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Centrism, Pragmatism, Civility and the confusion thereof…

There is a lot of confusion of late regarding the terms “centrism”, “pragmatism”, and “civility”. Much of the confusion I believe is intentional, particularly on the part of this administration.

Let’s start at “centrism” as this is where much of the primary confusion lay.

First, so called “centrists” often believe because they are “centrist” they are less “ideological”. Experience does not hold this to be true. They argue that because their views are neither “left” nor “right” they must be more flexible and more “reasonable”.

The problem with this view is being in the center of the political spectrum does not make you any more flexible. If you rigidly believe, which many “centrists” do, that the path you are taking is the only reasonable path, then you are being ideological. It matters not if you are “left” or “right”, only that you are unwilling to take into account other views and adjust accordingly.

Moreover many centrists are militantly centrist – that is they believe centrism is the way to go regardless of whether a left tack or right tack would be more advantageous on the whole. They will put down others who express what are defined as “partisan” aims, simple because they are not “centrist”. Again, that’s ideological and that is most definitely not “reasonable” or “flexible”.

Secondly, centrists claim to be more “civil”, again, in my experience this does not hold. As they are, as noted above, equally ideological and often militant, they are just as willing to insult or otherwise deride those who do not echo their worldview. Again, just because you’re in the center, doesn’t automatically make you more friendly and reasonable. It is just as uncivil to say, “Look at those partisan assholes,” as to be a “partisan asshole”.

As far as “pragmatism” goes, centrists often think they are more “pragmatic” because they are willing to “split the difference” and support the “middle way”. The problem with this view is often the “pragmatic” solution is not the “middle way”. Often the truth, or the best solution, is explicitly partisan.

For instance, if on fire, the “pragmatic” solution is to put the bloody fire out, not in fact to be “partly on fire”. Similarly when drowning, the answer is to get the hell out of the water, not to continue drowning only in a less aggressive way.

Thus not everything can simply be “pragmatically” split down the middle of two extremes.

But really you’ll notice that “centrists” today are usually from the Democratic so-called “center left”. You will not see, and I think this is key, many Republicans ascribing themselves as “centrists”, in fact they rarely find the need to such window dressing.

In fact when one looks closer, really most of those calling themselves “centrists” today, are just hard core Obama supporters marching under a different banner. Or to put it another way, rebranded “Obamabots”.

The “Obamabot” point is important, because one of the defining characteristics of “Obamabots” is they were ideologically wedded to his “cult of personality”. No quarter could, or still can, be given to those who do not see him in the same messianic light that they did. Again, this is not “centrist” – this is the same sort of dogmatism one expects from the hard core left and the hard core right. The difference is it is now couched in terms like “realism”, “compromise”, and “the middle way”. To quote Obama himself however, “You can put lipstick on a pig but…”

There is nothing wrong with “centrism” in itself any more than there is with being more partisanly “left” or “right”. It has it’s charms, and yes, there are advantages of trying to find a middle ground if that is in fact what you’re trying to do, but one cannot argue that the path of “centrism” is somehow magically better than any other political position just because it is “the center”.

And this brings up another problem – is it really the center? Certainly it could be, but when one looks at the policies of those calling themselves “centrists” they are certainly not “center left” nor are they really even what one could call “center” at all. In fact they are, by my definition at least, doggedly “center right”.

As an example, it does not seem that allowing Obama to continue Bush era abuses such as “extraordinary rendition”, “indefinite detention”, “military tribunals”, and “drone killings” has any pretense of being “center left” or “center” – these are all issues that were decried as being “right wing abuses” by the same people calling themselves “centrist” today. Similarly calls to cut Social Security or allow the extension of the top 1%’s tax cuts – these are all platforms of the right. It’s hard to imagine just 3 years ago even the most moderately left leaning to be calling for such garbage.

In short when one looks at “centrist” policies, they have one common theme – they have a decidedly rightward slant.

Of course this can be difficult to see to the average American today since, thanks largely in part to the efforts of such “centrists” as Bill Clinton, the fabric of the country itself has very stealthfully moved to the right. If one wants proof of this, one only need to consider that at one time in the not so distant past, George McGovern was a highly viable candidate while now even the use of torture is a “reasonable” subject for debate (something even Reagan decried). Thus “the middle” is a highly fluid value.

And the “non-middleness” of the “middle” brings up another point. If Obama the centrist is supposed to be the token representative for the left in negotiations with what can only be described as the “radical right” (aka “mainstream Republicans”), how can one actually expect to get something that reflects the views of left?

As a metaphor, consider the left as being “cold water”, the right as being “hot water”, and the “center” as being, well, “tepid water”. If one negotiates, finds the “middle way” as it were between centrists and those on the right, we’re effectively mixing “tepid water” with “hot water”. Thus at best we can yield “warmer water” and through no miracle can one yield cold water (even if in a given case, “cold water” was the only “pragmatic” solution).

In short, my contention is the left isn’t really being represented at all. We end up with some medium between the “centrists” (ie: “center right”) and the hard right, which means we end up with something pretty dang right, and not even marginally “left”, even if left in some situations might be the only “sane”, “realistic”, or “pragmatic” solution.

Ok, it’s “pragmatic” in the sense that perhaps it’s the only solution legislatively achievable – that given the current political winds no other result is plausible to pass. However harking back to the “you’re on fire” metaphor, there are numerous situations where the “middle way” is just as bad as no way at all. In short – it’s not pragmatic if it doesn’t work. Thus Obama being “pragmatic” by stimulating the economy only using methods that pass Republican muster, when Republicans are essentially economic arsonists, does not pass the “pragmatic” smell test.

