Centrism as tribalism

by Henry on October 9, 2009

I’ve been doing my best to resist getting pulled back in by Clive Crook. I really have. I nearly succumbed when I read his Monday FT column, in which otiose self-congratulation dukes it out with utter lack of self-knowledge for seven hundred words but pulled myself back from the brink (self-congratulation wins, but it’s a very close call). But his follow-up blog post has propelled me into the abyss.

Mr. Crook has a theory of what is wrong with American politics. It involves partisanship, of the kind not practiced by himself and his friends.

From the column:

Increasingly, rage is the dominant mood of US politics – but the feeling is not confined to the far right. Committed partisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy. It is one thing for an adversary to be mistaken, quite another to be a liar or traitor. You do not argue with an opponent like that, or seek an accommodation. You silence him, you shout him down, you impeach.

… We floating voters see things differently. We approve of consensual politics, thinking that it delivers better policies. And we believe this for two main reasons.

First, good policy involves trade-offs. In the farther reaches of left and right, these are forbidden. For the left, there could never be a reason to lower taxes on the rich. To improve incentives? No, the less you tax the rich, the richer they become and the lazier they can afford to be. … Second, good policy requires stability. Though Democrats apparently find this hard to imagine, they will not always control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Measures that infuriate the other side – remember the Bush tax cuts? – can be reversed.

And when he is criticized for drawing a false equivalence between the left and right, he responds:

I take the point (though I think this way of putting it is pretty generous to Jimmy Carter). I wasn’t trying to equate these views, or compare their merits, only to give examples from each side of attacks that question not the judgment but the legitimacy of the other. Charges of that kind, which seem to be becoming the standard line of attack, are uniquely toxic.

The problem with these claims is not that they are unreasonable on their face. They are contestable – Nancy Rosenblum’s recent book provides an excellent critique of the ‘fIoating voter as exemplar of independent good judgment’ line of argument – but they are far from ridiculous. And Mr. Crook’s suggestion that leftwingers are constitutionally incapable of understanding that there can ever be any benefits to lowering taxes on rich people can be dismissed as standard right-wing pundit shtick.

The more fundamental problem is that Mr. Crook is peculiarly unsuited to lecture anyone about silencing, shouting down, and questioning not only the judgment but the legitimacy of people whom he disagrees with. Perhaps he truly believes that there is some difference between “questioning the legitimacy” of one’s intellectual opponents, and coming out with vicious slurs like

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.

But me – I’m not quite sure what the precise distinction is between “uniquely toxic” attempts to shout one’s opponents down, and suggestions that people whom one disagrees with view the deaths of several million of their fellow citizens as a “reasonable price to pay” for achieving their political aims. Maybe that’s because of my previously demonstrated “incompetence” and “total lack of good faith.” If so, I look forward to Mr. Crook explaining further the doubtless self-evident (to those who are not chumps like meself) dividing line between the objectionable forms of rhetoric that he dislikes so much, and the presumably non-objectionable forms that he himself spouts so enthusiastically.

In the meantime, I have a theory (it’s no more than that) of what is going on here. Mr. Crook clearly considers himself to be an independent mind, floating above the political fray and pronouncing judgments upon it. But given his past form, he is quite obviously wrong. His particular attitude to the online left suggests that his tribal loyalties are every bit as strong as those of the partisans whom he deplores – he is demonstrably happy to engage in rage-filled, irrational and delegitimizing rhetoric when it is aimed against the enemies of the “We” who “approve of consensual politics.” His tribalism is one of the center rather than the partisan left or right, but it is perhaps more pernicious for being completely unselfconscious.

Here’s the more speculative bit, which you can take or leave as you like. Crook’s more loathsome rhetoric over the last year or so has been consistently reserved for those who
want to see torturers and enablers of torture prosecuted. In a backhanded class of a way, I think this may possibly reflect well on him. I suspect that at some level he is genuinely conflicted between the standard DC bipartisan line on torture (that it is best to brush it all under the carpet) and the argument that torture is a fundamental and basic abrogation of civil rights. Hence – perhaps – his calumniation of those who put the strong case that we should neither forget nor forgive those who authorized torture – it is much easier to ignore their arguments if one defines them out of existence in advance.

