Partisan centrism

by Henry Farrell on December 28, 2010

_Mirabile dictu,_ Clive Crook writes an “op-ed on partisanship”: that is largely unobjectionable.

bq. 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.

bq. … 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.

bq. 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.

bq. 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.