Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It's absurdly easy to mock the new centrist organization No Labels. The group is organized by the wife of a hack pollster who herself is primarily a political fund-raiser. Its marquee name is a guy who thinks he's one of the great men of the age because he has more money than God and because he got to run New York at a time when it sustained prosperity as a result of a government/business conspiracy to shake loose every dime in America and redeposit all of them in Wall Street's coffers. Its stated principles are almost parodically self-righteous and high-minded.

And yet I don't think the centrist impulse is laughable by definition -- though I think this particular expression of it is doomed to failure.

Slate's Christopher Beam thinks the group's stated principles just seek the lowest common denominator:

The group's mission statement is filled with the bland pablum of political campaigns. It's the kind of stuff that's so obvious, no one would ever disagree. "Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works -- driven by shared purpose and common sense." Unlike all those groups that prefer a political system that doesn't work. "Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success ... provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way." Me, I'm for spending wads of money on failure. "America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties." That is going to upset their rival group, Americans Against Strength, Safety, Readiness, and Ability To Protect Ourselves.

Beam thinks "no one would ever disagree" with all that? Bollocks. The Foxite/Limbaughnista/tea party right doesn't want "a political system ... driven by shared purpose" -- righties want a political system in which they get everything they want and the rest of us are humiliatingly crushed, because those of us who disagree with them on anything aren't really Americans and don't even deserve crumbs. Righties also don't "want a government that empowers people with the tools for success" -- they think they want a government that doesn't empower anyone; what they really want is a government that gives them stuff -- Medicare, Social Security, their faith as the state religion -- while not giving stuff to nonwhites and city-dwellers and liberals and non-Christians, and that is minimalist except when we have a new Antichrist who needs an ass-kicking, at which point the government should be maximalist. And then there are some people on the left as well as on the Ron Paul right who aren't all that wild about the real implications of that "strong" and "able to protect" stuff.

This gets to the problem with No Labels: not that there isn't a large chunk of the electorate that wants the government to be middle-of-the-road, but that the group itself wants to eschew anger rather than being actively angry at the angry. I know that when these centrist guys do get their backs up, they reach for the boilerplate denunciation of "extremists of the left and right" -- but if they actually want to be effective, they'd make a real survey of the landscape and recognize that Democrats will compromise on pretty much anything, while the real impediment to centrism is Republican Murdochism. And they'd get mad at Republican Murdochites.

A group like this might actually have appeal if it were for an angry centrism -- if it gave centrists a chance to be pissed off at gridlock and the failure to work toward solutions to America's problems. I think that's why centrists can't attract a following -- there's no soul-satisfying outrage in centrism.

No Labels is somewhat like Jon Stewart's "sanity" campaign -- too sanctimonious, too focused on finding equivalences between the parties. A centrist movement that might work would be like Jon Stewart's show -- it would look at the specific events of the day and accurately identify the assholes, without fear, favor, or an obsession with grading on the curve to apportion blame evenly. That's why Stewart's show is funny and inspiring -- it's not angry at anger, it's angry at people who deserve to be targets of anger.


In a New York Times article about No Labels Matt Bai writes:

... the rise of the independents represents a movement ... away from party organizations altogether.

This isn't so much a political phenomenon as it is a cultural one. In the last decade or so, the Web has created an increasingly decentralized and customized society, in which a new generation of voters seems less aligned, generally, with large institutions. MoveOn.org and the Tea Party groups, for instance, were born as protests against the establishments of both parties, and they empowered citizens to create their own agendas, rather than relying on any elected leadership.

To which Wonkette's Jack Stuef replies:

Matt Bai is dumb. MoveOn.org and the Tea Party groups, for instance, were born as protests against Bill Clinton’s long blow-job impeachment process and a scary black liberal president wanting to stimulate the economy and help people get medical care, respectively. They continued as advocacy groups that looked to reinforce or refocus their respective political parties, always fighting any efforts to exist on their own.

Which is basically correct -- and which shows what a centrist group would have to be to get anywhere: an advocacy group with ties to a political party that believes (or seems to believe) in certain stuff, and is angry at people and parties that don't believe in that stuff. People want to root for their team, dammit.

I know, I know: I'm not supposed to argue that people are really centrist in that Broder/Friedman/Scarborough/Brooks way. Unfortunately, I think some people are -- and I think those of us who are angry lefties and angry righties get into a " that's impossible -- nobody I know thinks that way" thing when we see polls showing, say, Obama still in surprisingly decent shape in terms of public approval, or the tax deal winning popular favor.

But where the centrists get it wrong is in thinking that everyone is a centrist except a few malcontents who somehow drown the vast majority out. In reality, centrists are just one faction. They could be a more influential faction (and, given our government's rightward tilt, could even pull the country a smidge to the left) if they'd just suit up and join the scrum -- as angry centrist partisans.

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