Thursday, May 22, 2014

Moderate Style vs. Policy

Seth D. Daniels offers a provocative piece on moderate style vs. policy on Talking Points Memo.

They put forth a set of policy positions, call them “moderate,” and carefully use voters’ self-description as “moderate” to seem like an endorsement of their policy beliefs — even when those policy beliefs, like their deep desire to cut Social Security and Medicare, are held by very small minorities. But “moderate” is a style, an affect, not a set of policy positions. Be wary of anyone who talks about the former as though it means anything about the latter.

The pundits who most loudly proclaim that we’re in a moderate, independent moment are themselves deeply ideological. But it’s an ideology of style and process rather than policy. They’re committed to that “centrist” pose as surely as the most die-hard partisan is committed to party, and it makes them act as foolishly as they insist partisanship does.

These elite pundits practice their own sort of intransigent ideology. They insist in every possible instance that The Problem Is Both Sides and that whatever the right answer is, it’s clearly at the midpoint between Both Sides. And they assume that the terms “moderate” and “independent,” so beloved as self-descriptions, correspond exactly with their preferences in both policy and style. Like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know he’s wet, they push deficit-reducing grand bargains that cut the social safety net as though it’s just common sense, not a choice based on political belief. It’s advocacy journalism that imagines itself objective.

Indeed, Washington’s Republican leaders have figured out how to use the ideology of moderate style to their advantage. As Jonathan Chait aptly puts it, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “hacked American politics” by exploiting the impulse to prefer bipartisanship and compromise. The way to do it is easy: you just deny Republican votes to proposals from the administration, no matter where they fall on the ideological scale, and suddenly they become “partisan” and the administration needs to compromise more. Simply by denying “broad agreement,” McConnell forces the debate to the right, away from the electoral winners — and pundits like Fournier and Brooks buy it completely. Their pose of even-handedness is so important to them they that can’t see McConnell’s strategy even when it’s in plain sight, made explicit by McConnell himself. The “centrist” pundits create the incentive for the polarized behavior they claim to oppose.

The chief problem in D.C. is not, contra Brooks and Fournier, that there’s “too much democracy” and not enough elite consensus-building. The primary problem is that the majority in the U.S. House was elected by a minority of voters, and the majority’s caucus is overwhelmingly controlled by a hard-right fringe that doesn’t represent the majority of Americans on issues like Social Security, Medicare, immigration, and the minimum wage.

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