As stated – take this suggestion for what it is worth – I have no sources of special insight into Mr. Crook’s psychology. Regardless, Mr. Crook should steer well clear in future of columns (which he has written more than one of over the last few months) deploring the hateful state of American politics and rhetoric. He is himself, after all, a not-insignificant contributor to this problem.

{ 22 comments }

1

Chris Dornan 10.09.09 at 4:24 pm

Henry, I think you are right about torture being a vulnerable point for mindless centerism.

Your article makes an excellent point, that the problem isn’t with partisan differences so much as the way the debate is being carried on. I am looking at Mansfield Park as a critique of Kantian ethics and there is a critical passage in the fourth chapter:

Such were the counsels by which Mrs. Norris assisted to form her nieces’ minds; and it is not very wonderful that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity and humility. In everything but disposition they were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though a truly anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him.

Self-knowledge is an important theme in your post and I agree. Some generosity and humility, a less self-righteous adherence to one’s own ideas, wouldn’t go amiss either (assuming we do want more rational discourse).

2

JulesLt 10.09.09 at 4:33 pm

Now, from where I’m sitting, that sounds less like Centrism, and more like being on the Right – but that’s hardly surprising in a country where the definition of Left has shifted from Socialists, Communists and union members, to the merely Liberal.

Still, congratulations to him on discovering the concept of Ad Hominem.

3

Es-tonea-pesta 10.09.09 at 4:59 pm

And we will pass quickly over Mr. Crook’s suggestion that leftwingers are constitutionally incapable of understanding that there can ever be any benefits to lowering taxes on rich people can be dismissed as standard right-wing pundit shtick.

You’ll have to choose either the beginning or the end of this sentence, I’m afraid.

4

Henry 10.09.09 at 5:21 pm

Thanks – corrected.

5

mpowell 10.09.09 at 5:33 pm

I think the simplest insight here is that Crook is an ass.

There are some many problems with his argument it is hard to see where to begin, but here is one that is occasionally overlooked: just because political extremists are far from the center of current political debate, it does not mean they can’t comprehend the idea of balance. Some leftist would soak the rich. Some would soak the rich and nationalize major industries (I am simplifying here, obviously). The assumption that because a group of people don’t see any need to balance considerations on issues where you come down in the middle hardly proves they are constitutionally incapable of it. And really, this applies to both the right and the left. If anything, I would argue that Crook’s need to find the middle of acceptable political opinion shows more mindless adherence to meaningless political positions than for the average leftist. At least the leftist has a meaningfully coherent philosophy to refer to.

6

Barry 10.09.09 at 5:43 pm

” If anything, I would argue that Crook’s need to find the middle of acceptable political opinion shows more mindless adherence to meaningless political positions than for the average leftist. At least the leftist has a meaningfully coherent philosophy to refer to.”

Two comments – first, how much adherence did he show during the Bush administration? Unless he was similarly forceful and hardcore on the subject (e.g., did he every insult right-wingers as much as he insulted torture oppenents), then he’s just another lying right-winger.

Second, even if he had, he could still be pulling the “Death!!!!!!!!” vs. “Cake” false equivalency (i.e., ‘splitting the difference’ between a reasonable alternative and an unreasonable alternative).

7

Barry 10.09.09 at 5:45 pm

Sigh. change the first parentheses to:

“(e.g., did he ever insult right-wingers as much as he insulted torture opponents)”

8

tristero 10.09.09 at 7:31 pm

A common ploy on the right, to deplore the excesses of both sides, but somehow, for some reason, there don’t seem to be too many examples on the right that get mentioned.

