29 November 2011

E. J. Dionne: Moderates don't need a third party

As a Washington Post columnist, E. J. Dionne shares space with Matt Miller, one of the most prominent proponents of a third-party "moderate" option for the 2012 elections. As a loyal Democrat, it's up to Dionne to convince "some of my middle-of-the-road columnist friends" that a third party would be a bad idea next year. In his latest column,  Dionne rejects the entire idea of Bipolarchy (admittedly a word he's never heard, but you know what I mean) as a structural factor in legislative gridlock. As a polemicist for Bipolarchy, he's obliged to argue that only one party is ever to blame for the country's troubles.

[T]he problem we face isn’t about structures or the party system. It’s about ideology — specifically a right-wing ideology that has temporarily taken over the Republican Party and needs to be defeated before we can have a reasonable debate between moderate conservatives and moderate progressives about our country’s future. A centrist third party would divide the opposition to the right wing and ease its triumph. That’s the last thing authentic moderates should want.

Dionne's argument depends on the premise that the Democratic party is sufficiently moderate by "middle-of-the-road" standards, and would be effectively moderate if allowed to govern unimpeded by Republican extremism. His proof is that Democrats and "progressives" are committed to "substantial entitlement cuts" in the name of deficit reduction. Why don't the moderates see this? Dionne can't explain it any more than Eric Alterman could, without allowing that moderates might demand more cuts than Democrats can really countenance, while demanding more taxes than Republicans can stomach.

There are two competing narratives attempting to explain gridlock -- the Republicans have their own version of the same scenario that has less to do with gridlock than with principled (or delusional) opposition to bad measures. Leaving them out of it, we're left with the moderate or "radical center" version that blames both major parties, without necessarily blaming them equally, and the Democratic version that blames Republicans exclusively. The crux of the disagreement between Democrats and dissident moderates is partly a matter of perception. Democrats and their cheerleaders insist that they're ready and willing to make the compromises or "grand bargains" the moderates desire. The moderates express a range of skepticism, but seem united in the suspicion that partisanship puts an inherent limit on Democratic capacity for compromise. It's fair to ask, as irritated Democrats like Dionne and Alterman have been asking, how justified moderate suspicions are. The moderate assumption is that a Democratic "base" of intractable welfare-statists will inevitably limit that party's ability to conceive or carry out a "grand bargain" to reduce deficits. Democratic propagandists would have us believe that this intractable base is a figment of the disgruntled moderate imagination -- at least that's the party line right now. Democrats desperately want moderates to believe that the party can be as moderate as anyone could desire. But are there no lines Democrats would cross to please moderates like Miller or Thomas Friedman? Is there no point of moderation at which some "base" constituency would rebel? The answer depends on the actual nature of the Democratic party.

Dionne may actually be exactly right about the Democrats. They may be the ideal vehicle for the sort of grand "radical center" bargaining that moderate-party advocates want. It may be exactly the right thing for Miller and Friedman to join forces with Democrats to "confront" Republican obstructionism as Dionne wants them to -- whatever "confront" really means in this liberal context. The moderate columnists haven't exactly been giving Republicans a free pass during this crisis, but they just may owe one to the Democrats. After all, how accountable are the Democrats, really, to any leftist base? How much has the "left" really been to blame for congressional gridlock? The moderate-party promoters may be unfair to the Democrats exactly to the extent that they assume that the party's capacity for compromise is in any way impeded by leftism. Why not grant that the Democrats are already a moderate or centrist party, and already answerable to an essentially centrist base? That would alter our perception of gridlock considerably. It suits some observers to imagine a tug-of-war between two equal and opposite forces, a "left" and "right," as the cause of our trouble. But what if it's actually an irreconcilable conflict between "right" and "center," and as such an utter failure of the "establishment" to put its house in order? If so, then Dionne would be right about centrists making a mistake by opposing the Democrats. His sort of moderates may indeed have a party of their own. It may be the left, or else everyone who feels left out of the right-vs-center debate, who needs a new party -- not to confront Republicans alone, but to confront everyone standing in the way of recovery and progress.

No comments: