Centrism And Tribalism

Temperamentally, I find centrism to be quite appealing. It’s fun to try to remain above the fray and criticize the extremes on both sides for all evils.

However, centrism doesn’t fit our current context. As we’ve seen in the debate over the health insurance mandate, raising the debt ceiling, the payroll tax, and more or less every other policy issue, the fundamental problem with our politics is the extremism, cynicism, and savage partisanship of the Republican Party.

Being a centrist today, therefore, requires criticizing the actually-existing policies of the Republican Party, while smearing the Democratic Party with proposals that are either unpopular within the party, or wholly imaginary.

We’ve seen Tom Friedman in on this act lately, but the most extreme centrist is probably Clive Crook. A little while back, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber flagged a column about torture where Crook criticized the expressed views of GOP leaders like Dick Cheney, then wrote that “The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects.” This was, of course, an insane lie that no one believes in the first place. And it ignores the fact that the Democrats didn’t really do all that much to prevent US torture of suspected terrorists. All in the service of seeming “above the fray.”

(Farrell later described Crook’s worldview in a post entitled “Centrism As Tribalism“).

In January, Crook wrote of the debt ceiling debate:

Next, sometime in the spring, public borrowing will run up against the statutory debt ceiling. Congress must vote to raise it, or else the government will default. Again, Republicans thought to use this to intimidate the administration. Meet our demands on spending, or we shut you down. That was the idea.

Tea Party true believers may be salivating at the prospect of the coming Battle of the Debt Ceiling, but the GOP’s leaders are dreading it. Shutting down the government is a button they dare not press – not if they retain the least grip on reality. They did it once before, during the Clinton administration, and were slammed: the shutdown rescued the Clinton presidency. To do it in 2011, with the economy laid low and financial markets still twitchy, would be the limit of irresponsibility. It would be betting the recovery to make a point. This time, political annihilation might follow, and the party would deserve it.

Avoid this they must, but how do they retreat from their campaign positions without being seen to climb down? My advice to them is simple: they cannot. The Republicans need to moderate their zeal to cut discretionary spending too much and too soon; they need to make the case for measured, long-term reform of Medicare and Social Security; and they need to advance tax reform that will raise revenue without pushing marginal tax rates any higher. The sooner they start climbing down the better. Otherwise, they will fall and go splat.

Then it happened– the GOP forced a showdown over the debt ceiling.

Did Crook live up to his word, and make sure people knew that the Republicans should “fall and go splat”?

Of course not. He wrote, “Obama the Bystander Will Pay the Price.”

(Crook’s weaselling had been predicted by Brad DeLong: “sometime ago Clive Crook said that if the Republicans resist raising the debt ceiling and use it as a political football that they would risk and would deserve political annihilation. But experience shows that they soon return to their both-political-parties-are-equally-at-fault-don’t-bother-me-with-facts crouch…”).

At the moment, the Democratic Party is a centrist, wonkish party, and the Republican Party has nothing but anti-government talking points it crafted in response to the policy challenges and political scene of 1972. Hasn’t always been thus, shall not ever be thus, but that’s where we are right now. Commentary that obscures, rather than highlighting, this essential point actually detracts from readers’ understanding of the world.

ADDED: From a Paul Krugman post on Clive Crook, involving a different debate:

Clive used to be a reasonable guy; in his mind he probably still is a reasonable guy. But he has misunderstood what it means to be reasonable. He now apparently believes that it means declaring, in all circumstances, that Democrats and Republicans are equally in the wrong, even if the Democrats are talking Econ 101 and the Republicans are being led by the crazy 36.

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  • http://www.tarheelred.wordpress.com Pino

    Temperamentally, I find centrism to be quite appealing. It’s fun to try to remain above the fray and criticize the extremes on both sides for all evils.

    I’ve tried to resist this all night…..

    In what way do you consider yourself a centrist? And where do you criticize both sides?

    I just have’ta know ;-)

    • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

      you called our democratically elected President a fascist (definition of fascism: “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.”), so your conception of what centrism would look like is going to be way off.

      Obama’s health care proposal was centrist – a lot of what was in there was proposed by republicans before they went off the deep end. Cap and trade is centrist because it was the left that raised concerns about climate change, but it was a compromise between a carbon tax and doing nothing that was AGAIN proposed by republicans and conservatives and then abandoned. I can’t speak for RE, but these are two centrist proposals that I support.

      • http://www.tarheelred.wordpress.com Pino

        definition of fascism

        That’s one definition. Though I do have to give you credit to leave out the normally obligatory “far right-wing” political system.

        See here: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Fascism.html

        As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer.

        Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the “national interest”—that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it.

