Fake Centrism, Part 1

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Today and tomorrow, I am publishing my final two Dorf on Law posts of 2012.  Two years ago, in my final post of 2010, I asked which of the topics that I had written about during the year was the most important.  Was it Social Security, government finances, health care reform, or something else?  I ultimately concluded that the topic about which I had written the least -- veganism -- was the most important in terms of how much it matters to the quality of life in the world.

I continue to believe what I wrote back then.  Even so, this year was a particularly interesting year for my more frequent analytical stomping grounds, with a few new issues thrown into the mix.  For example, I only wrote about suppression of non-Republican votes once or twice, but it is a hugely important issue.  The broader theme of lying and anti-social attitudes -- sociopathy -- on the part of many, many Republicans emerged as the campaign season proceeded.  The ACA case provided some fascinating fodder.  Naturally, government finances continued to dominate discussion during a year in which the people who claimed to be anti-deficit finally all but admitted that they were really simply anti-government all along.

Today and tomorrow, I will discuss the most important issue that has crystallized in 2012, and about which I have written with some frequency: the danger of "fake centrism."  This topic could originally be captured under the rubric of "false equivalence," wherein reporters and commentators attempt to show their even-handedness by pairing every story about a Republican lie with a story about a Democratic one.  As time has gone on, the effort to liken Democrats' garden-variety campaign exaggerations with Republicans' pathological lying has become more than a bit embarrassing -- although that never causes the "fair" reporters from stopping, or even noticing.

Fake Centrism is, however, beyond mere false equivalence.  It is, if you will, false equivalence as a way of life.  It has emerged especially strongly in the post-election period, when it has become extraordinarily important for Serious Washingtonians to show that they understand that the real solution to our problems is for all politicians to stop being so extreme, and to put aside their petty differences for the good of the country.  This is sometimes accompanied by claims that the Democrats in Congress are becoming more liberal, while Republicans are becoming more conservative.  That the first half of this story is crazy and blatantly false is never acknowledged (and, from the Serious People's standpoint, ultimately beside the point).

In tomorrow's post, I will discuss the particular damage being done by one of the major "deficit scold groups," as Paul Krugman correctly calls them.  The remainder of this post is devoted to discussing the Fake Centrism concept more generally.

The fundamental problem with Fake Centrism is that it ignores the reality of today's Republican Party.  The Tea Party movement was never really anything but a group of the most conservative Republicans, who succeeded in seizing the machinery of the party and either dumping the (highly conservative) establishment Republicans or intimidating them into abandoning all reason.  Watching John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and -- although he had less distance to travel -- Mitch McConnell go from substantively 90-95% bad (but with a genuine dollop of honor) to shamelessly frothing hacks has been something to observe.

As I observed in one of my posts about the emergence of the Republican sociopaths, it is easy to imagine that there have been moments when a lot of non-crazy Republican leaders have sat in meeting rooms wondering what the heck is going on.  A recent news article in The New York Times reports that the Tea Party's most extremely passionate activists have begun to veer off into fringe issues (such as claims that Democrats stole the election, and trying to "nullify" the ACA at the state level).  Some Republican leaders offer some juicy quotes, such as a former New Hampshire Republican chairman complaining about the "tinfoil hat" issues that dominated the party in the last few years.

Even so, there is a continued insistence that this is all part of a big partisan balance.  Interestingly, even when the claim is not that the current Democratic Party is as crazy on the left as Republicans are on the right, the claim must be that there have been other times when Democrats were that crazy.  The Times reporter thus quotes the Republican President of Florida's state senate (hardly a fringe figure) claiming that "the Tea Party movement is to the Republicans in 2013 what the McGovernites were to the Democrats in 1971 and 1972."

I was just old enough (12 and 13) to be starting to pay attention to politics in those years, so my own faded memories of that time are hardly authoritative.  A lot of subsequent study of the era, however, has confirmed that there is no doubt whatsoever that there is no comparison between the McGovernite wing of the Democrats then, and the Tea Party domination of the Republicans today.  There was some antisocial radicalism at the time, tied to the anti-Vietnam War movement, but it was neither encouraged nor tolerated by Democrats in positions of power -- either the establishment or the reformers.

There is simply no period in modern history in which the Democrats, or any political group, exhibited the extremism that we are seeing from nearly the entire Republican Party today.  When has anyone done anything that could be compared to the debt ceiling hostage-taking that the Republicans have engaged in for the past two years?  When has any party said that it is essential to reward "producers" and punish "moochers" while defending increasingly extreme inequality and insisting on cutting nutritional supports for children?

As I noted above, however, the bigger problem is not the Tea Partiers and their Republican enablers.  It is the Fake Centrism of those who pretend that there is a way for everyone to just grow up and get along.  When one side has no interest in compromise or centrist ideas, this is nonsense.  And that is where we are today.

Predictably, Thomas Friedman manages to grab onto this theme in the most absurd way possible.  Friedman's NYT op-eds are so predictable that they have now been eerily replicated by a "Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator."  (Readers should click the green "Generate New Column!" button to see how the generator manages to capture Friedman's trademark vacuousness with a mad-libs-like series of interchangeable names of politicians, countries, and cab drivers whose wisdom and experiences Friedman shares.)  Choosing just one of his op-eds to mock is almost impossible, but his column from this past Sunday captures Fake Centrism in one of its purer forms.

Friedman begins by sharply attacking the Tea Party-led craziness among Republicans.  But rather than making his usual move, claiming that the Democrats are currently just as crazy, or need to compromise more, he then lauds Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) of the 1980's and 1990's.  Why are they a good model for the Republicans?  Because the DLC decided to "lead the party back to the center from a failing leftward course that had resulted in it being repeatedly shut out of the presidency, except after Watergate."  It did not merely "pivot to the center in the general election. It fought for and educated the Democrat base" to support welfare reform and other business-friendly issues.

So, the story Friedman gives us is that the DLC saved the Democrats from themselves by "educating" people to like welfare reform?  Actually, the DLC insisted on playing to the lowest common denominator on welfare issues, diminishing the debate rather than elevating it.  Similarly, Clinton and Gore ran advertisements in the later stages of the campaign talking about how bad the Democratic Party was, saying that they were New Democrats who liked things like the death penalty.  (I am not exaggerating.)  If this is educating the base, then what is pandering?

The biggest missing piece here is the DLC's nonstop campaign to diminish the labor movement.  It was not just that the DLC (which was founded and backed by business groups) was indifferent to organized labor.  It was outright hostile to it.  Not coincidentally, in 2011 and 2012, we not only have states like Ohio and Wisconsin openly ramming through anti-union measures for public employees, but we have Michigan -- Michigan -- becoming a so-called right-to-work state.  This will hurt Democrats dearly in the near future, and the lack of support for organized labor (including Obama's missing-in-action act on the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall) is pure DLC.  The Democratic Party continues to be the home for organized labor, but it is very much a one-way street.

But hey, if Democrats had lost the Presidency during those years, wages would have stagnated, workers' benefits would have been cut back, the distribution of income would have reached levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age, women's right to choose would have been continually under assault (and listlessly defended by Democrats), and poverty among children would have risen above 20%.  It is a good thing that Democrats wisely turned their backs on that crazy Old Democratic Party and learned how to be excited by a Democratic President who continues to look for ways to give away the store on taxes, Social Security, and health care.

I promise to be a bit less sarcastic in Part 2 of this column, tomorrow.  Or maybe not.