From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 17  June 2006

The Gilded Mean

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I moved to Washington, D.C., two and a half years ago, and every morning when I open up my newspaper this is what I see: congressmen purchased by lobbyists, illegal wiretapping, a war launched on false pretenses, a whole panoply of policies more or less openly designed to shift wealth upward. Sometimes these things make me angry. But as I make my way toward the editorial page of that same newspaper, I learn how unbecoming and wrongheaded my anger is. My attitude, it turns out, is part of a larger and much more serious problem: the dread disease of partisanship.

Indeed, for a certain segment of mainstream opinion—including the flagship “liberal” media concerns and the common runoff Democratic strategists—each fresh Republican outrage seems to inspire not so much alarm as a new bout of self-examination. Maybe we’re missing a side to this story. Best not to appear out of touch. What do the polls say? Lacking the inclination to challenge or fight, these paragons of polite opinion retreat to a soothingly righteous realm of fantasy they prefer to call centrism.

Two political teams join in battle at every level, from intern kegger to impeachment proceeding.

Exactly why the political opposition in this country still clings to the centrist ideal is a mystery. As a governing philosophy it seemed to work well enough for the Clintonites, whose triangulations and focus group soundings and sellouts of liberal causes enabled them to hold on to executive power. But as a strategy for the long term, centrism proved to be disastrous for the Democrats. As a philosophy of opposition it is manifestly unsound, even on its own simple geometric terms: You can’t counterbalance the heavier side of a scale by jumping up and down on the fulcrum. Yet nothing seems to budge Washington’s responsible non-Republican classes from their centrist fantasy. Why?

We can learn a bit about the mystery of centrism by watching how it captures the imaginations of the capital’s typical new arrivals. Take a young, idealistic, politely liberal American, a recent graduate from one of our most exalted colleges, plunk this person down in Washington, I submit, and the ideological conclusions on which he or she will soon settle are as predicable as the falsetto ululations of next month’s Britney Spears hit.

Partisanship, he or she will quickly learn, is the official taxonomical system of the capital, but it takes our golden youth just a few months to realize that this system is something of a fraud. Having issued everyone a “D” or an “R” on their first day in town, the system expects them to take part as the two political teams join in battle at every level, from intern kegger to impeachment proceeding. On radio, TV, and especially the blogs, the heroes from each side can be seen, fighting day and night in a never-ending slugfest whose brutality is matched only by its pettiness. Blogger D heaps vicious put-downs on Blogger R for failing to find humor in a celebrated comedy routine. Blogger R blasts Blogger D for failing to show equal amounts of umbrage at a variety of outrages. The system is preposterous. It discredits itself almost automatically.

Spectators at Washington’s slowly grinding defamation derby require only a short time to understand what a ghastly waste the whole thing is. Gang war is no way to run a government, our earnest newbie starts to think, let alone the most powerful government on the planet. Besides, the other side isn’t demons. The red states aren’t that different from the blue states. Putting a name on the problem, our youngster decides that what ails the nation is polarization, extremism, faction—the very peril that Madison warned against way back in Federalist 10.

Having arrived at this epiphany, our good neophyte looks around at the uniform niceness of the capital’s middle-class zones and the thousands of high-achieving college graduates who are his colleagues—and who hail, just like him, from smiling, prosperous suburbs across the nation—and comes to the same set of conclusions arrived at by thousands of his predecessors. And thus is generated one of Washington’s most persistent literary forms: the young person’s passionate panegyric to centrism.

Politics, it occurs to these clear-eyed young believers, are just tragic. Politics are an old folk’s game long obsolete in this modern world. After all, it is obvious that both extremes of left and right are wrong—a point that is usually nailed down merely by demonstrating that left and right exist, which in the capital is often sufficient proof by itself that the answer to all questions lies somewhere between. And it is just obvious that right-thinking middle-class people from good colleges all agree on the answers to the big problems, what is required, obviously, is bipartisanship. Better: a new bipartisanship with attitude. Bold centrism. Radical centrism.

