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Leighton Woodhouse Headshot

The Hoax of Political Centrism

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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 recent column, 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 last week's 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.

Obama's 2008 campaign vaguely articulated this vision. But the vision is a fantasy and a hoax. The reality is that there is no America to improve upon through the application of wise and beneficent policymaking; there are only Americans, some of whom will benefit and some of whom will be hindered by government action. Politics is a contest of interests, with winners and losers, and the moderate middle does not transcend it, no matter how enlightened and disinterested their think tank researchers may be. On health care reform, Freeland observes, if you're uninsured, by and large, you come out a winner. If you have a great, secure employer-paid plan, to the extent that you may end up subsidizing the cost of covering the formerly uninsured, you're on the minus side of the ledger. It's a zero-sum game, and, therefore, a controversial issue -- at least to those whose families have a meaningful material stake in the outcome, which would not tend to include the attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

An even more instructive example is the budget deficit, whose ramifications, Freeland notes, are hardly apolitical. More than eight percent of Americans are unemployed, while the economic risk of the deficit looms largest for an exceedingly small number of upper income earners who may be forced down the line into a higher tax rate to fill the gap. Yet it's the latter and not the former that dominates the economic agenda of the sensible center and that shapes the ostensibly non-partisan, technocratic policy prescriptions of its journals and think tanks, which include gradually reducing Medicare and Social Security entitlements, partially privatizing public education and accelerating the decline of the power of organized labor.

These are "solutions" that sound merely "practical" only to those who are insulated from their direct impacts. It's a measure of the alienation of these detached centrists from the lived reality of those who are bearing the brunt of the country's economic stagnation that they can advocate so earnestly for austerity and still remain so hopelessly confounded by the polarization of our politics. As they scratch their heads in wonder at the zany ideas that have gotten hold of the public these days, those whose families' day-to-day lives will be transformed profoundly by the policies they advocate flock to the left and the right, where political leaders, however ignorant or misguided, at least acknowledge that their constituents' immediate economic interests are worthy of defending rather than casually tossing out with the rest of last season's wardrobe to make room for the new Fall line. Hyper partisanship is a self-defense mechanism against the social engineering of centrist technocrats.

The contest between Obama and Romney speak to none of these divisions. Both candidates, when you strip away the rhetorical pandering and the obligatory fealty to certain party line positions, are fundamentally technocratic leaders. They eschew ideology and attack problems with reasoned analysis and logic; construct policy within firmly defined, "realistic" parameters; favor efficiency over principle; define leadership as managerial competence; and value brokering consensus among elite stakeholders over delivering tangible benefits to constituents. Romney's whole case for his fitness for office rests on his experience as an executive manager, while the Obama administration's economic policy has been constructed in its entirety by a clique of illustriously credentialed policy wonks from elite institutions, with the help of high-ranking financial industry insiders. Both rely almost exclusively on the counsel of established experts; both are wary of, and regarded warily by, their respective ideological bases. The signature legislative achievements of both candidates are identical; Obamacare and Romneycare are dual legislative monuments to technocratic rulemaking.

Some of these qualities are well-suited to a president, some less so. But the upshot of this common set of beliefs and dispositions is that it's the policy agenda of the bipartisan, "centrist" elite, and not the ideological poles of the two parties, that shapes the responses offered by both candidates to the country's economic malaise. Last summer, in deficit reduction talks, Obama eagerly anted up cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a bargaining chip to extract revenue increases from Congressional Republicans. Romney would cut both in exchange for nothing. That about defines the sliver that separates the two on the social safety net.

As should be obvious to everyone in the labor movement but its most willfully blind leaders, Obama's commitment to unions is even weaker than his commitment to preserving entitlement programs. In this, the president conforms to the Aspen crowd's entrenched distrust for or outright hostility toward organized labor. It's now clear that the president never seriously considered spending any political capital on the Employee Free Choice Act, and he couldn't even be bothered to offer more than lip service to the historic worker uprising in Wisconsin. He has made a former NYU administrator with a vicious union-busting history into his Chief of Staff, and in 2010, he praised a Rhode Island high school for carrying out mass firings of teachers and other employees in retaliation for their union's refusal to roll over and accept concessions.

