More False Equivalence

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the most remarkable and annoying aspects of the media/political culture in the U.S. is the insistence on "not taking sides." I have commented on this in passing many times (most recently, two days ago on Dorf on Law), and I have even seen it in some foreign coverage of U.S. politics. Last month, as the debt-limit debate heated up, I resolved to begin keeping a list of all the cases in which people tried to claim that Republicans' actions in the current fracas were balanced by Democrats' supposedly equally extreme actions in the opposite direction. I gave up before even beginning the list, however, because it quickly became obvious that there is an unlimited supply of such nonsense.

The narrative, which has been untenable for many years, had reached the point of genuine absurdity early this year when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. One news article (not an editorial, a news article) asked whether the new Republican majority would make the same mistake that the Democrats had made two years before (after Obama's inauguration), by over-reaching and trying to satisfy their extremist base to the exclusion of centrist views.

This raises two questions: (1) Who are the extreme leftists in the Democratic Party? and (2) What are their successes in pulling the party away from a centrist-oriented course? Answering these questions is complicated by the problem of relative comparisons: Compared to Jon Kyl, even a conservative like Ben Nelson is a raging commie. The narrative about both parties being pulled to extreme positions, however, cannot meaningfully be the mere claim that the Republican Party is to the right of the Democratic Party. The idea is that there is a reasonable middle that many people in both parties would like to find, if only the process had not been hijacked by a dynamic that emphasizes and empowers the extremes, making compromise impossible. This idea has almost never been supportable in U.S. politics, and certainly not since Bill Clinton took office, and it is a completely laughable view today.

When one is looking for the most perfectly distilled version of the laughable conventional wisdom, the go-to source is always New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman. Right on schedule, Friedman published a column two Sundays ago lauding an effort to create an on-line third party of the center, to rise above the supposedly crazed extremism of both parties. (I hasten to note that Friedman's piece has already been dissected and ridiculed many times over. Easily the best take-down was by Tom Tomorrow in This Modern World. Perfection!)

Notably, Friedman did not even pretend to be suggesting something that breaks from the one-dimensional left/right nature of our political discourse -- which is at least what the Clintonian "triangulation" and "third way" labels promised (dishonestly). Friedman went straight to the most mindless "can't we find a middle ground" cant. The title of the column says it all: "Make Way for the Radical Center." Oy.

To his minimal credit, Friedman at least admitted that Obama is "an independent, which he is, at heart, anyway." This is a huge step forward from, say, Maureen Dowd and other usually more reliable commentators, who somehow continue to imagine that Obama is a progressive who has been forced by circumstance to sell out the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Friedman imagines that John Boehner is similarly "centrist," which tells us everything we need to know about Friedman's nuanced view of the world.

All of which brings us back to the two questions that I posed above: Who are the Democrats' extremists, and what are their successes? There is Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, but who is not a Democrat and who calls himself a Socialist. There is Dennis Kucinich, who has led revolts against TARP and the Libyan war/non-war. More broadly, there is a group of House Democrats called "The Progressive Caucus," which includes liberals like Marcy Kaptur, Maurice Hinchey, and Earl Blumenauer.

The most notable fact about these people is that none of them have any power. In answer to the second question, the liberals in the Democratic Party have had no success in forcing the party to do things that it would not otherwise do. The list of supposed extreme liberal policies adopted by the Democrats before the 2010 mid-terms include: (1) the TARP and bank bailouts, which was begun under the Bush administration and which most of the Progressives opposed (but which, I should add, I supported and continue to support, although they certainly should have carried a price for the bankers); (2) the health care law, which many progressives refused to support, even after all the arm-twisting, because it was a costly mixed bag that enshrined Republican principles into the DNA of the health care system: (3) the stimulus bill, which a President McCain would also have enacted under the circumstances, and which "failed" precisely because the liberal Democrats were unsuccessful in preventing it from being downsized and tilted toward the least stimulative types of tax cuts; and (4) the GM/Chrysler bailouts, which have been complete successes (and will ultimately have cost the taxpayers nothing, with even a slight profit now likely).

For purposes of this discussion, the notable point is not just that the "liberal" actions of 2009-11 fell far short of what the most liberal members of Congress would have wanted, but that there is not even any evidence that they managed to pull any of those policies in their direction. In each case, the party leadership essentially told the progressives to suck it up and accept reality. Compare this to the effect that the extremists (no longer a fringe) in the Republican Party have had on recent policy. Boehner was forced to back down from a bill that most conservatives (according to David Brooks) would have viewed as a dream come true (including Obama's inexcusable offering up of Social Security on a platter), because a tiny fraction of the deal included increased tax revenues.

Finally, note that the "extreme liberals" are not, even at their core level, in any way extreme. Whereas Rand Paul would have liked to allow private businesses to continue to discriminate, Ron Paul would get rid of the Federal Reserve, and many Republicans in Congress believe that there should be no taxes on business at all, what is the most extreme thing that we can pin on any of the Democrats "extremists"? Kucinich's most out-of-the-mainstream stances have actually dovetailed with those of the right (TARP, Libya). Sanders (an actual Socialist) went to the shocking extreme of opposing the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Blumenauer has not only been notably not extreme in his liberal policy suggestions, but he has even expressed a willingness to cut Social Security.

There are no Democrats or independents in Congress who have proposed doing anything that would radically change American government, the economy, or society. It is proposals for just such radical change that we are seeing only from the Republican Party -- not from its extreme fringe, but from the party leadership.

Yet we can count on more nonsensical "they're all crazy" narratives from the media. "The Daily Show" ran a piece last night that tried to ridicule an atheist group for being too bellicose about the separation of church and state, in juxtaposition to ridiculing mainstream Republicans for opposing subsidized birth control for poor women. Balance!