18 May 2012

The void at the radical center

Postmortems for Americans Elect continue after organizers decided yesterday not to change their online-primary rules, denying themselves a final chance to nominate a presidential candidate despite the ballot lines waiting in 27 states for whomever they might have nominated. Observers have drawn several conclusions from the embarrassing end of a once-promising anti-Bipolarchy movement. A talking head of the moment is David Karpf of Rutgers. Interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, Karpf says that the debacle refutes hopes vested in a "radical center" by centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman. Centrists aren't radical but apathetic. "The people paying attention to politics tend to pick a side," Karpf says, and as he sees it attentive centrists have already settled on President Obama. On his own blog, Karpf dismisses the radical center as a fantasy that its boosters hoped could be willed into being with technology, through vehicles like Americans Elect. Karpf himself is a believer in Duverger's Law and the inevitability of Bipolarchy and polarization, offering only the National Popular Vote as a potential remedy.  Meanwhile, people who got involved with Americans Elect have commented on its labor-intensive sign-up and survey process, and a lack of follow up from AE itself, but Karpf cautions against assuming that glitches handicapped a good idea. Whatever the personal or structural factors, many observers seem rightfully appalled that an anti-Bipolarchy movement could gain so little traction at a time when public dissatisfaction with elected officials is at or near a historic peak. None of this alters my opinion that the tentative contentlessness of the Americans Elect vehicle was a fatal turn-off. Unless centrism is understood as a simple matter of splitting differences, centrists would have no automatic affection for a scheme that promised only a two-party national ticket, since the AE presidential candidate could not have a running mate from his own party. Even if you believed that this would result in bipartisan teamwork -- a dubious proposition considering how easily the Vice-President can be marginalized even by fellow partisans -- the prospect of a Republican and Democrat working together probably didn't impress many people as the answer to all problems. Whether there really is or can be a radical center depends on how you define the term. If centrism means no more than splitting differences and reconciling polarized opposites, there's no way it can be radical. If centrists plot themselves on a Bipolarchy graph, there probably isn't a way for them to escape the logic of Duverger's Law, which discourages difference-splitting in favor of either-or outcomes. A truly radical center would envision itself not between but outside conventional political bipolarity. Radical centrists will be those who can explain why "left" and "right" are hopeless options, not only because of their incompatibility, but each also on its own terms. People devoted to truly radical centrism might well be able to recreate the most successful elements of Americans Elect, particularly its aptitude for ballot access, but for such a vehicle to be more than another empty container, ideas must come first.

11 comments:

William Mercado said...

I'm sorry but most centrists are Republicans who don't mind gays but hate taxes on the wealthy. AE is a hedge fund manager's masturbatory fantasy. Centrism is a Trojan Horse to destroy what little is left of the Great Society and to gut Social Security so that a few may enrich themselves.

Calmoderate said...

True centrism is a trojan horse to inject reason and logic into the irrational, emotion- and special interest-dominated enterprise we call politics. Maybe questioning everything big, e.g., the military, the great society and the tax code, can look like something bad to people who support one or more of those things are they are. Nonetheless, it is easy to argue that almost everything needs to be reassessed and to justify it.

It is time to reassess what we choose to be and do as a society. No one can easily argue that what we are doing now can be sustained. Something has to give. The big fight will be over what stays and what goes.

TiradeFaction said...

William's got a point. Most "centrists" in today's political climate (well, at least in the United States), are just economic "conservatives" who range from socially apathetic to socially liberal. In other words, they want the Republicans economic policies, but they just don't want to shove JEEZUS down our throats. Just look at John Avlon, a darling pundit of "centrism", who is a senior fellow for the "Manhattan Institute", a right wing free market "Think Tank". If you look at most self proclaimed "centrists", they want things like lower taxes (even though our tax rates are at historic lows), axe murdering the federal budget (except the Military, of course), more de regulation (because that's worked out), and so forth. Also, I just wanted to point out, who takes Thomas Friedman seriously? Really? That guy is the typical moron who thinks he's intelligent, and apparently, his bosses think so too.

If "centrism" is going to be lead by the folks who sprouted up "Americans Elect", don't count on "special interest dominated" politics going away anytime soon, since hedgefund money was the life blood keeping AE alive.

