The Political Function of "Serious Centrists"

There's a certain facade I always find myself coming back to when critiquing America and other members of the democracy-in-name-only club, its main purpose to make what is going on in the political sphere appear as if it is representative of what the general public wishes.  That, after all, is the driving concept behind democracy.  People aspire to have a government which, at the very least, represents them.

The facade is not without its flaws, though.  Because the substance of what goes on between politicians involves more lies and deceit than anything, cracks regularly form in the outer layer.  When the citizenry sees through these, crying out for reform, it then becomes the utmost concern of the ruling class to bottle up this political energy into something far less than revolutionary.  That's where having a government with a limited number of powerful players comes in handy.  With but a few monolithic parties (rather than many diverse ones), it becomes incredibly easy to reign in anything deemed too extreme, and thus ensure that business as usual is not interrupted.

By directing the masses' attention into battles so far removed from human relevance that they're not unlike worrying over the intentions of a single fly amidst a full scale infestation, these parties capture all but the most astute of political observers.  Point and counterpoint continue unabated.  Every argument seems so important, and it's difficult not to get caught up in the fury.  To make things worse, there is the allure of influence attached - "If I lend my talents to one side or the other," one might muse, "perhaps I too can become an Important Person." 

This stifling effect is especially obvious when watching debates in America between Democrats and Republicans.  Because the two parties almost completely control the dialogue, the perspective needed to escape from these myopic trappings is never provided.  Instead, the sides endlessly repeat talking points and try to one-up each other using the latest gossip from their favorite blogs.

And in those rare occasions when those watching see this charade for what it is?  Well.  Then, finally, the centrist's true purpose is revealed.  The angry peons must be kept feeling that the system is working, and not to blame; that way any damage to the elites' way of life can be contained.  So, it becomes incredibly convenient to have a class of people who will argue that the real problem in politics is that the ideologues on both sides refuse to work together and come to a sensible conclusion.  This group tells observers that mass movements and revolutionary organizing are unnecessary.  Just vote the right people into office - the McCains and the Liebermans, those who will bridge the divide - and all will be well.

And that is exactly the type of thing you might hear from the 'reasonable', pragmatic, and wholly unprincipled David Brooks of the New York Times.  This week, he's written an exceptionally inane (even by his standards) column, wherein he compares Democratic and Republican attitudes to dance moves he's made up in his head.  Yes, it really is that bad.

Here's how Charles Pierce at Esquire prefaced it:

You know those slasher movies where the teenager walks up toward the cabin door in the middle of the night and you think to yourself, "No, don't open that door!"? You know how you feel when you see your child drive for the first time, or the chill that goes through you as you look over the brim of a cliff? That's what it feels like when you see David Brooks edging toward a metaphor.

Now, you might think that someone whose writing causes people to consistently feel both physical and emotional pain wouldn't be given as prominent a voice as Brooks has.  You might think that, but then you would be wrong.  You see, David Brooks is quite useful.  He plays the centrist gig better than most, and for that he is generously rewarded.

In this particular column, he's worried over the fact the two parties haven't yet come to an agreement over the next 'fiscal-cliff'-like posturing nonsense - they're calling it sequestration.  He claims the political 'dances' the parties perform are hurting America more than anything, and for the sake the country they need to come together and implement something which looks... a lot like a right-wing proposal, with a vague tax increase added on somewhere.  And while tax increases are easily reversible, the restructuring of entitlement programs Brooks touts is not.

Now, Brooks may often seem either stupid or naive (and his metaphors certainly do nothing to help his case), but this is largely an act.  What he and most other prominent centrists are actually aiming for is to influence public opinion ever so carefully into the hands of wealthy elites - that is, further and further to the right.  To this goal, they must entice both Democratic bloggers and politicians into accepting their worldview.

How do they do this?

Well, they start by attempting to frame the debate.  Brooks, in this piece, argues much more forcefully against the Democratic position than he does against the Republican one.  He claims Democrats must bend over backward to meet the opinions of "serious" thinkers.  After all, business interests and economists are on his side, and who is more serious than they?  To the outside observer, this argumentation may seem pathetic, but it carries considerable weight for those who want to be accepted amongst the beltway.  You simply have to kowtow to some powerful interest or another in order to get any play in Washington.

This time, Brooks actually went as far as to claim Obama didn't even have a plan set up for the sequester.  That turned out to be the juiciest of tidbits - something no hopeful party fluffer could ignore.  And sure enough, the President's Valorous Defenders immediately stepped in to note that - ha! - Obama does have a plan.

Both sides now were thinking "Gotcha!".  Only one was right.

