equally to blame” notion.
[Both the Democratic and Republican parties] main fear is that they will lose their identity and cohesion if their members compromise with the larger world. They erect clear and rigid boundaries separating themselves from their enemies. In a hostile world, they erect rules and pledges and become hypervigilant about deviationism. They are more interested in protecting their special interests than converting outsiders. They slowly encase themselves in an epistemic cocoon. The Democrat and Republican parties used to contain serious internal debates — between moderate and conservative Republicans, between New Democrats and liberals. Neither party does now.
Characteristically, the passage above positively reeks with pompous pretensions of high-minded impartiality but at the same time basically functions to accuse Dems of being every bit as extreme as the GOP. An honest moderate or centrist cannot evade acknowledging that there is a substantial difference between the two parties on precisely the issues Brooks notes above but this is exactly the point that the self-anointed prophet of the Moderate Center systematically avoids conceding.
Greg Sargent has accurately described the “both sides are equally to blame” notion as the “false equivalency” fallacy and he and other progressive commentators have created an ongoing “false equivalency watch” in their commentaries because so many new examples continue to appear every day.
Among mainstream media writers and commentators the “both sides are equally to blame” notion is, of course, enormously popular for essentially grubby professional reasons – to keep good relations with sources and stay on the invitation lists to briefings and parties. Brooks, on the other hand, has made the “both sides are equally to blame” notion his unique brand, trademark and raison d’être. Ed Kilgore has wryly described Brooks’ method as that of someone “who soars above the partisan fray like an eagle, but always manages to find his way back to the tactical positions of the GOP like a homing pigeon.”
There’s a well-established rhetorical practice available very often in the op-ed pages of The New York Times that ought to be called the Brooks Maneuver. It involves framing a complicated public policy issue in terms of abstract and conflicting principles that the columnist sympathizes with but deems tragically incompatible. The conclusion drawn is that any resolution will require a brave new kind of politics that just doesn’t exist. Thus, sadly, no action is advisable until that great day when wise solons take charge, a course of action that happens to coincide, amazingly, with the short-term strategy of the Republican Party.
The Brooks Maneuver is an ideological scam of long standing, but the most popular recent variation of the “both sides are equally to blame” notion is the product of a group that can reasonably be called the “talking out of both sides of their mouth” brigade. They simultaneously accept and reject the notion that both sides are equally to blame – often in the same article and even on the same page.
The New York Times recently offered one particularly clear example of this ideological-literary sub-genre in an op-ed that was focused on precisely the need for a renewed national commitment to “compromise.” In one particular paragraph the authors contrasted Ronald Reagan’s relative willingness to compromise when he was president with John Boehner’s recent statement that “I reject the word [compromise]” and did not immediately pose any equal but opposite example of modern Democratic intransigence. This subtle stylistic choice tended to suggest that they might privately recognize that a difference between the two parties does really exist.
But at every other point in their commentary they were rigidly and relentlessly “even-handed.” They defined the contemporary opponents of compromise as “Politicians” (3 times), “members of congress” or “members” (4 times)”, “Washington”, “the capital”, “my party,” “our political leaders”, “legislators” and “representatives.” Within this veritable avalanche of scrupulously non-partisan labels there was not a single hint that there might be even the slightest, most miniscule difference between Democrats and Republicans in regard to their willingness to compromise.
The leading spokesman of the “talking out of both sides of their mouth brigade” however, is unquestionably the Washington Post’s Matt Miller who has called for a third party because of the utter inadequacy he perceives in the existing two. In one isolated paragraph of a recent commentary he does concede that a difference between the two parties does exist. As he says:
This doesn’t mean both parties are equally to blame for Washington’s dysfunction. But they’re unacceptable and disappointing in their own ways. I’m a former Clinton aide who believes President Obama has done many good things, and that his agenda is much better than the current Republican creed. But with America on the road to slow decline, the stakes are too high for “inadequate” and “retrograde” to be our only choices.
But in this other, Krugman lays out the situation:
So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.
But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.
There is a profound resistance to facing this unavoidable truth. Many commentators simply cannot bring themselves to accept the idea that one of the two American political parties is actually evolving in a direction that is recognizably similar to the evolution of extremist European political parties like the French National Front in the previous decades when it was led by Jean Marie LePen. They would rather continue to promulgate the comforting political bed-time story that both American political parties still ultimately seek to achieve reasoned compromise despite the utterly irrefutable evidence that the Republican Party has completely abandoned this goal.
But Democrats cannot and must not allow this evasion to stand unchallenged. These new self-proclaimed moderates and centrists have to be aggressively confronted and challenged with a simple question:
“Do you believe that the Democratic and Republican parties are equally guilty of intransigence and extremism or is the Republican Party significantly more to blame?”
It is predictable that the leaders of the “have it both ways brigade” will unleash a barrage of rhetorical evasions to avoid giving a direct and categorical answer to this question but, unfortunately for them, life doesn’t always provide an escape hatch from facing reality. There simply isn’t any “sensible”, “moderate”, “middle of the road” option that can allow them to escape the hard choice between these two stark alternatives. As a result, it’s time for Democrats to get rude and directly “in their face” and to force them to admit where they really stand.
Genuinely sincere moderates and centrists cannot help but recognize and acknowledge that a profound difference does indeed exist between the two parties in regard to political intransigence and extremism. In contrast, self-proclaimed “moderates” who refuse to admit that any major difference exists really aren’t moderates or centrists in any meaningful sense at all.