Thus does unthinking partisanship spawn unthinking consensus-consensus that nevertheless imagines itself as the ne plus ultra of wise, measured statesmanship. Space prevents me from describing the resulting body of work in all its annoying detail, but let me quickly enumerate some of its signal characteristics, aside from its mandatory bemoaning of partisanship:

• A gaping credulity for the fad ideas once associated with the “New Economy” and an abiding suspicion of New Deal social welfare programs, which are customarily dismissed as “industrial age” or “depression-era” relics.

• Political libertarianism, which for this particular class of people is so self-evident that it requires of its proponents not advocacy but simple assertion. (Of course free trade. Of course pro-choice. Fucking duh.)

• A writing style steeped in historical inevitability and a penchant for titles that include the word “Next.”

And, lest I forget: shameless misappropriation of the phrase, The Vital Center. It comes as an eternally fresh surprise to each wave of brave young centrists when they discover that Arthur Schlesinger’s famous 1949 book, which they worship because of its title, actually lays out a political program considerably to the left of their squishy sacks of policy goo. In fact, you can be almost certain that right now, at some dark martini bar in Logan Circle, a dejected young Phi Beta Kappan is feeling bummed after having just figured this out.

It is the having of ideas that offends.

Then there is the bitter, grown-up version of the centrist creed, in which the same set of conclusions is arrived at by a different road. Now, instead of youthful idealism, centrism is the product of a callused lifetime of political observation—the only sensible stance remaining to someone who has attended a dozen national political conventions and watched a generation of politicians pretend to care about the folks of Iowa and New Hampshire. While idealistic centrism tends to sprout from former Clinton speechwriters and the sort of think tanks that use the terms “Generation X” in the mission statement, the hardened variety is strictly the stuff of major-league journalism. This is the centrism one finds, for example, on the DC blogs written by professional media types—The Note, run by ABC News, or The Swamp, maintained by the Chicago Tribune—where a superficial cynicism is de rigueur and everybody in the political news is a liar, a spinner, a sophist, and also (provided they aren’t some horrid idealist) one of the gang.

The preeminent exponent of this variety of centrism is Joe Klein, the Time columnist who has written both a scalding fictional indictment of Bill Clinton the politician (Primary Colors, 1996) and oily nonfictional celebration of Bill Clinton the president (The Natural, 2002) . This might seem like a contradiction at first, but in fact Klein’s earlier account of Clinton’s rascality ultimately served to support his later conviction that Clintonism somehow embodied the authentic politics of the people—a “natural” politics, even—as opposed to the fancy schemes of intellectuals and ideologues.

Unfortunately, as Klein tells the story in The Natural , an “Era of Bad Feelings” deluged this born politician’s career, drowned his naturalness in Xtreme partisanship. Clinton had his faults, but it was the idealists who really screwed things up, the righteous true believers who pulled both parties “to their respective extremes, where the most passionate advocates were festering.” They fester, these unnaturals, but more damningly they think. Consider Klein’s crowning put-down of the loathsome Newt Gingrich, which he quotes from Bob Dole: “This was a man”—Gingrich, that is—”with too many ideas.” Klein might more accurately have chosen to describe Gingrich as a man with really bad ideas, or a man with fake ideas, or a man with effective ideas about how to do foolish things. But no. It is the having of ideas that offends, and thus the conflict is established: ideas (Newt) versus nature (Bill); insane partisanship versus the living, breathing, copulating flesh.

The naturalness of centrism is a common fantasy in this most unnatural of cities—in one column last year Klein even dubbed the collection of TV pundits and soft Ds who share his predictable politics as the “party of sanity.” Even more to the point is the New Republic article of five years ago—still remembered fondly in Washington—which saluted conventional wisdom under the title, “Why What Everyone Thinks Is Usually Right.” The reason it’s right is because conventional wisdom is the end product of a “marketplace of ideas,” see. And a market, as we all know, is a naturally occurring mechanism for delivering truth and quality, for ensuring that good things succeed while bad ones are filtered out. The conclusion is obvious: If the pundits aren’t talking about something, it’s because that something doesn’t deserve to be talked about.