But even the argument that no other result is “legislatively achievable” is often highly dubious. Take for instance the recent claims by Obama that the “whiny” left is being stupid given that the only way to preserve unemployment benefits is to buckle over and give the Republicans their vaunted continuation of tax cuts (ehem, “giveaway”) for the very rich. Does that even hold up to scrutiny?

I don’t think so. First of all, it assumes this couldn’t have been taken care of before the mid-terms, where the issues at hand would have played very well indeed with the electorate. One has to wonder if avoiding the (whopping deficit creating) extension of tax cuts for the top 1% mattered that much to “center left” Obama, why he didn’t use this volatile wedge issue to both aid his party’s prospects, but also to handily put to bed the extensions.

Secondly, even today, despite the loss of mid-terms, he still holds the same congress he did before mid-terms. They are still there – they’re just (so called) “lame duck”. Thus he doesn’t have any less support than he did 6 months ago.

Third, why is one to believe the issues of possibly allowing millions to fall off of unemployment and/or extending tax cuts for the rich still aren’t contentious enough to force the Republican’s hands? Does he really believe that Republicans would allow legislation to simply fall on the floor because it left out unpopular tax cuts for the rich while preserving popular unemployment benefits? At Christmas time for god sake?

Finally, since the original tax cuts were passed via reconciliation, why in god’s name can’t the unemployment extensions and tax cut extensions for the middle class also be passed via reconciliation? Would this “unpopular tactic” cause more congressmen to lose their jobs after the mid-terms?

Thus Obama’s claims to being the “only legislatively achievable” direction seems remarkably dubious – and that’s not even adding that we have seen no sign whatsoever that Obama actually tried anything different – he “preemptively” negotiated himself into a hole.

And this perhaps is the most important point. Obama gives pretense of “negotiating” – that he represents not the right, but the left. But time and time again, with little evidence of serious effort of fighting for the left leaning goals, he mysteriously ends up with a compromise that looks remarkably like what the right wanted in the first place.

At some point one must become credulous and guess, “Maybe Obama doesn’t actually believe in what he claims?” Maybe, Obama isn’t left at all? Maybe he’s effectively, well, a “moderate Republican” in a guise of a “centrist Democrat”?

Which leads to the final conclusion – when Obama and other supporting “centrists” complain about the “whiny left”, maybe it isn’t because they are “pragmatic” and more “civil” members of the left trying to use “centrism” to achieve “our” goals, maybe they’re just “kinder gentler” versions of the right? Maybe, just maybe, they’re accidentally or otherwise using the “Trojan Horse” of centrism to achieve the same damn goals the Republicans are?

In the end, it matters not what they believe, but the policy they implement and, as far as I can see, the policy is indistinguishable. That, my friends, is the ultimate metric.


I freely admit I use a lot of “straw men” here and I have pretty much zero substantiation in terms of quotes, links, etc. Unfortunately this isn’t my day job and I don’t have time to flesh this out better, at least right now.

For simplicity I also imply that “left” is the better way – it isn’t. As others have noted elsewhere the whole “left/right” divide is largely a red herring and frankly a useful tool to keep the populace divided against the real enemies.

I do think what centrists are aspiring to, but failing at, is to look at all views and weigh them equally and respectfully. Instead I find modern “centrists” (or at least the most vocal ones lately) are just as ideological and dogmatic – they just believe in something different. The point is, their views aren’t any less “fixed” or frankly, based in logic and reason, than those on the left or the right.

As far as the left goes, my point more is we essentially have two voices right now. The “center right” and the “right”. True centrism one would think would represent all views, including those on the left. Instead as far as I see the true left has little voice and is being increasingly marginalized. In fact that’s part of why I wrote this – I feel that now even those who would claim to be “center left” (aka “centrists”) are helping that aim by their “hippie bashing” (a very fashionable trend as of late).

Sadly I am neither a hippie (I’m a wee tad too young), nor did I ever intend to be “on the left”, though I am proud to say I am now (I’m proud to be anything that is being abused through “mob mentality”). In fact at one time I thought I was a “centrist” myself, but that was before centrism seemed to be just another synonym for the “cruise missile left” (aka “Regan Democrats”). This was also before the right went completely bonkers, dragging the “center” well toward the right in the process.

I don’t know what what I am is called (other than four letter epithets), but I am just as willing to listen to ideas from the “right” as the “left” provided they are sane. However I don’t think, or act I believe (though perhaps I am deluded)(probably), like I’m “holier than thou” because I’m taking some middle way. That is one of the badges of modern centrism – the idea that you’re the only “sane” one at the party and the rest are unrealistic lowbrow idiots.

For some reason, I find that offensive.

While it certainly tweaks me, in the end I don’t think “centrists” are bad, nor that matter most people on the left or right. All of us are equally deluded and equally subject to the arbitrary whims of our psyche (ie: we believe that we achieve our beliefs through hard wrought self-investigation, when in fact it’s pretty much the coin toss of fate as to which tribe we fell with).

But policy does matter, and at the moment I think “right” and “center right”, along with their failed policies, have captured the country. That doesn’t mean the “hard left” is the answer, but it does mean they, or someone between “left” and “center right”, might have something different and worthwhile to offer. Something that might provide actual “hope” rather than just be a repeat of the prior administration’s failures. I’d like to see those ideas allowed into the maintstream, rather than simply dismissed as being “whiny” and “unrealistic”.

That’s what someone really in the center would do.


Incidentally this is not intended to put down John Stewart, nor for that matter his “Rally to Restore Sanity”. I do think some of his arguments have flaws, but he sincerely was talking more about civility than “centrism”. My reaction is more in response to the Obama administration’s barbs, the new “No Labels” astro-turf movement, and a large body of comments to various blog posts.

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