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Friday, October 14, 2005

The Center - Galston And Kamarck

Jonathan Schell on Galston and Kamarck (Common Dreams):
As George W. Bush's approval ratings sink below 40%, and the GOP and all its projects, from the Iraq War to Social Security "reform" to Hurricane Katrina recovery plans, seem to be going to pieces, we are hearing on every side that it won't be enough for Democrats to rub their hands in glee (however discreetly). They must come up with their own plans. They must offer the country something positive to embrace. One response to this need comes from two former advisers to President Clinton -- William Galston, now of the University of Maryland, and Elaine Kamarck, now of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. They have produced a report called "The Politics of Polarization," a sequel to one they wrote in 1989 for the Democratic Leadership Council. Their main piece of advice, now as before, is that "seizing the center remains the key to victory."

The word "center," of course, has many possible meanings. One is simply the political space where most of the voters are, whatever their views. Defined thus, a centrist strategy is a mere tautology. Any party that wins over a majority of the electorate will have seized "the center": A winning strategy is one that wins. Since the contrary idea -- a jolly "let's persuade only 40% of the voters!" -- is highly unattractive, any "centrist" strategy has an obvious built-in appeal.

A slightly different meaning of the word -- and this is the one the authors have in mind -- is the collection of specific opinions held by a majority of the voters at a given time. A centrist strategy therefore gears its message to those views, which usually correspond inexactly to the views of either party and so are in a certain way "between them" -- in the center. The alternative to this strategy, which Galston and Kamarck reject, is to gear the message to the party "base," its true believers, while hoping somehow to add enough of the less committed voters to win. (These are the "undecided voters," or "swing voters," whose extremely vague or even clueless opinions are often sought around election time in respectful interviews on extremely boring television programs.)

Still another meaning of "the center" is conceivable. It's possible to imagine a truly substantive center comprising calm, reasonable people who, whether they are in a majority or not, reject the violent or insane views of others, defined as extreme. "Center," in this sense, would mean something like "moderate." For example, in Germany in the early 1930s, there were sensible people who were neither Communists nor Nazis. Unfortunately, they were in a minority, as election results showed, and so were not in the center in either of the two previously mentioned senses of the word. (The Nazis were technically in the political center at the time.)
Okay, first one point of order. The Nazis never won a majority. Those who opposed the Nazis were not a minority, which is why it was necessary for Hitler to seize power.

Perhaps Schell is trying to be funny when describing moderates as having "extremely vague or often clueless opinions", but this type of attitude is why I think David Broder is so concerned. Progressives simply don't concede that anyone else is moderate or sane. They claim that badge for themselves and they are derisively dismissive of other traditional Democratic voters who don't agree with them.

I agree with Schell's point that simply running by the polls is likely to be a losing strategy, but that is because trying to fit yourself to the polls omits the hard work of organizing a coherent agenda. The reason why progressives utterly reject that recommendation is that they know that setting forth their real goals would cause voters to flee in droves.

Comments:
The "center" doesn't just mean toothless, diluted policy or vague, clueless voters. It can also mean people like me who, on so many issues, would feel more akin to the Democrats than Republicans...if they would just grow up and discard outrageous Deaniac rhetoric in favor of reasonable discourse. I can accept that much environmental legislation is useful and beneficial. But it's such a turn off when the only argument the Dems can come up with for it is something ludicrous like, "Republicans want to spoil our air and poison our water." Sigh. Nobody wants to poison water. Give me a reason to vote for Democrats besides the idiotic and childish contention that all non-Democrats are evil and I'll consider it. The Left needs to reclaim its own rhetoric; we voters, on average, are far too smart for their simplistic Manicheanism. That stuff might work for Fidel and Chavez and other dictators, but not here.
 
Exactly.

The largest component of our voting population is moderate, and I don't think most of them are "vague or clueless".

You are right about the Manicheanism.
 
while I agree with you the Dems need to kick Dean to the curb, I disagree that the rhetoric stuff. If anything, the left has just been copying the right, and the dogmatic rhetoric that has worked so well for the right. (eg. Cheney - if you vote for Kerry you will die). I can't begin to count the number of times I have been called godless or a communist just because I am liberal. It is tough to talk about issues when the other sides response is "they love terrorists and hate America" or "they want to make you son a queer."
 
Dingo - there are always fringe elements on the right and the left.

But most conservatives neither think nor speak that way. Or maybe they do in NY. Most conservatives are rather boring people who tend to longwinded, fact-ridden argument.
 
About Dean, he's been a terrible disappointment. Having been a governor who fought for certain things, one would have expected him to introduce a more substantive element into core Democratic principles.

Instead, we got rants. It's disappointing.
 
"But most conservatives neither think nor speak that way."

And most liberals don't think or speak the way that we have been painted either.

