Saturday, October 22, 2011

Yonder There Be Dragons: The Curse of Centrism

Gentle reader, I invite you to accompany me on a journey to a faraway, mythical land.  Step this way, and mind the gap.

On your left, you might have noticed a picturesque, snow-covered land...that’s Narnia.  And over there on your right, where you see that smouldering volcano and the short, hairy people running around, is Middle Earth.  Don’t venture too far out there...I’ve heard that the orcs are getting restive these days.  Out there somewhere—nobody’s sure just where, but we’ll tell you when we find it—is Utopia, and beyond those hills lies Oz. 

But now, reader, if you will turn your attention from these wondrous worlds, let us now stop and gaze on this fair land which now stretches out before us.  It is oft-described but seldom-seen.  Its name is The Centre, and if you’re quiet enough, and are sufficiently sharp-eyed, you might just manage to see one of its elusive denizens, a Moderate.


I couldn’t begin to speculate about the origin of the Moderate, and I remain unsure of how much real purchase the term has amongst the people who supposedly comprise its members.  But political moderation and centrism are concepts best-beloved of a certain stripe of commentator.  The species and the idea are seen as a throw-back to happier days, and are regarded as a cure-all for California’s political ill-fortune.

Witness LA Times political writer George Skelton sum up Governor Jerry Brown’s philosophy as follows: “Gov. Jerry Brown is not a mystery.  He’s a moderate”.  Or listen to the California Moderate Party describe its ambitions to “end hyperpartisanship and start a movement to fix government, create jobs, and improve education”.  Or read Kevin Starr describe cross-filing (a process which seeks to create cookie-cutter, ‘middle of the road’ political candidates) as a reform which could help to save California (in Lustig’s Remaking California).  Or come back to Skelton to see him praise David Crane’s idea of a “grand bargain” in which we take the middle road that means the adoption of solutions mid-way between those proposed by Democrats and those proposed by Republicans.

So what’s the problem with this place called The Centre, supposedly inhabited by ever-growing numbers of Californians as they flee from the two major parties, or with the idea of political moderation?  Being a ‘moderate’ certainly doesn’t sound bad.  The word has a positive connotation.  Being in-between ‘extremes’ might have a certain appeal.  Let’s start to unpack that.

Firstly there’s the fallacy which assumes that if someone doesn’t agree with either the Republican or Democratic Parties, they must be half-way between them.  For some that might be true, but it’s not likely the case for Tea Partiers who see the Republicans’ assault on labour, environmental protections, education funding and the efficacy of the state as timid and half-hearted.  Nor is it true for those who believe in social democracy, and think that it makes more sense to grant more powers of supervision and regulation to an entity that is democratic and accountable, rather than scattering those powers amongst a diverse and incoherent group of corporations and industries who are primary concerned with profits.  And what of the libertarians, who think that an overweening security state and gun laws are dangerous, or environmentalists, who aren’t very likely to hear either of the main parties talk about issues that are important to them?

What we quickly realise is that not only is the absence of ‘moderation’ not the problem (the political spectrum is wide, multi-dimensional, and people’s views are not always easily pigeonholed), but that if we had a legislature full of ‘moderate’ candidates, even fewer people would have their views represented, because only a very shallow and a-philosophical (I’ll come to this later) slice of the spectrum would have its concerns aired.  If all of our politics gathered around a pollster’s statistic, we would see the mass disenfranchisement of Californians who have actual views about how our society should function.

So why the enduring appeal of The Centre and of Moderates?  I suspect that in part it has to do with the laziness of journalists and pollsters.  Un-affiliated voters (sometimes called non-partisan voters) are assumed to occupy the space between the two parties.  And you can understand how, when the media spends a lot of time braying about political polarisation, and the two main parties spend millions of dollars labelling each other ‘extremists’, people might feel pressured to identify with somewhere as comfortable-sounding as The Centre.  After all, who wants to be affiliated with a group that all the networks and newspapers and shock-jocks and comedians are labelling hyperpartisan and ‘extreme’?  This might account for the Moderate Party claiming that 32% of voters are Middle-of-the-Road (which, it should be noted, is not a philosophy).

But reality is more complicated.  The ‘None of the Above’ category now comprises nearly a quarter of California’s electorate.  That means that roughly 56% of California’s voters do not associate themselves with the Democratic Party.  But larger percentages than that regularly declare their willingness to spend more money on schools and universities (that is, they would approve of more taxes, although they are less clear on where those taxes should come from and on whom they should be levied).  The point is that anyone with an ear to the ground or a finger on the pulse of Conventional Wisdom knows that only raging socialist, tax and spend, liberal, anti-Freedom, godless, Islamist Democrats favour spending on institutions like schools and universities.  So how do we go about reconciling the mismatch in these numbers?  If you believe in the fantasy world of The Centre and in the mythical creatures called Moderates, you can’t.

