Partisan centrism

by Henry on December 28, 2010

Mirabile dictu, Clive Crook writes an op-ed on partisanship that is largely unobjectionable.

Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.
… I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough? Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof. In a system that requires opposing sides to deal with each other – and a divided Congress is one such system – a polite exchange of views certainly helps. But there is no reason to think that the mid-point between fundamentally irreconcilable positions has any merit, even if you can say what the mid-point is, which you usually cannot.
US centrists, if any still exist, need some policies and a willingness to defend them, not rules of etiquette. The middle is not an ideology-free zone, where you see “what’s best for America” the moment you take off your partisan goggles. Nothing is resolved by asking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Centrism needs an ideology, too – the more strident, the better. Without one, it is empty. It is No Labels. What does such an ideology look like? Strange to say, but the US might need to look to Europe to remind itself. The classic form, and the template for subsequent variants, is the celebrated “social market” model of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his disciples, which produced Germany’s postwar economic miracle: in a nutshell, it is social insurance plus economic liberty. It is a fundamentally pro-capitalist worldview, with an ambitious though narrowly defined role for government.

I imagine that defending such an ideology, in terms “the more strident the better,” would suit Crook far better than the plague-on-both-your-houses-but-really-on-the-vile-leftist-extremists stuff that he has shovelled out in enormous quantities in past op-eds. Crook is not, and never has been a commentator aloof from politics. He is, baldly speaking, an ideological hack. But as Max Weber tells us at length, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a demagogue or ideological hack if you are a politician in a democratic state. It is notable that Weber singles out journalism as a particularly important form of political practice.

To take a stand, to be passionate—ira et studium—is the politician’s element, and above all the element of the political leader. His conduct is subject to quite a different, indeed, exactly the opposite, principle of responsibility from that of the civil servant. … The honor of the political leader, of the leading statesman … lies precisely in an exclusive personal responsibility for what he does, a responsibility he cannot and must not reject or transfer. It is in the nature of officials of high moral standing to be poor politicians, and above all, in the political sense of the word, to be irresponsible politicians. In this sense, they are politicians of low moral standing, such as we unfortunately have had again and again in leading positions. … Since the time of the constitutional state, and definitely since democracy has been established, the ‘demagogue’ has been the typical political leader in the Occident. The distasteful flavor of the word must not make us forget that not Cleon but Pericles was the first to bear the name of demagogue. … Modern demagoguery also makes use of oratory, even to a tremendous extent, if one considers the election speeches a modern candidate has to deliver. But the use of the printed word is more enduring. The political publicist, and above all the journalist, is nowadays the most important representative of the demagogic species.

If one is engaging in demagogic journalism, it is much better to do so openly and forthrightly than to waver back and forth as convenience dictates between directly ideological attacks on one’s opponents and pretenses that one is above it all. The guff at the end of Crook’s piece about Democrats “flirting with straightforward anti-capitalism” is much easier (for me at least) to take as standard partisan rhetoric than as pronunciations from on high. Crook has directly and frankly identified himself with a partisan position, albeit one on behalf of a party that does not yet exist. And he is (as a good partisan should), doing his best to make the case for his own party by doing down its electoral rivals.

And while I am not sure that Crook’s partisanship could ever be fully realized (I do not know that there is sufficient political basis to create a US political party on its basis with even a limited degree of mass appeal), it still seems to me to be one that could appeal to a significant chunk of the intelligentsia. It is plausible that people, ranging from, say, Brad DeLong on the left to, say, Bruce Bartlett on the right could plausibly sign up to something like German Christian Democracy even if they would quite possibly have many other reasons to fight amongst each other like cats and dogs.

{ 16 comments }

1

DN 12.28.10 at 8:32 pm

You didn’t actually grab the choice quotation from Weber:

It can, to be sure, be just as obligatory subjectively for the practical politician, in the individual case, to mediate between antagonistic points of view as to take sides with one of them. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with scientific “objectivity.” Scientifically the “middle course” is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right or left. Nowhere are the interests of science more poorly served in the long run than in those situations where one refuses to see uncomfortable facts and the realities of life in all their starkness. The Archiv will struggle relentlessly against the severe self-deception which asserts that through the synthesis of several party points of view, or by following a line between them, practical norms of scientific validity can be arrived at. It is necessary to do this because, since this piece of self-deception tries to mask its own standards of value in relativistic terms, it is more dangerous to the freedom of research than the former naive faith of parties in the scientific “demonstrability” of their dogmas. The capacity to distinguish between empirical knowledge and value-judgments, and the fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever increasing firmness

Indeed, your whole post is a bit of rehash of Weber–and I mean this in the best sense.

2

Straightwood 12.28.10 at 8:44 pm

The great achievement of American plutocracy is that it has created partisan controversy over issues that are largely irrelevant to the steady concentration of wealth. Abortion, homosexual rights, immigration, and “terrorism” absorb and deflect so much political energy that the dirty work of fine print manipulation of the law for plutocratic advantage proceeds unhindered. Thus the people’s pockets are picked while they are distracted by a false politics of misdirection.

3

Warren Terra 12.28.10 at 9:36 pm

What I found amusing about No Labels was that they stole their artwork. They’re not satisfied with being Intellectually Bankrupt – they’re actual Intellectual Property Felons!