The Democratic faithful were now stuck in a debate pulled from thin air - an argument about nothing in particular.  No longer were they discussing who should share the burden in society, or even anything resembling economics at all.  Now the question was: did a plan exist?  And if it did, was it a planny enough plan?  Was it a plan that had a chance to woo Republicans?  Alternately:  How crazy is David Brooks for saying Obama didn't have a plan?  Why does he still have a job?

Ezra Klein, for one, dedicated far too much time to having a "conversation" with Brooks along these very lines.  Brooks used this forum to continue to spout right-wing ideas and talking points while acting as if he was 'playing to the middle'.  Overall, nothing of substance was ever mentioned.

Jonathan Chait, on the other hand, took the "David Brooks is crazy" route, comparing his denial of the plan to the Birthers' denial that Obama was born in the U.S.  But, in his defense of Obama and the Democrats (blaming, as usual, the Republicans' unwillingness to compromise), he starts off with this incredibly awful argument:

As a general rule, the craziest, most rabid, most provably false political ideas come from the political extremes. They flourish within small ideological subcultures that lock out opposing viewpoints. But occasionally such weird myths can be found not on the fringes but in the center.

Ironically, Chait is drawing a false equivalency between "political extremes", at the same time he's taking Brooks to the woodshed for doing the same with the two parties.  America, of course, has no leftist movement on the scale of the right-wing extremists Chait mocks in that very post (tea partiers, birthers, etc).  Hell, the closest thing to a left-wing movement existing at all would be Occupy, which expresses nothing which could even remotely fit into the category of "the craziest, most rabid, most provably false political ideas".

What then, is he on about?  Well, while Brooks plays to the middle ground fallacy and keeps his blinders on very close, Chait simply extends them a little bit further.  Both have the same effect - to restrict political debate within certain boundaries - only that one is more constrained than the other.  For Chait, Klein, and other liberal pundits, anything too far beyond the range of the two political parties is dangerously idealistic, and must be marginalized.  They'll debate with a Republican (or a Republican in centrist's clothing) for a few hours, but damned if they're going to entertain anyone so far to the left they could be called radical.

And while these hacks continue to reflexively defend Democratic politicians, the faith they have in the party to stick to something resembling liberal policy (let alone something resembling a real, functional left) is continually proven to be unfounded.

Peter Hart at FAIR alluded to this when he also attempted to make this non-story into a point about Brooks and the media which supports him.  Hart explained the elite media's mindset:

[Their conviction is] that the political parties have become hopelessly polarized, and that serious leaders are needed to find the Sensible Center.
Another way of looking at things is that the Republican party is fundamentally intransigent, on issues large and small. And the Democratic party–led by the current White House–is prone to moving to the right in order to appeal to Republican sensibilities, to no avail.

Simply put: Barack Obama and much of the core of the Democratic party want to move to the right.  They identify with wealthy elites (indeed, they are wealthy elites) much more so than they identify with the common people they claim to represent.  The only real limiting factor on their ability to work toward their right wing interest is that of the voting public, whose whims they still must somewhat respect.

However, the idea that the Democrats should legislate to appease their base has been thoroughly dismantled in recent times.  Politicians themselves have found it much easier to just make fancy speeches, while keeping their policies complex enough to where there's always some doubt of the actual motive behind them.  In this mentality, even when you legislate as a "moderate Republican" - as Obama has - your supporters will fall back on your words as proof you're really trying hard to implement leftist reforms.  They'll make the excuses for you: "He compromised now so he can get something in return later", "Those obstructionist Republicans block everything he does!", etc...

Even when this fails, you can still play off of voters' fear of the Republican party, appealing to the lesser of evils.  That strategy has worked tremendously, even tearing at my own mind like clockwork every election cycle.

But the centrists come into play here as well.  Election after election, they repeat the claim that in order to win, Democrats must win the "swing voters" - alleged moderates who haven't made up their mind and may vote either way.  Of course, the idea that a significant portion of public fits snugly in between the two right-wing corporatist parties is a ridiculous notion at face value.  People may be undecided on who they will vote for, but that's due more to the extremely limited options than it is to their place in on the political compass.  The only opinions adequately represented in American politics are those surrounding very specific social questions (the marriage equality and abortion debates, for example).  Meanwhile, the vast majority of important economic and foreign policy positions are left completely off the table.

An inconvenient fact usually omitted from this discussion is that only 50-60% of those eligible to vote in any given presidential election do so.  Why shouldn't the Democrats aim to win over the huge block of apathetic citizens, instead?

The answer is obvious: while the centrist thoroughly believes in the current structure of American politics, and only wishes the two parties would get along and embrace capitalist utopia, the apathetic citizen - for whatever reason - feels the system has failed and doesn't want to be involved at all.  You need to advocate for some serious reform in order to get them on board, and that is - again - off the table.

After all, the objective here is not to give in to the demands of the people, but to obtain compliance and manufacture consent.  And in this game, the centrist is just one player - witting or not - amongst many.

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