The Mythical Political Center

Ezra KleinYesterday on the cover of the New York Times, Jonathan Martin wrote one of those stupid Villager articles we all know and despise, Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away from Center. This is an issue I’ve been ranting about for years. There is no “center.” All the mainstream press does is define the “center” somewhere to the right of the Democrats and to the left of the Republicans. What that means is that the Republicans can and have moved the “center” far to the right, just by being extreme. The effect is that the left is defined by a practical approach to politics and the right is defined by the most extreme elements of our political system. As a result, we end up with a “center” that is skewed to the extreme right.

Ezra Klein pushed back on Martin’s article, There’s No Such Thing As ‘The Center’. He puts a different take on what the “center” actually means. “It’s more a reference to an amorphous Washington consensus.” That’s another way to look at that is undoubtedly more accurate. Because the truth is that on social issues, the far right turn of the Republican Party has not caused the mainstream press to move the center of debate on gay or abortion rights. It is just on economic issues—the issues that the nation as a whole cares the most about—on which the center gets constantly pushed to the right, despite the fact that nation is far to the left.

The whole thing makes me wonder—and I’ve written about this in the past—does the press move the economic playing field further to the right because the Republicans move right or does it work the other way around. I’m afraid it is the latter. When it comes to social issues, the country is relatively divided. But liberal economic ideas are hugely popular. So I doubt that the Republicans would have moved so far right if it hadn’t been that they got no push back from the press. A great example of this is the “professional moderate” industry. I wrote this last year about Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness:

What most people find annoying about centrist pundits is the arrogance of their supposed objectivity. A quick look at their almost comically stereotyped views within the social and economic areas shows this clearly. Saletan’s social views are typically liberal: pro gay rights; pro abortion rights. I’ll bet he even believes in evolution! But his economic views are typically conservative: pro free trade; vaguely anti-union. Would you believe he’s very concerned about the deficit?!

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

It is no accident that professional moderates like Saletan so often skew socially liberal and economically conservative. It is in their own best interests. And I don’t blame them. But I do blame the system itself, which selects for exactly this kind of thinking. It does it in the name of objectivity or “even handedness.” When accused of liberal bias, they can trot out conservative economic bona fides. When accused of conservative bias (Rarely!) they can trot out their liberal social bona fides. But these pundits are not objective or even handed. They are on the extremes in a very predictable way.

And this is what is happening with people like Jonathan Martin. (And even Ezra Klein at times!) They are surrounded by like minded people who have the exact same interests that they have. Thus they think they really are being objective; they are blind to their own assumptions. A good example of this is how “free” trade agreements are really unpopular but in the mainstream press, it is considered radical and stupid to suggest that these agreements are anything but the best possible policy.

To a large extent, this is why I applaud biased news sources. If you are reading this blog, you know that I am biased. I don’t claim to be “objective.” Just the same, I would never intentionally misinform you. And I try very hard to provide the strong counterarguments, when they exist (in the current political environment, that is sadly rare). But knowing my biases allows you to decide if you are going to listen to me. Much worse are people like Martin who play the part of objective reporter when they have as many skewed opinions as I.


Here are a few other recent articles I’ve written on this subject:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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