Me, I make no bones about it. I don’t want to see a “middle ground” or “consensus” between liberalism – which, by the way, is not “the left” – and the extreme right politics of the modern Republican party. Why? Because it simply isn’t possible. We are talking about people who have made it quite clear they want even a moderate like Obama to fail and whose vision of America is so bizarre, they run their candidates in stealth mode so no one knows what they actually stand for.

I want to see the extremists on the right pushed back to the margins of American discourse, where they so clearly belong. It is utterly shameful that Crook makes a false equivalence between them and mainstream liberals, but it is not a new tactic.

9

Steve LaBonne 10.09.09 at 7:47 pm

A common ploy on the right, to deplore the excesses of both sides, but somehow, for some reason, there don’t seem to be too many examples on the right that get mentioned.

And what’s worse is that your garden-variety clueless liberal is only too happy, in discussions with “centrists”, to enable this scam by readily agreeing (seeking thereby to strengthen his or her own “mainstream” creds) that, sure, Michael Moore is crazy (or the like), thereby collaborating in the rightward movement of the Overton window.

10

dsquared 10.09.09 at 7:59 pm

A common ploy on the right, to deplore the excesses of both sides, but somehow, for some reason, there don’t seem to be too many examples on the right that get mentioned

as Jamie Kenny puts it in a sort of version of Godwin’s Law, you can more or less guarantee that when someone starts out by saying “Communism was as bad as Nazism”, within finite time with probability one, he will end up expressing a preference for the Nazis.

11

Chris 10.09.09 at 8:09 pm

For the left, there could never be a reason to lower taxes on the rich.

He’s not arguing with the left, or seeking an accommodation. He’s strawmanning the left to push it out of the Overton Window. I don’t see that as very different from silencing or shouting down.

Let me be the first to explode Clive Crook’s head by saying that I’m on the left and I believe there could be circumstances in which it would be a good idea to lower taxes on the rich. We just aren’t presently in those circumstances, or likely to be in them any time in the foreseeable future.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of the Laffer Curve, and if you actually are on the descending part of it, then lowering tax rates is a good idea. What’s wrong with the Laffer Curve is the constant attempt to claim we are on the descending side when the evidence clearly shows otherwise.

I can think of three actual situations where it would be a good idea to cut taxes on the rich. The first is if the rich-and-productive (as an example I’ll use Steve Jobs) are *actually being deterred from working* by high tax rates. Do you see Steve Jobs working one day a week and taking the other four off because it just isn’t worth the effort when he only gets to keep 70% of his tens of thousands of dollars per hour gross pay? Me neither. (Actually, I doubt that a techie like Jobs is all that money motivated in the first place, especially after the first couple million. More study of the psychology of people like Jobs might produce a more realistic estimate of the effect of marginal tax rates on behavior.)

The second is if there are many potentially-productive opportunities to invest in means of production that would increase economic output in the future (e.g. building factories), but nobody is actually making the investments because there are no investable funds or because capital gains are being taxed at some extremely high rate that skews the risk-reward calculations. (1) What we have is, if anything, the opposite — lots of investment in risky and unproductive assets and loans to people with little capacity to repay who aren’t planning to do anything productive with the money, because it’s really not a good time to build factories but there’s tons of investment capital looking for someplace to park.

Finally, the third situation is where taxes are so high that a whole industry is pushed into the black market to avoid them. Most black markets arise from outright bans on the transaction in question, but a sufficiently high tax *could* have the same effect, which would eliminate it as a revenue measure (and also deliver money to organized crime). Theoretically a *really* high income tax could do this to the whole economy, but in practice that has never happened and seems almost impossible that it could ever happen.

(1) Limited liability skews risk-reward *in favor* of risky investments, because you can’t lose more than the equity invested but there’s no limit to the upside if the investment pays off. This results in investments with negative expected return being undertaken anyway because some of the costs can be externalized through bankruptcy if the venture fails. (This effect is even stronger if the founder expects to work as a manager, because then his/her managerial salary is a guaranteed return regardless of success or failure. Literally any failed business can be a profitable undertaking if you can convince someone else to pay you to manage it until it crashes. The only limiting factor is finding venture capitalists willing to buy shares in Newcastle Coal Importation, Ltd.)

