04 June 2012

We need independents, not centrists

Writing in The New York Review of Books (the article is available to subscribers only online), Michael Tomasky reviews Linda Killian's new book on "The Untapped Power of Independents" but seems more interested in taking down a straw man. Tomasky wants to refute the supposed contention of self-styled centrists that "'both sides,' liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are more or less equally to blame for our problems." He cites some roll-call research proving, to no one's actual surprise, that Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left. But he can't cite any writer who's actually written or said that both parties are equally to blame for gridlock. It's one thing to say that they share blame, another to say that they deserve equal shares. Nor does it follow from the proof of greater Republican blameworthiness that the correct response is for everyone to rally behind the Democratic party. Not even Tomasky himself recommends that explicitly. He proposes "one far-reaching solution to our problems," -- electing more moderate Republicans "who would be willing to legislate and compromise as in the old days," -- but admits that "there is no sign that it will be done." The one thing he won't recommend, of course, is forming another independent party. The failure of Americans Elect has convinced Tomasky that there is no constituency for the sort of moderate or centrist that AE seemed designed to promote. For all practical purposes, he offers his readers no choice but to support the Democrats for the following reason.

In our current climate, about 40 percent of the electorate is very conservative and would vote for Sarah Palin. All Bloomberg, or anyone [who  runs as an independent] would do is split the remaining 60 percent. So [any moderate independent candidacy] is a plan that would reward the very people who are the main cause of the problem.

While Tomasky doesn't want to reward the party that's the main cause of the problem, he leaves us no choice but to reward the party that is a cause of the problem. He can disprove that Democrats are as guilty as the GOP, but he didn't prove that they are not guilty. Merely restating the terms of the polemic between liberals and centrists underscores the real problem with the Democratic party. Liberals complain that party leaders compromise too much and strive too much to be centrist, while centrists complain that the party base doesn't compromise or strive enough to be centrist. Arguing over which is right is folly. The problem is that the Democratic party compromises or refuses to compromise, tacks to the center or the left, when it serves the electoral and fundraising interests of the party. Instead of fighting to overturn a situation where 40 percent of the electorate skews every political question, the Democrats exploit it. They take advantage of the plight Tomasky acknowledges, in which they're the nation's only defense against Republicans, and compel their constituents to settle for whatever they decide is practical or pragmatic. Then they tell us that to protest is to "make the perfect the enemy of the good" and guarantee the victory of evil. It is their position as the only practical option for liberals that allows them to get away with centrism, and their need to cater to a liberal base during primary/fundraising season that frustrates centrists. Neither group gets what it really wants from the Democrats, but fear of Republicans forces them to settle time after time. Democratic pundits resented Americans Elect and centrists in general because they felt that the Democratic party was already quite centrist, thank you -- while resenting that very fact. Despite their protests, there's still a place in this campaign season, at every level of elected office, for independent candidates. But if Americans Elect proved anything, it was that there's no place in these campaigns for people who promise to do what the Democrats are already doing, only more so. What we need are parties and candidates who'll end the political culture of dependency and fear in which Democrats flourish -- which isn't the one Republicans are always ranting about. What that requires from us is the courage not to care if Republicans win another election. After all, if more people are "very conservative" than are liberal, moderate, leftist, etc., then I suppose they deserve another chance to get the government they want. And if that 40 percent statistic scares you, there's probably no better way to reduce it than to let Republican conservatism fail again. But if you honestly believe that the stakes are too high this time, your problem isn't necessarily with the Democratic party, but with democracy itself, at least as practiced in the U.S.A.

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