Thomas Frank has been recycling some old essays recently, and yesterday, he posted one he wrote after Obama had won the election but before he took office, Obama Really Let These Clowns Win? How Right-Wing Obstruction Always Trumps Sober Centrism. In a certain way, it is just his way of saying, “Told you so!” But I’m not so interested in it for being prophetic as I am in how much it parallels my own thinking.
The base of his essay is that Clinton played the “moderate” game and moved the country to the right and Obama was looking as though he was going to do the same thing. And we all now know that he did just that. It’s true that Obama did not hurt the country nearly as much as Clinton did. But given the opportunity that Obama had coming in right after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, you have to say that he did as bad a job as Clinton.
Frank ended his essay on what was undoubtedly meant to sound hopeful but in retrospect just makes me want to close up the house and go back to bed for a decade or two:
But there is more Frank’s article than a look back on Clinton and a look forward to Obama. He also gets into the thinking of the professional centrists, of which Obama and Clinton are members, but who are mostly journalists. As he noted, “The real-world function of Beltway centrism has never been to wage high-minded war against ‘both extremes’ but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism’s institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party…” Indeed.
I’ve gone farther on this issue, as I did back in 2012 when I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. In it, I discussed William Saletan of Slate, but more as a type than as an individual:
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.
And I suspect this is the problem with Clinton and Obama. They are winners in society. They may care more about the poor than the Bush family, but they are no less estranged from the poor. So of course Obama would never think about raising the payroll tax cap: that would hurt every one of his friends and himself. So the only solution that makes sense to him is to cut Social Security benefits in a politically viable way. It isn’t that he’s a bad man, it is just that like everyone, he is largely biased by his own class interests. And those are the interests of what is called a centrist.
But as I’ve shown, centrism isn’t the middle between the two extremes. In fact, if you look at the American people, elite centrism is more or less the popular anti-centrism. The people tend to be economically liberal and socially conservative. So what Democrats and most of the press call the “middle” is anything but. The main thing to remember however, is that whether it is elite centrism or popular centrism, it is still an ideology. Obama’s claims about being post-partisan make him either a charlatan or a fool. Regardless, we are lost as long the “liberal” Democratic Party keeps electing people like him. As Thomas Frank noted, “Centrism is not merely a mental habit of the comfortable, but an ideology of its own, a system of cognition that stands beyond proof or refutation.” Obama and Clinton will go to their graves certain that they had found the Aristotelian perfection: the golden mean between the two extremes.