In order for capital gains taxes to suppress *valuable* investment they have to be an even stronger effect in the opposite direction. It’s not sufficient to say they suppress investment that would have been undertaken otherwise if that investment would have had negative expected overall return including externalizable risk.

12

Chris 10.09.09 at 8:16 pm

Hmm, I didn’t realize quite how big a wall of economics text that was going to be.

Nevertheless, the mere existence of a substantive left-ish approach to the question refutes Crook’s strawman.

13

JM 10.09.09 at 9:31 pm

And Mr. Crook’s suggestion that leftwingers are constitutionally incapable of understanding that there can ever be any benefits to lowering taxes on rich people can be dismissed as standard right-wing pundit shtick.

Pretending there’s something congenitally wrong with leftwingers for not being “able” to admit Crook is right certainly preserves Crook from having to frame a rational argument. But it’s unconvincing.

Sadly, the job of selling regressive tax changes after the umpteenth failure of voodoo economics will fall to a more capable and imaginative fraud.

14

Dick Hertz 10.09.09 at 11:41 pm

Crook shows that even those who pretend a libertarian centrism are ideologically blindered if not fundamentally dishonest. The “left” in America today appears to be Rockefeller Republicans; there are few socialists outside of Vermont and hardly a Wobbly or Internationale member knocking down jails or getting massacred by “the man” (e.g. Everett Massacre, Centralia Massacre, Colorado mining strike breaking with the National Guard). There is a vast muddled generation of people who wonder what happened to the world of reasonable people and reasonable programs that evolved in the postwar years to take care of people. These gains are the socialism Crook and his FT ilk are desperate to remove, if only to bring back the power of Dickens’ prose.

15

paul 10.10.09 at 12:23 am

Crook is also wrong in his notion that good policy requires stability. Although obviously changing things too fast runs the risk of dismantling a policy before its effects have even been felt, there’s pretty clear evidence that those bright back-room kids, who get paid so much to circumvent the spirit of whatever rules are put in place to protect against their previous debacle, typically require 5-15 years to put a new bag of tricks into place. So the policy/regulatory environment really needs to change at least that fast to keep them from making the next debacle even more widespread.

But I still wish Henry and everybody else wouldn’t give in to the orwellian use of “centrism”. The “center” is somewhere to the right of where the right used to be.

16

Jeff Crook 10.10.09 at 1:49 am

Clive is from the mossy, lightning-struck, kudzu-strangled side of the family tree. I will make no apologies for him.

17

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.10.09 at 8:31 am

Just an affirmation of the standard paradigm with a narrow official doctrine and heresies around it. The heretics are not rational, by definition. Quite possibly, slightly insane. Sluggishly progressing schizophrenia.

18

Barry 10.10.09 at 4:07 pm

Henri, perhaps your comment was missing a few words, to make the meaning clear?

19

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.10.09 at 5:48 pm

Defense of the Centrism is an affirmation of the official doctrine, an attempt to narrow the range of acceptable opinions. That’s what I’m saying.

20

Arion 10.10.09 at 6:02 pm

When Disraeli said “That sir, depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles” he was not exactly being gracious. Yet I’m awfully glad he said it. perhaps there’s room for a good deal of the old nasty provided it is delivered with style.

21

Steve LaBonne 10.10.09 at 8:07 pm

When Disraeli said “That sir, depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles” he was not exactly being gracious.

I thought that was John Wilkes.

22

snuh 10.12.09 at 12:24 am

Second, good policy requires stability. Though Democrats apparently find this hard to imagine, they will not always control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Measures that infuriate the other side – remember the Bush tax cuts? – can be reversed.

this made me laugh. crook inserts a bit about the bush tax cuts, to show his centrist bona fides to a sceptical left, but only makes a fool of himself: the bush tax cuts will repeal themselves in 10 years because they were enacted with a sunset provision. the democrats don’t need to reverse them.

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