(Political) Myths Doesn’t Equal Unreal
Br. Jamelle goes on the attack against radical centrism of the Thomas Friedman variety.
The term “radical centrism” is absolutely incoherent. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines radical as “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” Which, incidentally, is the precise opposite of “centrism.” For centrists, public policy is only “good” when it offers a concrete benefits to existing stakeholders and entrenched interests. By and large, centrism is an ideology of the status quo, and centrists are most concerned with maintaining existing institutional arrangements. Reform is rarely pursued, and then, only when it can be achieved through tepid incrementalism (the exception, of course, being wars and defense spending)…Like I said at the beginning of this post though, “radical centrism” is a complete contradiction in terms, and it would please me to no end to see the phrase mocked, denounced and completely excised from political dialogue.
This caught my eye since the other day I wrote a rather positive review of Michael Lind’s review of his decade-old book Radical Center.
Lind differentiates between (in his words) the radical center and the mushy middle of centrism. The “mushy middle” centrism of Lind is the radical middle of Thomas Friedman, correctly critiqued by Jamelle–a little confusing to be sure but important to keep in mind.
Here’s the passage I quoted from Lind (with my emphasis):
To make things even more complicated, as journalists such as John Judis pointed out back in the 1990s, America’s loose but real class system produces not one but two centers: the radical center, which is based in the white working class and lower middle class; and the “mushy middle” (or the “sensible center” or “moderate middle), which is based in the corporate world, the corporate media and in many think tanks in Washington. While the socially downscale radical center is center-left in economics and center-right in cultural matters (in favor of lowering the Medicare retirement age, against race-based affirmative action), the socially upscale mushy middle is center-right in economics and center-left in culture (in favor of cutting Social Security and Medicare and also for promoting ethnic diversity in an elite that is homogeneous in class and worldview).
The mushy middle represents the class interests of the college-educated professional/managerial overclass, a group that makes up at most 10 or 20 percent of the U.S. population. That 10 or 20 percent, however, accounts for nearly 100 percent of the personnel in corporate management, news media and the universities. As a result, the only “center” that is ever represented in mainstream political discourse is the mushy middle, whose spokesmen include David Gergen and David Broder. Deprived of credentialed advocates in positions of power and influence, radical centrist voters are forced to find their tribunes among anti-system politicians or journalists, like Ross Perot and Lou Dobbs, whose theatrical styles and appeals to (sometimes justified) resentments allow the establishment spokesmen of the mushy middle to dismiss them as primitive Neanderthals and pitchfork-wielding populists. (my emphasis)
I don’t really like Lind’s use of the term “white” in “white working class”, I would prefer simply “working class” across ethnic-racial distinctions, but I think his point otherwise stands.
I’m not married to the use of the term “radical center” (or similarly radical middle, rational center, etc.), but as slight pushback against Jamelle I think the term is (at least in principle) coherent. Truth be told, there is basically no one in US elected office who represents said views consistently and the only de facto “centrism” at play in Congress is precisely the kind (correctly) mocked by Jamelle, Lind, and others.
In other words, not to be splitting hairs here (because I think the words actually do matter), Lind and Halstead called their book Radical Center and therefore if it’s an “ism” it’s Radical Center-ism not Centrism. Centrism then being the ideology of people like Lieberman, Graham, Nelson, Snowe, and Collins.
Radical center in contrast as used by Lind means the following:
Radical: to the root of problems. Looking for large-scale, systemic change.
Center: More concerned with what it sees as the natural social-economic-political center of the country (and particularly the left)–the working classes. It has the bonus of being able to “center” (i.e. ground) itself by cross left/right adherence. It does so through “centering” (i.e. focusing on) on various policy arenas and finding synthetic connections across the boundaries. This is different than the mushy middle centrism which (as the name suggests) is just the lowest common denominator of the political opinions on a simplistic linear spectrum model.
In the Thomas Friedman model of radical centrism, Jamelle is right–the term is self-contradictory. But in the way Lind-Halstead use the term, I don’t think the same criticism applies. So while I can appreciate Jamelle’s desire to eradicate the term radical centrism out of existence given the dominance of the mushy middle centrism, but there might be some healthy (political) germs along with the unhealthy ones that would be sterilized if we totally followed that process.