But the more critically-minded might question the wisdom of assuming that all un-affiliated voters are ‘Centrists’, and might wonder whether it makes sense, when trying to gauge the politics of the public, to ask them to position themselves along a spectrum with so few options (Democrat, Republican, Other), which are often very meaningless.  Because after all, people in different parts of the state with different modes and styles of politics are going to have different concerns and priorities, and might have different ideas about left and right or prefer a different blend of policies. 

If the logic behind the cult of Centrism is sketchy from the outset, it all breaks down even more when you sit down to have a conversation with a proponent of Centrism.  In my experience, it generally goes something like this.  “So what is the Moderate platform?”  “We’re about non-partisanship and efficiency”.  “But what’s the moving philosophy behind Centrism?”  “Governmental efficiency, managing things well, making tough choices and being honest about those choices”.  “But Efficiency isn’t really a philosophy.  It describes how you’re going to do something, not what is going to be done.  How would you decide what to do?”.  “We’ll adopt the policies that make the most sense for California”.  “But what’s the philosophical mechanism by which you choose one solution over another?  At some point you have to choose, and shouldn’t you be directed by some kind of moral compass?”  And so on...

And therein lies the rub for Centrists.  Nothing would make me more happy than to see more political parties in California.  But go to the website of the Moderate Party, and you’ll soon see what the problem is.  The aspiring party’s agenda is to “Fix Government”, “Create Jobs”, and “Improve Education”.  They will do that through “Collaboration”, “Innovation: finding practical, common sense solutions, embracing new and creative thinking, and rejecting bureaucracy and rigid rules”, and “Results”.  Their central message: “Smarter Government, Better Outcomes, Faster Progress”. 

Forgive me if I’m not blown away, but the first thing I look for when I go shopping for a political party is a philosophy.  It goes deeper than the above in the fine-print, but not always very much.  And the solutions are a random grab-bag.  There’s no way that I or other people would vote for a party when we couldn’t predict how they were going to react to a problem.  And there is no serious philosophy. 

It’s a technocratic endeavour which is trying to pretend that “collaboration, innovation and results” will de facto lead to “smarter government, better outcomes and faster progress”.  Who defines a good outcome?  Progress towards what?  There is no indication what would be this party’s moving principles when it comes time to face the predicaments that bedevil the extant parties.  And the reliance on shibboleths is disheartening.  Who wouldn’t like to find “practical, common sense solutions”?  The problem is that one person’s practical, common sense solution (investing in Pre-K, K-12 and higher education with the expectation that such investment will produce a more equal society, give more people more opportunities, create critical citizens, lead to innovation in technical, scientific and moral spheres which will help society as a whole) is another person’s “liberal tyranny”, “fascism”, “communism” or “anti-Americanism”.  It’s easy to say that we need to create jobs, but there is no a-political, philosophically-neutral way to go about creating jobs (as the debates since 2008 show).

The other Centrist tactic is to bemoan partisanship and to say, “Can’t-we-all-just-get-along”.  The call for bipartisanship is misplaced.  Bipartisanship, in the context of U.S. politics seems to mean taking one part of one idea and one part of another idea (without any regard for the merits of the ideas in question), and mashing them together to satisfy the egos of the ideas’ proponents.  It’s a politician-oriented approach which exhibits a total disregard for good policymaking, which should require ideological coherence—otherwise the policy will be an abject mess, something you would think we would have learned at the federal level of government long ago.  Bipartisanship disrespects elections which turn up winners, and ignores other solutions (fair voting and multi-member districting) which could make our politics more genuinely democratic.

What we need is not a rush to a fantasy world populated by dry technocrats, clerks and scribblers, devoid of philosophy and passion rather than elves, dwarves, dragons and witches.  We need to create the conditions in which elections matter.  So that if the Democrats or Republicans win, they can do something.  At present, support for the Democrats could vary between 51 and 66% and it simply doesn’t matter very much.  That’s wrong. 

In 2010, in California, we turned to the Man on the White Horse.  The destrier turned out to be a nag, and the man himself is sitting the wrong way ‘round in the saddle.  Now the Centrist brigade think it’s their hour.  But they have their lance firmly fixed on a monster that doesn’t exist, and are ready to make a charge that would take California for another uncomfortable ride. 

We do not need technocrats or non-ideological managers.  We need representatives and parties that care about people, have forceful agendas that reflect a philosophy of some kind, and are passionate about promoting those philosophies and their policy outgrowths.

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