If there are any moderate conservatives speaking, they are not being heard. They are being completely drowned out by the far right. If you ask the average moderate liberal what they think the average (not the fringe, but average) Southern conservative believes, they would tell you that they want to substitute the bible for biology books, force all homosexuals back in the closet, and make Christianity the official US religion. I am serious about this. You, and other moderate conservatives have been completely drowned out.

I have been trying to convince you about this for months, but you don't seem to want to believe me - there is as much noise coming from the right fringe as the left fringe. Trust me on this, it is all perception that the left is more out of control than the right. From my vantage point, the right is far more out of control than the left, but, as I said, that is just perception and what we pay attention to. Objectively, I know there is as much crap flowing from the left as the right.

These two elements, the far right and left feed off of each other. The more one gets out of control, the more the other follows. I really don't think you appreciate the message that is being heard from the conservatives. It might not be what all conservative are saying, but it is what is being heard.
 
Dingo - but it is not the fringe who should determine the dialogue. The question is +what dominates the party politics! That is what I am addressing, and so are Galston and Kamarck.

What agendas do the parties run on? What do they want to accomplish? That's the issue.

I absolutely don't believe that 60 % of the American population cares much about the party name. They care about the agenda and direction.
 
Dingo,

You point out a very important and very real problem, which we've all discussed repeatedly here and elsewhere: the fringe is louder than the majority. I work and go out with friends everyday that are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me, and we get along fine. They know I don't want to put them in concentration camps (my roommate is gay), and I know they aren't secretly sending money to Iraqi resistance fighters.

But then I go online and into the world of pure political discourse, and "the Left" all the sudden becomes a cartoonish confederation of CindySheehanMichaelMooreHowardDeanCynthiaMcKinneyWardChurchill morons who compare Bush's incompetence to Hitler's systematic and pre-planned evil rather than offer ideas. So when right-leaners like myself enter an argument, our opponent is usually just such a straw figure. And in the Left-leaning sphere, the Right becomes PatRobertsonEricRudolphJerryFalwellTimMcVeighJamesDobson etc, who are REALLY easy to argue against.

I think it's much easier to argue with a false caricature of your opponent than the reality, which is that both liberal and conservative thinking have reasonable and important places in our national discourse, and both deserve to be heard. But too often the fringe gets characterized as "the voice of the movement" and fringe rhetoric preempts debate by relying on emotional moralism.

The solution? Maybe we can all agree (and I need to do this most of all) that instead of always singling out the most idiotic rhetoric for fisking, we can seek out the best and most logical opposing positions to address. (Likely, this will require ignoring most politicians, who became politicians not because they're smart but because they're full of themselves.)

I'll start to ignore Cindy Sheehan and DailyKos (though it's so FUN to tear them apart!) and begin to pay more attention to Yglesias, Cohen, Cooper, and other "logical liberals." Likewise, I hope my left-leaning friends would begin to address the issues raised by George Will and David Brooks more than penning yet another screed against the theocracy of Pat Robertson.

Maybe if we ignore the loud attention-seekers, they'll just go away or grow up. (Sorry this was such a long post.)
 
The fringe IS determining the dialogue for both the right and left. What is the Republican agenda? It is certainly not smaller, less intrusive government. No one knows what the Republican agenda is anymore. Seriously, the message coming from the GOP is cut taxes on the wealthy, spend less on the poor, over turn Roe v Wade, appoint pastors as judges, and turn the public schools over to Jimmy Swagart. You and I both know that this is not what the average conservative thinks, but this IS the perceived agenda of Republicans by the average moderate liberal.

62% of this country feels we are on the wrong track. You can't blame it all on gas prices. The moderate Repubs are not being heard and the GOP agenda has long since been hijacked by the fringe.

I know you don't want to believe me on this any more than I want to believe the the liberal agenda has been hijacked by nut jobs who care more about Iraqi insurgents than our own soldiers, but it is the truth. The Republican agenda now belongs to James Dobson.
 
Pedro, it was a point worthy of a long post. Very well put. I listen to David Brooks almost daily (PBS) and George Will on the weekends. I'll have to take you up on the idea about adressing them instead of Pat Robertson. It would actually be much more of a challenge than disputing a Robertson or Coulter. I'll five that a try next week.
 
Pedro - very well put, and I think you are identifying the problem.

Dingo, the "perceived agenda" is not the agenda, and as the uproar over Miers is going now, conservatives are certainly more than willing to disagree.

I'll address your comments in a later post - I'd like to pull out some of both your and Pedro's comments to lead in.

You both make a lot more sense than most of the pundits.
 
"You both make a lot more sense than most of the pundits. "

well, don't sell yourself short there, Mom. We may disagree a lot, but I would pick you any day of the week over the pundits.
 
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