In fact, as the Rhode Island incident dramatically showcased, union-busting is the centerpiece of one of Obama's signature domestic initiatives, education reform. The Race to the Top is perhaps the clearest example of the policymaking style of the centrist elites who comprise Obama's intellectual base. Funded by the likes of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family and myriad hedge fund executives, Obama's education reform agenda is predicated upon neutering teachers' unions, 'casualizing' the education profession, and diverting funds away from public education and towards private and semi-private education entrepreneurs. Whatever one may feel about the project, there's nothing "moderate" about it, other than the fact that it's a bipartisan conspiracy championed by mythically "independent"-minded multibillionaires like Gates and Michael Bloomberg. It reflects not a sensible compromise from the middle of the political spectrum, but a revolution from above, fueled by a consensus of elite opinion. The self-styled "centrist" education policy wonks at the Center for American Progress and the Gates and Broad Foundations mistake themselves for moderates only because they have transcended the Republican-Democratic divide by consolidating elite opinion and ignoring or steamrolling everyone with a different point of view.

A Romney presidency would be characterized more by continuity than by departure both from Obama's posture toward unions and his positions on education reform. In fact, the chief difference here would likely be that a President Romney would be far less capable of carrying out an attack on labor or a transformation of public education than Obama has been able to, as the president has received the full and consistent support of unions even while implementing an anti-labor policy agenda, and the active support of liberals and the Democratic Party apparatus in the dismantling of public education. Romney, of course, would enjoy neither of these advantages.

The degree of alignment between the two candidates on these once clear battle lines between Left and Right just points to how anachronistic and residual those political poles have become in an age in which both parties are so thoroughly dominated by members of the economic, intellectual and cultural elite. It's only because we continue to regard our politics through that horizontal continuum that those who occupy the top rung of the vertical axis, people like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, can pretend that they reside in "the middle." In reality, the top is not the middle. It's the top.

An opinion piece in Saturday's New York Times by Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan describes how once upon a time, elite taste rested upon cultural exclusivity. Then, over time, exclusivity was supplanted by eclecticism as the new hallmark of snobbery. Today, to exhibit your elite sensibilities, you have to show that you appreciate not only fine French dining, but also that Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall down the block and the soul food fish fry across town, that you can rhapsodize about Pabst Blue Ribbon with the same aplomb as about a $50 bottle of wine. It's your cosmopolitan embrace of diversity that marks you as a sophisticated and learned 21st-century person, and that distinguishes you from all the philistines wedded to their chauvinistically narrow sets of cultural preferences.

But as with politics, this pretense of cultural transcendence only serves as a euphemism for elite status -- a way to mark out privilege without really admitting it. You can only be eclectic if the whole world, highbrow and low, is readily accessible to you, which is as sure a sign of power as there is.

So it is with the vanguardists of the political center, who "transcend" politics only by virtue of their remove from the material stakes of partisan combat. They regard policy decisions not as choices between winners and losers, as the allocation of pain and privilege, but as experiments in a laboratory of public policy, scientifically testable to be either "right" or "wrong" for the country. The highest goal of political engagement, they believe, is not to defend one's own narrow interests against those of others, but to improve upon the world at large through a kind of enlightened social engineering. It's a falsely noble sentiment, made possible only by being suspended so high above the world you're acting upon that other people's interests can be regarded as parochial, crass, vulgar, selfish and disposable, obstacles to the greater good of reform instead of the vital stakes of people's day-to-day lives. It's a habit of mind that comes from a life of exercising power over others rather than being subjected to it.

It's this line of division that shapes the most important political struggles today. And the choice before voters in this year's presidential election has exactly nothing to do with it.