14 December 2010

The Fatal Center and the Magic Middle

Thomas Frank of What's the Matter With Kansas fame now has a monthly platform as the "Easy Chair" columnist for Harper's. His column for January, "The Fatal Center," is a play on Arthur M. Schlesinger's 1940s manifesto of the "anti-communist left," The Vital Center. As the title might tell you, Frank's piece is a diatribe against centrism or, as he calls it, a misplaced belief in a "Magic Middle" that should be refuted once and for all by the midterm elections. He notes that pundits two years ago blamed Republican defeats on the party's abandonment of the center, but observes that the GOP has traveled further to the right since then, and has triumphed. Now, of course, many of the same pundits say that Democrats had gone too far to the left, and must move toward the center. Had the pundits been correct about the necessity of centrism, Republicans rather than Democrats should have been shellacked in November. What does the opposite outcome prove?

Frank sees centrism as a creation of a punditocracy interested mostly in "protect[ing] themselves ... from accusations of bias." Liberals as a class are tempted by the mirage of the Magic Middle, he argues, because "there is something characterisically liberal about describing one's project as a defense of 'sanity.'" Disparaging liberals, Frank seems impatient with reason, or at least with "reasonableness."

First, reasonableness's faith in rational economic behavior was drowned in a flood of obviously fraudulent mortgage loans -- a trillion dollars' worth of them, a torrent that also carried off whatever authority was held by the financial professionals who packaged and sold them to one another....But other men of reason and expertise then proceeded to bail out those financial professionals, to restore them to their bonus-happy status quo ante -- while leaving you and me to struggle through the worst times in seventy years. As I write this, the forces of reason are allowing banks to claim their files are in order to continue foreclosing on people's houses even though all evidence suggests that those banks didn't bother with basic paperwork requirements....Never has the system seemed more obviously rigged or the rule of
professionalism more like a bargain between cronies.

It requires some effort to keep in mind that Frank isn't necessarily calling for a "politics of unreason" on the part of the left, but is rather denouncing a false "reasonableness" conditioned by a "Magic Middle" centrism that identifies reason with splitting the difference between the two most powerful factions. But Frank does seem to be saying that a politics of reasonableness, perhaps in any sense, is inadequate to the challenge posed by irrational and well-funded reactionary movements. He closes his article by saying that the Tea Partiers' self-described toppling of "elitists" missed its true target, eliminating centrists rather than hard-core liberals, but "deserves our respect nevertheless. For smashing our complacent faith in the Magic Middle and for giving the world a hard and unmistakable lesson in the architecture of American power, every citizen owes them gratitude."

What should those grateful citizens learn from the lesson? In broadest terms, Frank himself is in no mood to compromise, but what form would his ideally uncompromising battle with reaction take? Too literal an understanding of "centrism" may blind Frank or his readers to the virtues of moderation, which is not the same as the middle of the road. Moderation is an avoidance of extremes that exist in nature, not a matter of splitting the difference between any two factions. The persistent confusion proves again how useless "centrism" is as a political category, why Thomas Friedman's hopes for a "radical center" to combat the bipolarchy are hopeless. Identifying moderation with centrism only to dismiss it is dangerous. So is Frank's possible abandonment of any hope of appealing to voters' reason. He'd like to answer class war with class war, but would he go so far as to answer class hate with class hate? Would the rise of a tea party of the left, consciously driven by demagogic class-baiting propaganda, indifferent to the need to prove its premises to objective bystanders, really remedy the problems of the moment? I wouldn't mind seeing an experiment, but I won't guarantee how it turns out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Would the rise of a tea party of the left, consciously driven by demagogic class-baiting propaganda, indifferent to the need to prove its premises to objective bystanders, really remedy the problems of the moment?"

I'd much rather see the rise of a demagogic class-baiting leftists who could also prove their premises as well as disprove their opponents to objective bystanders.