        Under fascism, the state, through official cartels, controlled all aspects of manufacturing, commerce, finance, and agriculture. Planning boards set product lines, production levels, prices, wages, working conditions, and the size of firms. Licensing was ubiquitous; no economic activity could be undertaken without government permission. Levels of consumption were dictated by the state, and “excess” incomes had to be surrendered as taxes or “loans.”

        To maintain high employment and minimize popular discontent, fascist governments also undertook massive public-works projects financed by steep taxes, borrowing, and fiat money creation. While many of these projects were domestic—roads, buildings, stadiums—the largest project of all was militarism, with huge armies and arms production.

        With the exception of a military, this is EXACTLY Obama. The words and phrases are eery.

        - use their property in the “national interest”
        - the state, through official cartels, controlled all aspects of manufacturing, commerce, finance, and agriculture.
        - Licensing was ubiquitous; no economic activity could be undertaken without government permission.
        -Levels of consumption were dictated by the state, and “excess” incomes had to be surrendered as taxes or “loans.”
        -governments also undertook massive public-works projects financed by steep taxes, borrowing, and fiat money creation.

        I don’t blame you for trying to equate what I said to militant Nazi/Italian racist governments. It certainly helps your position. However, it isn’t, in fact, what I said.

        Obama DOES, as it turns out, favor the fascist form of economic control by the State. Because you don’t like the word, doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply.

        • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

          Oh for fuck’s sake. Under your definition, about 98% of American politicians in the past half century, and about 99% of NATO politicians, is a fascist. The Labour Party is fascism. Hitler won WWII.

          Under your definition, words have no meaning.

          Just one example: “financed by steep taxes”

          No. The US has just about the lowest taxes in the OECD. Here’s a former Reagan official making that point: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/are-taxes-in-the-u-s-high-or-low/

          • http://www.tarheelred.wordpress.com Pino

            Oh for fuck’s sake. Under your definition, about 98% of American politicians in the past half century, and about 99% of NATO politicians, is a fascist.

            Don’t get mad at me that you’re side is winning.

            You’re right, since the end of the War many many governments have taken this path. In my opinion, it isn’t working. With the exception of the Scandinavian nations, it hasn’t been successful anywhere.

            Anyway, the point was that a critique was leveled against the what, the Tea Party?, for calling Obama a socialist and a fascist. While it may be difficult to call him both, like atheist and Muslim, each fits. He desperately DESPERATELY wants wealth redistributed. He feels the poor are poor because they have been “abused” and “taken advantage” of; it’s “not fair”. And to achieve that end, he embraces economic fascism.

            Words DO have meaning. And in Obama’s world, and I think yours, private property doesn’t mean to you what it means to me. And again, just because you happen not to like the fact doesn’t make it not true.

          • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

            No. You’re just plain wrong. It’s funny – you spend a ton of time on your blog (and in the comments on our blog) talking about the ways in which americans take for granted everything this government provides. This country is the power that it is because adopted a system that is different from the teenage fantasy you advocate. You say it only works in Scandinavia, but your libertarianism has NEVER WORKED ANYWHERE. It is a fantasy and it’s a fantasy that people only can even entertain from the comforts of countries like ours. You get to sit there and talk all about how the current system doesn’t work and how you have all the answers, but all you have is your blind faith that less government means a better nation. There has never been a libertarian country of the kind you advocate. There never will be one. There never can be one. You claim our country hasn’t been the same since The War. Presumably you mean WWI or WWII. The GI Bill, something I can only imagine you would have opposed, is one of the main reasons our country has risen to the heights it has.

            You want limited government, move to Somalia. The government doesn’t do anything and how has it worked out for the Somalis?

    • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

      As we’ve established, people who have views on policy (taxation, regulation) that were conventional, mainstream, and centrist from about 1950 until about 1990 are now called “Democrats.”

      People vote Republican because they think that scientists and negroes are getting a bit uppity, and that Hollyweird shouldn’t impose the homosexual agenda on America.

      I am temperamentally inclined towards centrism. I supported the invasion of Iraq, was thinking around ’02 that I could vote for Bush in ’04, hoped that the Bush fiscal policies would stimulate growth. But then I was mugged by reality. I lived through the past decade.

      With the onset of universal Republican insanity, objectively pointless and terrible ideas– like invading and occupying Iraq, Bush fiscal policy, torturing suspected criminals, wiretapping American citizens without warrants, etc.– came to be depicted as “centrist.”

      But when one of the two parties is completely insane, splitting the difference is a futile, cowardly, absurd pursuit. As John Cole (who was a lifelong Republican until the Bush years, specifically the Schiavo affair) put it very early in the Obama administration:

      I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

      This is quite accurate.

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