William Mercado said...

Nothing is perfect and everything needs to be reassessed from time to time.
Social Security, medicare, medicaid works, not perfectly but it works and needs looking after. SS helps people and nobody is getting wealthy off of it which infuriates the hedge funds who are spear heading this AE nonsense. Centrism plays on people's beliefs and narcissism that they are above politics as usual and above the rabble like me

William Mercado said...

Thanks TiradeFaction

Samuel Wilson said...

An interesting discussion so far. While Americans Elect was always questionable in both methods and motive, whether there can be such a thing as "centrism" or, preferably, moderation in modern American politics is a different question. The implication of some comments is that there can be no "center" so long as it demands compromise from the "left." I'm sure a lot of rightists feel the same way -- that centrism is a lie -- every time a self-proclaimed centrist like Friedman calls for higher taxes and greater government investment in certain fields like education. But if you accept the premise that neither "left" nor "right" can have everything they want, you may be a moderate whether you like it or not.

TiradeFaction said...

The devil's in the details Sam.

It seems you're portraying these "centrists" (and do correct me if I'm wrong) as if they have an equal balance between left wing (economic) positions and right wing (economic) positions. Just because they're for modest (and that's being charitable) tax increases amongst massive social spending cuts, does not make it balanced. They'd have to be for significant tax increases along side significant spending cuts, for it to be truly balanced. In fact, a great deal of "Centrists" support Bowles-Simpson deficit plan, which in fact proposed to LOWER tax rates, while yes, closing loopholes, at the end of the day, would have brought LESS revenue in. The reality is, their economic plans are not much different than most right wing (or Obama's for that matter) economic plans. Just because they're for (maybe) modest tax increases and some miniscule infrastructure spending doesn't make it some grand balance.

I don't have a problem being a moderate, but I also recognize how right the political consensus has shifted in America for the past 30 years, and that "centrists" in America really only differ from their more conservative brethren on social issues.

What I find funny is, they (or should I say, Thomas Friedman) already have their preferred candidate in office, Obama! Massive entitlement cuts, not really touching the bloated military apparatus, modest tax increases, some sprinkling of infrastructure spending.

Samuel Wilson said...

TF, whether perfect balance is possible is itself subject to debate. What the most vocal centrists -- a species arguably restricted to the punditocracy -- insist is that both left and right have to give up something. Friedman has infuriated many Democrats by continuing to insist that they haven't been willing to give up enough, while base Democrats have complained that Obama has already given up too much, and that Republicans aren't giving up anything -- even though Friedman himself has complained about that as well. Friedman, of course, makes a presumption of austerity without apparently questioning who should govern austerity -- he'd leave it to the technocrats, presumably. But is the age of austerity just a conspiracy of selfish rich folk, or have we reached a real crisis of sustainability for the Great Society. That's what the "left" and "center" should be debating, with a biased "right" left out.

TiradeFaction said...

I never claimed a perfect balance was possible, but that most "compromise" packages are heavily slanted towards the right.

Michael Lind had a decent article on this issue http://www.salon.com/2012/04/24/a_radical_tax_solution/singleton/

TiradeFaction said...

Also, it's probably worth nothing, most of the "Great Society" programs are essentially gone. It's ridiculously difficult to even qualify for any of those programs, and their funding is chronically under served. The idea that America has an massive "Welfare" state even on par with the weakest European ones, to me, is laughable.

Crhymethinc said...

"But is the age of austerity just a conspiracy of selfish rich folk..."

That's exactly what it is. Look at the facts: They want to gut social programs that are necessary for those living in poverty. They want to cut education and health spending. Yet they do NOT want to pay higher taxes themselves. They want the lower echelons of the economic strata to give up much of what their taxes pay for, but those at the top, as usual, are willing to give up NOTHING, sacrifice NOTHING. So how are those at the top practicing the "austerity" they demand from the rest of us?

Greek citizens have the right idea, they just refuse to go as far as necessary to make their point: Either we are all in this together, we all sacrifice and suffer for the good of the whole, or those who refuse to make those sacrifices become sacrifices.