Which, as it happens is pretty close to the way centrist Washingtonians tend to view themselves; as the cream of the meritocratic crop, the product of the great national marketplace in talent. They are here amid the cherry blossoms because they have been summoned here, by the same invisible, infallible hand of nature that earlier summoned them to Harvard or Stanford. They are here in middle–class paradise because they deserve to be here, and the political beliefs on which they all agree are, similarly, the most deserving of beliefs.

Lurking behind these assumptions is the “rational choice” strain of political science, a descendent of Chicago-school economics, with its reverence for markets and its perfectly calculating individual monads. The political version of homo economicus is known as the “median voter,” and the superstition of market equilibrium here gives way to the rule of the all-powerful center, in which the exact middle of the opinion distribution is—magically but invariably—supposed to be the prevailing element in American politics. Just like moviegoers or car buyers, always forcing corporate America to deliver precisely the products the public craves, so the median voter is said to get exactly what he wants from politics. Which is to say, in effect, that he must have wanted whatever it is he happens to get.

Closely related is the doctrine of symmetry, in which non-centrists of left and right are, in their equally inexplicable manias, assumed to be precise mirror images of each other, culpable in every respect to precisely the same degree. If conservatives have been found guilty of some act of partisanship, then liberals must be guilty of some equivalent misdeed. If conservatives have “polarized” to the right, then liberals have “polarized” to the left. Since Jack Abramoff bribed Rs, the assumption goes, he must also have bribed Ds (an error in which the Washington Post once persisted, to its great regret). Washington journalism is so enslaved by this logic that it even extends to workday movie reviews: A brief Post description of the documentary Why We Fight faulted the movie’s director for criticizing a conservative think thank while not mentioning liberal ones, whose existence, presumably, levels the playing field. Sometimes centrist organizations suspend judgment altogether while they wait for left and right to balance out and reveal the true path, as in the case of the conservative Post blogger who got in trouble not because the Post determined that he was a plagiarist, but because he was accused of plagiarism by liberal bloggers, and then was not defended against the charge by conservative bloggers. In the Post’s own account of the incident, the imbalance, not the plagiarism, was the decisive point. Woe betide he whom the bloggers will not defend.

Journalistic centrism seems ridiculous at times, but it is sweet reason when compared to the political centrism that has captured one of the nation’s two major parties.

The two-party system is supposed to be the hardest of hard realities making centrism so natural and irresistible, but the two-party system is also what ensures that the consequences of a prolonged dalliance with centrism are dire if not fatal. Recall the exploits of the Democratic Party during the nineties, when its leadership turned ostentatiously away from its traditional faith. First, the party “triangulated” its core principles away, setting up a debilitating image problem that persists to this day. Then, having burned through its inherited beliefs, the party found that its traditional blocs of support, which were supposed to loyally balance the Rs while the leadership was boldly claiming the glorious center, had diminished with each clever sellout. Slowly but irresistibly, the party was dragged toward its opposite pole. The bridge to the twenty-first century was a bridge to nowhere. Better by far to choose the role of the party that doesn’t compromise easily, that stands on principle and lets the other side seek the glorious center.

A less understandable error is the assumption, implicit in almost all centrist thinking, that the political landscape is an unchanging, statistically measurable mass of beliefs—”facts on the ground,” the tough-minded Note likes to say—to which politicians must either conform or seek other employment. The centrists love to gaze tenderly upon the disillusioned political tough guy they see in the mirror, but for all their worldliness they have somehow managed to blink out one of the most basic facts of history: Politicians not only obey public opinion, they make public opinion. They can build movements and change minds. The centrists’ self-imposed ignorance of this is the reason they were caught napping by Ross Perot’s crusade in 1992 and the trumped-up gay marriage panic of 2004. A zealous attentiveness to movement-building, persuasion, and mind-changing, on the other hand, is one of the reasons conservatives have enjoyed their improbably multi-decade winning streak. Mastery beats drift every time.

