Friday, October 26, 2007

The Mutable, Theoretical "Center"

Kevin Drum has a post discussing a time-honored tradition: considering ideological purity and where it may be possible to compromise, and where exactly the sweet spot will be to win elections. His formula:
Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party's liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.
This may be plausible in a restricted sense, with a couple of stipulations: 1) that "the center" is only a theoretical place defined by the politics of the day and substantially mutable from election to election; and 2) that "right" and "left" are themselves mutable and theoretical. In a certain sense, parties must fight a battle every two years to characterize their own politics as being within that sweet spot by defining that sweet spot.

Think of the first W campaign. On foreign policy, he argued an aggressively isolationist view--described at the time as "conservative." (Gore's diplomatic, engaged approach was "liberal.") On revenues, he argued that small government was the goal, big spending and debt the enemy, and tax cuts the vehicle. Again, the conservative view. From this evolved a president who aggressively engaged in "nation building," expanded the government like no one since FDR, and plunged the country into debt it will take decades to dig out of. There's no throughline here--yet every election, the Republicans characterize whatever policies they happen to be supporting as "the center."

Something else in Kevin's post bothers me even more. While it's the politicians' role to craft their message to the frame of "centrist," it doesn't mean the actual political spectrum shifts that much election-to-election. (Over generations, some things do change, but that's a different post.) So, when he characterizes the parties' deviation from center like this, I have to call BS:
[D]uring the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.
If five is the perfect center, what do 1 and 10 look like? By historical standards, a one has the economic aspects of socialism that flourished in reaction to the Gilded age through the depression--of course, far to the left of the Democratic Party. It carries with it all the hallmarks consistent with socialism--state control of many industries, pervasive workers unions, and so on. If you compare Western democracies, with their labor protections, large social networks, strong regulation of industry, you see something along the lines of a 2.5 on that scale. The current Democratic Party, which is so pro-business that it supports NAFTA et. al., resists market regulations, offers limited support for workers, has abandoned progressive taxation, and has let the social safety net fray and tear, looks like the GOP of 1960.

What's a ten look like? The farthest extremes of market freedom have occured twice in America--during the Gilded Age and now, when government has almost been removed from its role as regulator. Our foreign policy is dictated by market economics and the imperative to open new markets. I can imagine a futher step right, but in terms of historical measures, we're about as far right as we've ever been.

So if the "center" is a five, then neither party represents it. Democrats range from probably 5-8, and Republicans from 8-10. The center of that spread is about a seven, not the historic center. What we regard as the political sweet spot for getting elected now would, by historical standards, look moderately-to-extremely conservative. If a true historic liberal ran now--one who pushed for a high tax bracket of 75%, universal healthcare, vast government investment in education, a department of peace, total nuclear disarmament, labor protections equal to France's--s/he would be mocked as a fanatic. But once, those positions would have been the mainstream.


cwilcox said...

If we went any further right I'd, why I'd, Well, I'd just want to go around kicking peoples ass all of the time I imagine. And it kills me that many of the leading candidates of the GOP are fighting to position themselves to the right of the Bush trainwreck of a presidency. Maybe Huckabee has a little actual compassion in his heart but the rest of those guys scare the bejesus out of me. And yeah, I would rate Hillary about a 7 on your scale of left and right. Hopefully both sides will trend toward core values in the upcoming nomination process.

Chuck Butcher said...

Hillary would rate with George II if she didn't support just a couple items. What is lacking in this scoring is authoritarianism, another thing than economic/social policies. Geo II, Rudy, Mitt, and all R's except R Paul, would all score high on that scale, as would Hillary. That scares the crap out of me. Stupid economics and social policies right themselves over time, you get your rights back at the point of a gun. That is truly scary...