I used to call myself a “centrist.” Then I stopped.
Tom Friedman last week called for “radical centrism,” which is not only an oxymoron but is also exactly what this country doesn’t require. Paul Krugman correctly points out: “The ‘both sides are at fault’ people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray.”
As a former centrist, I can say that the tendency toward centrism comes out of fear. The fear is of adhering to a side that must be defended. A lack of belief in something that merits defending. A moral vagueness that doesn’t understand advocating for a position. A political centrist reasons that he doesn’t want to be labeled a Republican or Democrat because sometimes he thinks Republicans are right, and sometimes he thinks Democrats are right. The centrist believes that adherence to a named party is a prerequisite for participation in political dialogue, and refusing to adhere to that orthodoxy puts him above the fray, effectively meaning that he doesn’t have to defend anything.
The fractious state of political discourse in the United States in 2011 is not due to partisanship. It’s due to unequal partisanship. As the Republican National Committee solidified and became a monolithic organization in which all members fell into lockstep, the Democratic Party became disjointed and more milquetoast. As Fox News became the explicit communications arm of the RNC, the Democratic Party did nothing. As the RNC used its unified communications platforms to promote a unified agenda, the Democratic Party bickered within itself. The Republican agenda condensed inside the minds of enough Americans that, suddenly, positions that would have seemed radical and untenable fifteen years ago — unions are bad, war is great, corporations know what’s good for us — are now normalized, and the formerly “moderate” positions have been pushed to the left.
This is the problem with centrism: the “let’s agree to disagree” stance ignores the occasions when one person is right and one person is wrong. Sometimes, there is no middle ground. The sky is blue, period. Water is wet, period. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory, end of story. The fallacy of false equivalence would like to attribute “two sides to every story,” but there are one-sided stories.
Let’s take the budget as another convenient example. Republicans want deficit decreases, but they also want revenue decreases. When they say they want tax cuts, they necessarily mean, “We want revenue decreases.” Taxes are revenue. Lower taxes, and you lower revenue. Balancing our budget using spending decreases requires balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. The wealthiest Americans see more income, while the poorest see less. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security all get cut. These are not “partisan” propositions. These are not things upon which we can compromise. If John Boehner gets his way, entitlements programs will be cut. Social welfare programs will be cut. Rich people? Not cut. Bolstered, in fact. The people who can most afford a hit will be be hit the least, and the people who can least afford a hit will be hit the most. Tom Friedman is wealthy, so he doesn’t care to inquire more.
Coming out of this, only one party’s plan will succeed, but not because of partisanship. It’s because Republicans refuse to compromise. Their definition of compromise is “Give us everything we want or we’ll drag the country to a screeching halt.” Because someone high up in Democratic Strategy Headquarters misunderstood this, centrism, or at least the lip-service of it, got us where we are right now. President Obama and John Boehner were playing two different games. Obama thought they were playing with Super Soakers, but Boehner was playing with a shotgun. This has been Obama’s problem since his election: he was too centrist. He was too willing to agree to disagree, let bygones be bygones, live and let live, ad nauseum. Republicans didn’t see compromise as a strength; they saw it as a weakness.
It was Jesus Christ, after all, who said that people should turn the other cheek. Then they nailed him to some wood and let him die
after three days. I wonder what post-crucifixion Jesus would say about that. It’s all well and good to rely on others’ sense of shame to passively motivate them to do things, but that presupposes that they have a sense of shame. Boehner, et al. have shown that they are completely immune to any sense of shame, or irony, self-respect, hypocrisy, or anything else that might get non-reptiles to do worthwhile things. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has shown that it really couldn’t care less about governance. Its game is wait out the clock. Drive the economy into the tank, and then in November of 2012, complain about how the Obama administration drove the economy into the tank in order to elect some new people.
And this problem won’t be solved by sitting on the sidelines, arms folded in scorn, lamenting how partisanship is destroying us. Partisanship may just save us. It’s not both parties that are trying to hurt America equally. Only one party is trying to give tax cuts to the wealthy, torpedo the social safety net, destroy unions, and use the sorry state of the economy as a sword to get its people into power. When Tom Friedman refuses to acknowledge this, he demonstrates that he lives in a parallel universe (perhaps as research for his new book, The Galaxy Is Flat).
Update: Rich points out that my Christian history is woeful. In my defense, if it’s not Early Modern England or the United States, I don’t know what’s going on.