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The Nonexistent ‘Center’ Folds

There is no "center" in Washington, and the pundits who pretend to be fighting for the middle are misleading themselves and the rest of us.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), accompanied by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), accompanied by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Back in 1968, the Washington pundit Stewart Alsop published a book titled The Center about his metaphorical home as an allegedly unbiased insider. The center, according to Alsop, was “the Washington which a political journalist sees with his tunnel vision.” More than a place, it was a state of mind.

The center was where the action was. It was where men—almost exclusively men in that era—of good will met to hammer the things that mattered. “Extremists” and “ideologues” of all stripes abhorred the center, but the truly “central” knew that they were where the action was—where rhetoric was made into policy and sometimes even war. Explaining and defending these principles for the powerful people who made them law and the powerless people who fought—and sometimes died—for them was the essential business of the Cold War-establishment Washington pundit.

But the notion of “the center”—decidedly murky even in Alsop’s times—has grown to be ridiculous in our own time. Back then, one could speak accurately of a bipartisan establishment that was dedicated far more to the sacred undertaking of dealmaking rather than to any of the substantive beliefs that might underlie those deals. In those days, both parties had liberal and conservative wings, and everyone worked together to blunt partisan interest and ideological obsession.

Today, however, while the Democratic Party has a liberal and a not-so-liberal wing, the Republicans have only hard-line and almost-as-hard-line conservatives. What’s more, as the conservative columnist Ross Douthat notes in a piece titled “Going for Bolingbroke,” these elected representatives are governed by a kind of “conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all.”

Believe it or not, Douthat is actually understating the problem. The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein—a nonpartisan, center-style pundit if ever there were one—recently penned a piece in The Atlantic that evinces fury at what he calls “The Unprecedented, Contemptible GOP Quest to Sabotage Obamacare.” In the article, he notes that it was not just the old-fashioned outliers of the party who were seeking “to shut down the government unless President Obama knuckles under and defunds Obamacare entirely,” but that “Senate Republicans’ No. 2 and No. 3 leaders, John Cornyn and John Thune, [also] signed on to the blackmail plan.” Ornstein uses, as a concrete example of this strategy, the letter Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell (KY) and John Cornyn (TX) sent to the National Football League. This letter, Ornstein notes, demanded “that [the NFL] not cooperate with the Obama administration in a public-education campaign to tell [its] fans about what benefits would be available to them and how the plan would work,” and it “clearly implied deleterious consequences if the league went ahead anyhow.” Sadly, Ornstein reports, the threatening letter was successful, and “NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell quickly capitulated.”

Because he is congenitally a man of the center, Ornstein felt compelled to take a swipe at liberals as well, adding in a parenthetical aside that he remembered “being shocked when some congressional Democrats appeared to be rooting for the surge in troops in Iraq to fail—which would mean more casualties among Americans and Iraqis, but a huge embarrassment for Bush, and vindication of their skepticism.” But note that Ornstein is forced to use the journalistic weasel word “appeared” in order to make his false case of not-quite equivalence. Can he name a single prominent national Democrat who actually “rooted” against American troops in Iraq? He does not do so, and I doubt he could.

The notion of a political “center” remains a hallowed ideal of the Washington punditocracy. In a recent front-page New York Times analysis, for instance, Jonathan Martin—late of Politico—authored a story beneath the headline titled “Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away From Center.” In it, he reported, among other things, that:

Liberals, pointing to a bankrupt Detroit and new reports of diminished class mobility, believe the plight of lower-income and young Americans is so severe that the party must shift away from the center-left consensus that has shaped its fiscal politics since Bill Clinton’s 1992 election and push more aggressively to reduce income disparity.

His only specific examples of legislation for this contention were Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) bills that propose allowing college students to access for one year the same interest rate that the Federal Reserve offers banks and another bill to restore the Glass-Steagall Act to regulate commercial banks and help prevent the kinds of excesses that led to the horrific stock market crash of 2008.

Nowhere, however, does Martin locate the political or geographical coordinates of what he deems to be “the center,” nor does he identify why Sen. Warren’s ideas might be considered “left” of it. As The Washington Posts Ezra Klein noted in a blog post about Martin’s piece, “There’s no such thing as ‘the center’” anymore, and the bills sponsored by Sen. Warren happen to be “really popular. Even breaking up the big banks is popular. Warren’s proposal—which is also supported by Sen. John McCain—is aimed at taking advantage of that popularity.”

True, Martin also refers to a desire on the part of some Democrats to forestall proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But again, Klein notes:

Along with raising taxes on the wealthy, making cuts to the social safety net is perhaps the most frequently polled policy question, and every poll comes back the same way: Cutting Social Security and Medicare is really, really unpopular. According to a recent Pew poll, 87 percent of those surveyed want to see spending on Social Security either increased or held steady, and 72 percent feel the same way about Medicare.

Martin’s notion of the center might be accurate among the subjects of This Town, a book by Mark Leibovich on politics in Washington, where Messrs. Simpson and Bowles are considered folk heroes, similar to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger at a Bruce Springsteen concert. But among real people, these men are far, far to the right of center. And this makes perfect sense, given that one of the parties that allegedly makes up half of the center has gone off the conservative rails, both intellectually and ideologically—even though most members of the mainstream media simply cannot bring themselves to admit it. Note, for example, a recent article in Politico that referred to Republican “climate skeptics” who reject the scientific consensus on global warming; a better word than “skeptic”—which implies two sides with a disagreement upon which a “centrist” compromise could be reached—would be “crazies.”

A big part of the problem, as the much-discussed Fox News interview with Reza Aslan demonstrates almost perfectly, is that contemporary conservatives simply cannot conceive of knowledge or information that is not consistent with their own ideological preconceptions. It does not matter what independently verified or scholarly evidence or documentation exists: Either you are for them or against them. The fact that Aslan appeared to significantly misrepresent his credentials repeatedly in the now-famous interview adds a rich layer of irony to the whole circus. They could have nailed him, if only they had opened their eyes behind their own biases.

But in a world with no facts and no evidence, there is obviously no center. By perpetuating this insider illusion, the mainstream media continue to misinform the nation according to their own deeply held biases and unspoken prejudices.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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