It is bracing and even a little shocking to turn from one’s daily DC diet, with it gaseous reassurances of the middle-mind’s wisdom, to a shot of reality like David Harvey’s recent Brief History of Neoliberalism. This is not because Harvey is a startling or stylish writer—on the contrary, he is an academic geographer who chooses his words with care and is best known (at least by me) for making sense out of the last decade’s scholarly wars over the nature of postmodernism. His new book achieves the effect it does through the simple device of speaking plainly about the momentous economic and political change that, beginning in the seventies, swept over America and then the rest of the industrialized world.

It is a story we all know instinctively, and it’s not a very centrist affair. We have loosed the forces of the market, and this is what the market has done to the United States: It has destroyed manufacturing and enthroned finance: beaten organized labor almost to death; demanded round after round of tax cuts; defunded public services while raising the price of education and health care to inaccessible levels; decoupled wages from productivity, allowing wages to erode to a level lower today than in the early seventies despite all the advances in worker efficiency. We are often told that we live in a time of otherworldly prosperity, but what has changed the most, Harvey tells us, is distribution, not production. Our new economy is a banker’s triumph not an engineer’s. Today the nation’s affluent areas glitter, its blue-collar neighborhoods crumble, and its rich people are richer, as measured by their percentage of the national income, than they have been since the twenties. The class divide has returned with a vengeance, with one class consistently getting what it wants while another just as consistently loses out.

The free market is anything but a democratic arrangement, a nice warm centrist choice that the folks in Ohio can feel good about.

This transformation ought to be the starting point for anyone writing about politics in America—or at least it ought to lurk somewhere in the background of the discussion. It is the overarching story of our times, as much as industrialization was the story of the late nineteenth century and depression and war were themes of our parents’ generation. And yet the narrative as a whole, when Harvey puts it all together, has the feel of a secret history. This is partially a problem of terminology: The word that Harvey and others use to describe the age of markets, “neoliberalism,” suggests to American ears more Michael Dukakis than Augusto Pinochet. It is also because our centrist rules of perception make the new order difficult to apprehend. Democratic presidents as well as Republicans pushed it along, making the free-market turn “bipartisan.” Which is to say, invisible. According to the logic of journalistic centrism, there is no debate here. Instead, the prevailing custom among mainstream commentators is to view the deeds of the free market in the same category as acts of God or, better yet, as deeds of the sovereign People themselves.

In terms of everyday politics, however, the free market is anything but a democratic arrangement, a nice warm centrist choice that the folks in Ohio can feel good about. Almost anywhere in the world you look, the road to the free-market order has been smoothed with brutally undemocratic machines. “Neoliberal theorists,” Harvey writes, are “profoundly suspicious of democracy. Governance by majority rule is seen as a potential threat to individual rights and constitutional liberties.” The people are supposed to be “free to choose,” as in Milton Friedman’s famous motto, but certain choices—labor unions, left-wing political parties—are off limits.

There has been nothing “natural” about it. In Chile and Argentina free-market reforms were implemented by military dictatorships, in Singapore by a one-party government, in China by a Communist regime. New York City drastically changed its fiscal policies in 1975 not because voters demanded it but because bankers did, as the price for resolving the city’s bankruptcy crisis. Following this model, IMF routinely demands (and receives) far-reaching policy changes from countries seeking its assistance. Free-trade agreements restrict government’s ability to implement certain measures, while granting to businesses the power to relocate at will in their ceaseless search for the cheapest, most pliable labor force available. Pro-business policies are often made secretly (think of Dick Cheney’s energy task force) or in little-scrutinized corners of government (tiny shifts in regulatory statutes bringing about massive shifts in regulatory practice).

Then there is the raw political power of organized money, subsidizing think tanks, authors, newspaper columnists, academics, magazines, and TV shows; funding the careers of friendly politicians and buying off dubious ones; and rewarding right-thinking regulators and bureaucrats when their stint in government is done. Indeed, as we have recently learned, the work of drafting legislation itself—especially the coveted “earmarks”—is sometimes simply a cash concession, much like the selling of papal indulgences in the Middle Ages. And as the business agenda is realized and the inequality worsens, the gravitational pull of money grows and grows.

