Pragmatism and Centrism are Not the Same Thing

by Neil H. Buchanan

The American public is faced with the reality that the Democrats' very flawed nominating process will spit forth a nominee who might or might not be the most "electable" candidate, whatever that means.

Mostly, I think, people simply want to fast-forward through the process and find out whether Donald Trump and the Republicans will succeed in smearing and so completely slandering the Democratic nominee that Trump (who is disliked by a clear majority of the public, and shows no desire to change that) somehow wins.  Still, the more likely outcome is a Democratic win followed by a succession crisis.  No one likes those two paths, but no other path seems imaginable.

Because I have long argued that any Democratic candidate would beat Trump convincingly (running in anything even remotely resembling a fair electoral process, including what we had in 2016 but might no longer have, because of ever more intense voter suppression), I ought to not care about the nominating process.  That the field will be narrowed (and to a large degree has already been narrowed) by the oldest, whitest voters available is a travesty.  But it will be not only necessary but easy to rally behind any nominee, because the alternative is in multiple ways so uniquely dangerous.

Rather than focusing on the outcome (and, to be clear, I have endorsed Elizabeth Warren), I am finding it more interesting -- perversely interesting, but still interesting -- to watch the debate within the non-Fox media play out about the Democratic candidates, because so much of that debate is truly weird in its insistent lack of logic and disengagement with reality.  Today, I want to focus on the ways in which that discussion uses coded language to push the result toward the most conservative outcome possible.

The editorial board of The New York Times did something unusual this year, picking one center-left candidate and one center-right candidate among the Democrats as co-endorsees.  They were as confused as I have been at times over the past year, acknowledging that "[n]early any of [the Democratic candidates] would be the most progressive president in decades on issues like health care, the economy and government’s allocations of resources," but still noting that there is a pretty significant ideological division between the party's two camps.

Of course, no one other than me -- certainly not the editorial board of The Times -- uses the labels center-right and center-left to describe the two choices.  But in light of both American history and comparable countries worldwide, those are the most accurate descriptors.  Neither Warren nor Bernie Sanders is a leftist in any real sense, notwithstanding casual beliefs to the contrary.

And word choices matter.  To take one small current example, nearly everyone -- including even those most critical of Trump's corruption -- talks about "digging up dirt on Joe Biden," rather than the more accurate phrase "making stuff up to hurt Biden."  The former implies that there is dirt out there, but Trump's efforts to dig it up were procedurally unacceptable.  (And they were.)  The accurate phrasing, by contrast, makes clear that this was all an attempt by Trump to lie his way to a 2020 win.

Similarly, the word "moderate" is tossed around frequently, and has been for years.  In the 2000 election, where George W. Bush was being described as a moderate (seriously, they called him that!), the choice of Dick Cheney as his running mate ought to have been greeted with jeers from those who were looking for moderation (in all the wrong places).

But Cheney had two things going for him.  First, he was not yet the snarling, openly evil person that he later became.  What later morphed into a permanent sneer was then more of a bemused smirk, which complemented his non-shrill tone to differentiate him from many of his ideological cohorts.  He seemed calm and reasonable.  Second, he had used that tone a few years earlier to disparage the military's anti-gay policies, dismissing the ban on openly gay soldiers as "an old chestnut" that was obviously silly.  "Hey," people said, "he even has a daughter who's a lesbian.  He must be a moderate!"

A friend and I at the time briefly toyed with the idea of doing a survey of the use of the term "moderate" and its misapplication to any right-wing politician who did not shout in hate-filled terms.  Frankly, the task was both too large and too small.  Too large because there was an endless supply of examples, and too small because there were simply no counterexamples where "moderate" was used with any accuracy or precision.

Today's version of that problem is visible in the press's insane insistence on calling hard-right, reliably partisan hacks like Susan Collins (and, until not too long ago, Lindsey Graham) moderates.  On the Democratic side, even Barack Obama's clearly center-right economic policies and his harsh immigration policies (to say nothing of his foreign policy aggressiveness, including in Libya) somehow still qualify him as at most "centrist," if not still liberal.

Centrism, like moderation, can be defined down in literal terms to the particular point in time, losing all ability to contain any meaning other than "the ground that Republicans used to occupy but have now gleefully abandoned in their rush even further to the right."

My concern, however, goes beyond the conventional wisdom's impressive ability to continue to simply take the hard-right turn in American politics over the past half-century as a given and bestow the label of moderate or centrist on whoever happens to sound the least deranged among Republicans at any given moment.  Now, moderation and centrism are being presumptively expanded to include other qualities that are simply different things.

The most obvious of these is the unstated -- but fiercely held -- presumption that centrist = pragmatic.  One can see where that would come from, of course.  In politics, the further one is from the current center, the less likely one's preferred policies are to be enacted.  "I want something almost exactly in the center of the current spectrum, but you want something that fewer people prefer; be pragmatic!"

But of course, a non-centrist can be completely pragmatic.  Warren, for example, is hardly unaware that her preferred policies will not be easy to pass, if indeed they can be passed at all.  She initially made it clear that she prefers a Medicare-for-All plan, but she also understood that there would need to be a transition and that her first choice might not pass at all.  The woman who almost single-handedly created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, however, knows that it can be possible to make change happen even when the odds are stacked against her.

More generally, there is simply no logical connection between what a politician wants to do and her ability to proceed pragmatically.  Being ideologically to the left (or right) does not automatically make a person incapable of seeing what is possible or how to navigate difficult seas.

Relatedly, the idea that so-called centrists are automatically more pragmatic is equally a non sequitur.  Amy Klobuchar loves to describe Warren's ideas as "pipe dreams," as if it is enough to say that Warren's vision of the world is not likely to pass Mitch McConnell's Senate tomorrow.  But neither is anything that Klobuchar would propose, because Senate Republicans will do to any Democrat what they did to Obama, which is to block everything coming out of the White House.

Even so, the editorial board of The Times blithely refers to "the radical and the realist models" to describe Warren's and Klobuchar's approaches, respectively.  That is not a harmless error.  Klobuchar (along with Biden, and Buttigieg, and Obama, and so on) is no more realistic than Warren, and Warren is certainly more pragmatic than any of them.

The difference is that Warren talks about a vision of a better world (along with how it might work, which is the pragmatic side).  Klobuchar and the others on the center-right tell us that we should not have visions, but they are the ones who are actually un-pragmatic.