Political Centrism Is a Hoax
(Published earlier this year in The Huffington Post; updated and re-posted for election weekend.)
The debate over who will make a better president, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, is empty, boring and almost entirely pro forma. It’s not just the media’s obsession with the frivolous details of political theater that’s to blame. It’s also the fact that in American politics today, there remains almost nothing of substance to opine about when it comes to the choice between the two major parties’ respective candidates.
That’s not to retread the cliché about there being “no difference” between the Democrats and the Republicans. When it comes to certain important policy planks, such as abortion, there are huge differences between the two parties that could impact millions of people (when it comes to others, such as regulating the financial sector, the differences are cosmetic).
But as Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland suggested in a column this summer, the most significant dividing line in American public opinion is no longer between the left and the right. It’s between elite and non-elite opinion — and elite opinion lines up right in the ostensible middle. Centrism, Freeland contends, is today’s elite ideology. And not by coincidence, it’s the ideology of both of this year’s presidential candidates.
Political centrists, such as the educated professionals who most ardently defend Obama (and the few Romney true believers whose support for the Republican candidate has ever amounted to more than cynical pragmatism), think about politics in a different way than ideological partisans. As Freeland notes, they tend to assume that politics, when properly managed, “is a win-win game.” They approach public policy as a body of knowledge, best administered by disinterested experts, and they believe that there’s an actual, singular community out there called “America” that a given policy is either good or bad for. They believe that when you take all the silly partisan posturing and fringe lunacy out of the equation for the most pressing issues that face us, pearls of non-partisan wisdom remain, little lodestars for governing the nation. Their wealthiest representatives gather with their most accomplished intellectuals at events like the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Aspen Ideas Festival, which inspired Freeland’s observations, and regard themselves and each other as the only adults in sight on the preschool playground of American politics. If only our political system weren’t so polluted by money and ideology, they plead, we could find lasting prosperity and social peace in a new New Deal bargain, updated for a more free market-oriented 21st century. These are the Digital Age’s inheritors of the spirit of the Bull Moose Party, even if their policy agenda is aimed squarely at dismantling some of the signature achievements of the Progressive Era. [cont’d.]