What we do not learn from Harvey’s global account are the precise mechanics of the change. Furnishing this detail is the business of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, whose important new book, Off Center, is as devastating in its particulars as Harvey’s account is in its grand theoretical terms. Here the scholarly framework is political science, and one finds little speculation about the connection between economics and culture, but the indictment zeros in on the same point: An economic agenda that is essentially and inescapably unpopular has been fobbed off on the public. Hacker and Pierson set out to name and describe the procedure by which this has been accomplished, and in the process they have generated an invaluable field guide to the Republican Revolution.

The authors come to the battle armed with a simple yet potent little fact: Conservative economic policy is unpopular stuff. One might even say that, from tax cuts to Social Security privatization to last year’s bankruptcy bill, it is extremely unpopular. Consider the big tax cuts of 2001, for example. “Public opinion was clearly and consistently hostile to the top heavy skew of the Bush tax cuts,” Hacker and Pierson write. “In fact, voters’ leading concern about taxes…was that ‘the rich pay too little in taxes.’ ” Now, of course they pay even less.

To entertain such notions is inadmissible in the bien pensant circles of Washington journalism, where everything is as it should be and there can never be anything to be alarmed about. Hacker and Pierson, though, insist on the point. They swing it like a wrecking ball, using it to shatter all manner of illusions, both popular and scholarly. The center is supposed to hold the balance of power; it is supposed to get its way—and yet it has failed to do these things in recent years. Using their discipline’s various methods for quantifying a politician’s liberalism or conservatism, Hacker and Pierson demonstrate not only that today’s Republican Party is far to the right of where it used to be, but that it is moving more to the right all the time.

Despite it all the Republicans, as of this writing, control all three branches of government. Their control is razor-thin, yet they wield it like FDR—as if they were buoyed by a massive surge of popular adulation. How do they do it? How have they managed to stay on top?

American history is crowded with lone geniuses and leaders whose views were unpopular at one time but who prevailed in the end—abolitionists, civil rights leaders, even the full-throated liberals of the early twentieth century.

The immediate answer is a dark form of political science in which the emphasis is on manipulating rather than obeying the legendary “median voter.” Gerrymandering is the best-known weapon in this arsenal; Hacker and Pierson describe a bewildering welter of others. Republican leaders have learned how to control the political agenda, preventing troublesome matters from arising at all. They give measures deliberately misleading titles, knowing that the media will not bother to look beneath the surface until it’s too late. They include time-bomb provisions in laws, forcing the hand of legislatures in the distant future, when public memory will have grown dim; they make tiny changes in regulatory policies where no one will notice until it’s too late; they use boring old deficits to make funding crisis unavoidable somewhere down the road. All of these are designed either to set up what Hacker and Pierson call “cognitive hurdles” or to “exploit limitations in voter knowledge.”

It is, of course, customary in centrist-land to deny that “limitations in voter knowledge” even exist. Just as in free-market economics, good information is an assumption so fundamental to the theory that without it the entire edifice comes crashing down. Besides, the pseudo-populist response to any such assertion comes easily—so easily that you can hear it on Fox News every day: You’re saying the people are stupid!

Yet the Republicans in Washington know that ignorance is real, and that it is structured by class. In a 2003 poll measuring people’s attitudes toward taxes, recount Hacker and Pierson, a majority of the richest 5 percent of Americans answered the knowledge questions correctly. Only a fifth of other Americans did, with knowledge lowest among the least affluent. Strikingly, only half of America even knew there had been a tax cut in 2001.

The wealthy, the Republican party’s historical base, can be counted on to understand how well their servants have performed; those who have been screwed are, conveniently, the ones least likely to know it.

The book’s larger and most consequential answer to the mystery of right-wing domination points to the large-scale changes in class power since the 1970s. We have all heard the libertarian argument that economic inequality is irrelevant—that it doesn’t matter if we are heading toward a Gilded Age pattern of wealth distribution so long as we are all able to afford cars and TVs and pizzas and the other appurtenances of middle-class life.