4

chris 12.28.10 at 9:50 pm

Thus the people’s pockets are picked while they are distracted by a false politics of misdirection.

Actually, the politics of misdirection is itself a means of picking people’s pockets. See, e.g., _The Wrecking Crew_.

5

Omega Centauri 12.28.10 at 10:34 pm

Admittedly I haven’t looked into it in any detail whatsoever. I was chuckling too loudly when I heard about it. Nevertheless, it just might be a useful gimmick to get some politicians to think about decent policy, rather than gaining an advantage over the other party. We all know that in America the partisanship has become highly assymetrical, so splitting the difference is useless. But shaming both parties, and especially the most eggregiously irrational one into acknowledging some elements of reality might have its pluses. Maybe we could create a penalty against the kind of dynamic we’ve seen lately, where one party has concluded that the best way to regain power is to sabatoge all attempts of the other to govern.

6

Brad DeLong 12.29.10 at 1:05 am

Re: “It is plausible that people, ranging from, say, Brad DeLong on the left to, say, Bruce Bartlett on the right could plausibly sign up to something like German Christian Democracy…”

It is what used to be called the Rubin wing of the Democratic Party.

7

john c. halasz 12.29.10 at 2:03 am

@6:

Or the “Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller” version of “social democracy”.

8

Bruce Webb 12.29.10 at 3:03 am

Funny. When the ‘Washington Consensus’ had that fatal collision with ‘Iceberg Reality’ the survivors (and in this case the Beltway First Class ALL survived) suddenly gave up labels. What, what? ‘Third Way” and “Neo-Liberal” have accumulated so much derision that you had to give up labels cold turkey?

P.T. Barnum invented an effective way to get the crowds out of his sideshow so as to keep new people coming in the door, he put up signs “This way to the Egress”. We can only hope the No Labels people have as little grasp on the history of popular culture as they do on economic and labor history.

9

Brad DeLong 12.29.10 at 3:42 am

I am now, and have always been, a card-carrying neoliberal economist…

10

chris 12.29.10 at 2:54 pm

Nevertheless, it just might be a useful gimmick to get some politicians to think about decent policy, rather than gaining an advantage over the other party.

On the one hand, one party is already doing this. On the other hand, they got stomped in the most recent elections, plausibly *because* they’re already doing this.

The underlying problem is that when the people are asleep at the switch, decent policy *actually is* a mug’s game, and the only politicians that can survive in that environment are the ones willing to throw it under the bus.

Maybe we could create a penalty against the kind of dynamic we’ve seen lately, where one party has concluded that the best way to regain power is to sabatoge all attempts of the other to govern.

I hope we can, but I don’t see how No Labels could possibly contribute to that objective.

11

Omega Centauri 12.29.10 at 5:19 pm

one party is already doing this. On the other hand, they got stomped in the most recent elections, plausibly because they’re already doing this.
Maybe I’m being naively optimistic, but isn’t this what NOLABELS might be able to do. Get the press to actually think about policy rather than horserace. But I suppose policy just doesn’t fit into the entertainment for the nonthinking majority….

12

Bernard Yomtov 12.31.10 at 3:00 am

#11

Maybe I’m being naively optimistic, but isn’t this what NOLABELS might be able to do. Get the press to actually think about policy rather than horserace.

No “maybe” about it.

I remember watching TV “debates” during the fights over the stimulus bill and health care. They largely consisted of political operatives – one Democrat, one Republican – who had no understanding whatsoever of the issues yelling slogans at one another. Utter nonsense presented as serious discussion.

13

Brainz 01.01.11 at 1:52 am

re: #11

Having a third horse in the race will not change the Racing Form into the Journal of Equine Science.

(This is unfair to the Racing Form. I’m sure that publication accurately and fairly represents race results.)

14

Ken Houghton 01.01.11 at 10:11 pm

” Brad DeLong on the left to, say, Bruce Bartlett on the right”

What Brad Said–the range there is less noticeable than that of Derek Jeter–or maybe Toby Harrah’s tombstone on the back cover of the Post-New York Post.

Not to mention that it is, if anything, backwards. (Bartlett still claims to believe the Kemp-inspired fantasies that led to the 1986 destruction of the U.S. middle class, but his writings belie that.)

15

David Bloom 01.03.11 at 1:34 am

Does nobody wish to note that Germany is a state with universal single-payer health care, universal free education, pensions for all, six-week vacations, the Mitbestimmung system of unionized workers engaged at every level of management, lavish support for the unprofitable arts, a welfare state in every way that in the US today would be regarded not only as not-moderate but as diabolically communistic? The CDU/CSU of Adenauer and Erhard may have been neoliberal by academic definition, and it certainly was a great example of how one could go about accomplishing “what works” without getting overly excited about labels (and a brilliant way of permanently disabling the socialists, if that was their intention, by giving voters all the socialism they wanted), but I’m afraid we’re not getting anything like that here any time soon.

16

chris 01.03.11 at 3:13 pm

and a brilliant way of permanently disabling the socialists, if that was their intention, by giving voters all the socialism they wanted

With enemies like that, who needs supporters?

Comments on this entry are closed.