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The Folly of Centrists

November 21, 2011

A few months ago I stumbled upon this blog article here, about the manufactured “US Debt Crisis”. It was a refreshing read, and it really opened my mind to the deficiencies in a lot of modern punditry. Time and time again, commentators like Tom Friedman will wring their hands in grief, asking why America’s two major parties cannot come to any sort of agreement. The more I read, the more I begin to realise that these types of commentators really must not read the news beyond the headline. Or rather, they read completely without perspective. When at every point, Democrats call for some kind of agreement that involves both tax increases and spending cuts, and Republicans choose only to negotiate spending cuts, it appears quite evident why America’s two major parties are not able to come to some sort of agreement. Yet, some commentators continue to press the same point over and over again:

The risks to both sides of a do-nothing-for-now strategy are arguably outweighed by the many possible advantages. The economic policy gulf between the parties has become so wide that it seems impossible, barring the use of accounting gimmicks, for them to split the difference.

The anti-tax, anti-government ideology of the right cannot be legitimately reconciled the with pro-government, high-tax commitment of the left, and vice versa. On top of that, these competing ideologies have acquired a moral dimension that makes ordinary political give-and-take intolerable.

Notions of unilateral victory, whether through Republican domination of Washington or through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, become increasingly attractive, no matter how fanciful, if the alternative is engaging in the processes of honest bargaining, accommodation, negotiation and compromise.

To fully understand the problem with these types of arguments, one must appreciate the centrist commentator position. Their perspective relies upon the notion that each party represents one extreme of the political compass, and that the answer generally lies in the middle. Now, while this argument is one I firmly disagree with, what is more important is that they do not hold the parties accountable for their beliefs. So fixed upon this notion that each party represents one ideological extreme, they do not acknowledge, or at least articulate, that both the Democratic and Republican party have come far to the right since the 1960s.

The practical effect of this type of thinking, as evident above, is that these commentators label Democrats as high-taxing socialists, in comparison to the low-taxing free-market Republicans. But Democrats aren’t calling for huge increases in the higher income tax brackets, unlike that socialist Dwight Eisenhower and his 91% tax rates. Instead, they’re calling the closing of loopholes; removing tax breaks on items like corporate jets. I’m no economist (oh wait), but when items like Social Security and Medicare are on the table, for reasonable and even painful reforms, then surely luxury items for big corporations can probably be spared. Their income tax policy doesn’t involve any radical restructuring of the tax system, it simply consists of what previous legislation has mandated: letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which extraordinarily were actually extended by the Democrats. This takes Democratic tax policy back to the Clinton era, hardly the zeitgeist of the liberal era.

The issue is that Republicans and conservatives won’t have a bar of this. Far from the very measured (and some like me would say overly cautious) approach of the Democratic party, they’ve come to the extraordinary conclusion that the tax system cannot be raised, that all problems come from spending and not from revenue. It is so far removed from reality, this idea that deficits will sort themselves out, that the government does not have to work to restructure the taxation system at all, that the only policy is down down down.

The problem is that every time a concession is made to the Republicans, the debate and the centre is shifted. Due to the false-equivalency so prevalent among pundits and commentators, who consider themselves centrist and non-partisan, they present the case as Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other, surely the answer must lie in the middle. But this ignores the very fact that the middle itself is constantly being redefined! Republicans, through their rampant extremism (and unfortunate recent electoral success), are given a blank cheque to demand ever more ridiculous outcomes, precisely because they are not called out on it. Far from being rewarded for being willing to negotiate, the Democrats are punished in the public eye, as instead of reflecting on the actual facts of the situation; that one party seeks to compromise and one seeks to only have it their way; the media somehow gets it into their heads that both parties are stubborn and blinded by ideology, and that if only there were some kind of third, centrist party, willing to compromise, ie: exactly what the Democrats are already doing.

In their effort to be non-partisan, these commentators do not serve the facts, but rather serve the game. They ignore the very fact that politics is not some kind of sport. Regardless of who is on whose side, the decisions made do not end at the end of the game, and the facts surrounding them are by no means subjective. They’re permanent, and they shape the way the world works. Getting the facts right shouldn’t even be a moral duty, but simply an imperative of proper news coverage. Every time someone assumes that the answer lies between these two parties, as a reliable truism, they move from analysis to sports commentary, and we get nowhere.

And because I can never resist an opportunity to shove Bill Maher into anything, here’s him demonstrating what it would look like if liberals were as crazy as conservatives.

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From → Political

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