Among the many mammoth facts such an argument overlooks are the political inequalities that economic inequality necessarily brings with it—and better information is only the first in a long list. The rich vote at higher rates than others, they contribute greater amounts to candidates, and, should they choose, they are able to afford today’s expensive campaigns for public office. At the highest level, of course, they can also bankroll think tank operations charged with making their idiosyncratic personal ideas (such as Social Security privatization) into the common sense of the millions.

“Over the past thirty years, American politics has become more money-centered at exactly the same time that American society has grown more unequal,” Hacker and Pierson write. “The resources and organizational heft of the well off and hyperconservative have exploded. But the organizational resources of middle-income Americans—from labor unions to mass-membership—groups have atrophied. The resulting inequality in resources and organization has not been neutral in its effects. It has greatly benefited the Republican Party while drawing it closer to its most affluent and extreme supporters.”

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ff Center is an important book; in fact, I think it is the most perceptive account of Republican Washington yet to appear. Hacker and Pierson have stretched the boundaries of their discipline to the very limit. But they do not break through.

When authors blast some prevailing theory as convincingly as Hacker and Pierson have done, they customarily abandon that theory and call on the world to adopt a new one. Hacker and Pierson demolish the cult of centrism, leaving no doubt that it has failed to account for the power of conservatism, that its doctrines of symmetry and polarization are little better than superstition—and yet they can never quite escape its clutches. For example, they never question the fundamental tenet of political geometry, in which proving that an idea is “off center” is enough to discredit it. Yet American history is crowded with lone geniuses and leaders whose views were unpopular at one time but who prevailed in the end—abolitionists, civil rights leaders, even the full-throated liberals of the early twentieth century. In fact, today’s conservative activists identify themselves with such outcast visionaries so frequently that their claim on the mantle of the rebel is largely uncontested today. Angry with the world? Hate the powers that be? Meet George W. Bush, Rebel-in-Chief (the actual title of a recent book by Fred Barnes).

This failure to close the door on centrism leads Hacker and Pierson to a rather unfortunate moment. Having shown decisively that the “center” is not the all-powerful juggernaut its admirers describe, the authors suggest not that we abandon the theory, but that we change the nation’s political structure in order to make the theory work—that we take steps to “make the votes of the middle more important,” that we “empower moderate voters.” In fairness, the specific measures that the authors go on to suggest are perfectly sensible, yet the reader is left wondering why the views of moderates should be privileged by the state, rather than the views of any other faction. Is it because moderates score four on some abstract scale of seven? Is this what democracy comes down to?

If we refuse to engage the contents of the ideas themselves, it unavoidably is. We are forced to conclude that the rule of the middle-mind is desirable because the rule of the middle-mind is the reigning fetish of political science. This is not democracy; it is professionalization run amok.

Far better to be done with the cult of the center for good. After all, it is not difficult to see how Washington’s horror of strange ideas has drained our politics of interest and relevance and color and may therefore be responsible for the very voter apathy that centrists so love to lament. Maybe there’s something to be said for the dreaded condition of “polarization”—maybe having politicians represent a broad range of opinions, rather than all of them clamoring after the same “median voter,” is what a healthy “marketplace of ideas” ought to look like.

And while we’re considering that, let’s remember that the people who glory to call themselves “centrists” and “moderates,” whether they are in journalism or politics, and whether they are young and idealistic or old and jaundiced, aren’t centrists at all. On economic issues ranging from free trade to Social Security privatization (points of particular enthusiasm for arch centrists Thomas Friedman and Joe Klein, respectively) they stand well to the right of majority opinion. In their mystical adoration of markets and the magic of the New Economy—a veritable requirement of the pundit-licensing process, apparently, along with a mystical adoration of baseball—they are so far outside the main current of American opinion that they might as well be on the moon. The only “center” these people occupy is a kind of middling position in the range of views commonly expressed in the management suites of the nation’s office buildings. What they deserve to be a subject of is not poli-sci reverence but searching sociological examination.

The political solution, then, is not to rig the game so that we might once again enjoy the rule of some triangulating Democrat who can proceed to get a Social Security deal done. It is to build a force that will counter the free-market ideology of the right—and also of the “center”—not merely by pointing out that it is unpopular, but that it is thunderingly wrong.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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