America’s Mysterious Middle Kingdom

One of the things that puzzles everyone is why we seem to have lost the middle – that’s what most political commentary comes down to. The crew at Fox News laments the fact that everyone does not agree with them – the fools. That’s the premise each night on O’Reilly and Hannity. And Glenn Beck takes it up a notch or two, furiously scribbling on his blackboard and pointing out what is obvious, that Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people, and that there are many plots, or one master plot, for a socialist takeover of America – any fool can see that.

Sometimes Beck misfires – he had to admit there were no FEMA reeducation camps to turn America’s youth into socialist zombie warriors against capitalism, and his careful explanation that the frescos at Rockefeller Plaza showed that the Rockefeller folks were socialists and fascists, simultaneously, out to destroy America, gained no traction at all. And the whole crew, save for Shepard Smith, ran with the Andrew Breitbart story on Shirley Sherrod, the black government official who was on a lifelong mission to screw-over all white folks. When it turned out that the damning video tape was severely edited and Sherrod was saying the exact opposite, they had to back off a bit.

But they try. It’s advocacy journalism. At present it’s day after day of guest after guest explaining that the proposed Muslim community center more than two blocks north of Ground Zero is a sneering and jeering insult to all Americans, and the first step to the Muslim takeover of America and the imposition of Sharia Law. All of the recent discussion about the implications of Fox News’ parent corporation being one-third owned by the Saudi royal family complicates things – “If we want to cut off funding to the terror mosque, we must, together as a nation, stop watching Fox.” But they try.

The year before that it was night after night on George Tiller, one of the few doctors in America who performed late-term abortions to save the mother’s life – and O’Reilly periodically losing it and screaming at the top of his lungs that Tiller was a baby-killer. O’Reilly is impressive when he screams, or means to be. But when someone took O’Reilly seriously and shot Tiller dead on the steps of a church, and then defended himself saying he was wholly justified because Tiller was a Baby-Killer (catchy wording) and then went to jail for life as the jury wasn’t impressed, O’Reilly and Fox dropped the whole thing. They took up the issue of gay marriage – that would destroy America.

The journalistic premise was and is that we report what the other guys are saying, and we just disagree with the other guys, who are just flat-out wrong. How can there be any middle? And then they gave a million dollars to the Republican Gubernatorial Committee. It seems they felt that being in the middle, or on the sidelines, was foolish. There’s nothing there.

Over on MSNBC Keith Olbermann and Ed Schulz do the same sort of thing – we report what the other guys are saying, and we just disagree with the other guys, who are just flat-out wrong. Olbermann doesn’t scream – he offers those smug self-righteous long special comments, pretending to be Edward R. Murrow. But those two guys gave up on the middle too. CNN is actually somewhat in the middle, just reporting who says what, but no one watches them. That’s reporting from a fictional country, America’s Middle Kingdom.

And in DC you get the old-timers, like the Washington Post’s David Broder, longing for the good old days of bipartisanship. See John Cole:

I’m just coming to the conclusion that David Broder and the independents he represent are either so hopped up on lithium and anti-depressants that they just have no clue what is going on around them or they are just completely politically unaware idiots who shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Or both.

It is particularly galling to me that anyone could watch the last two years and have a “pox on both houses” mentality. One side of this debate has been deceitful, disgusting, and downright disingenuous about everything. Hell, this Broder piece is published the day after Obama foolishly (in my mind) extended an olive branch to Republicans about coastal drilling, and… they rejected it.

Bipartisanship, Broder’s Rosebud, is dead…

There is no middle. And there can be no compromise.

And that is the message this year. John McCain won his party primary in Arizona by bowing to the wishes of the Tea Party crowd – now he will never compromise with the other side, or even talk to them, and he never was that maverick who sometimes bucked his party and worked with anyone who had a good idea – he never used that word maverick to describe himself, ever, and anyone who says he did is a damned liar. And that worked. He got the message – if you want to stay in office, or gain office, there is no middle on anything. The Tea Party crowd has laid down the law – any talk of any sort of middle and you won’t get their vote, and your Republican Party will be gone in the blink of an eye. Of course the hard-left says the same thing to Obama. Ed Schulz says that same sort of thing every day. Obama ignores them all. That only makes them angrier.

This is not pretty and there’s a bit more to it. That’s playing out in a back and forth between Matthew Yglesias (generally liberal-progressive) and Conor Friedersdorf (generally conservative but not a Tea Party sort) and the issue is just who is and who is not a statist – someone who likes big government doing things. And Friedersdorf tries to wrap his head around the ways in which someone like Yglesias approaches public policy, being somewhat surprised that Yglesias does not seem to have a reflexive preference for larger government:

The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn’t to grow the American state. On some issues, he sees a bigger state as a necessary means to an end he desires (like using subsidies to increase the percentage of Americans covered by some form of health insurance), and on other issues he favors taking power away from the state. It is useful to understand these distinctions, even if you think, as I do, that the federal government should be much smaller than Mr. Yglesias would have it.

Ah, the size of government is one underlying issue that matters, and Adam Serwer weighs in:

The idea that conservatives don’t understand that liberals aren’t ideologically committed to the expansion of government the way conservatives are ideologically committed to the shrinking of government is indicative of the fact that conservative conversations about liberals take place in an alternate reality. Liberals believe that government has a responsibility to help people, especially those at the margins, cope with the exigencies of the free market, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to support a local height requirement in Washington, D.C., that artificially inflates the price of living space because it prevents the construction of housing with greater density. The means and outcome of policy matters, rather than the size of the role government ultimately plays. Yglesias is hardly unique in that sense.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I believe that conservatives don’t really understand the difference.

Steve Benen agrees with that:

I continue to see this as one of the fundamental differences between the left and right – one considers smaller government an end unto itself, while the other cares infinitely more about policy outcomes than the size of government. Liberals and conservatives don’t only disagree on political goals – they differ on the kinds of goals worth pursuing.

And Benen cites Paul Krugman on this very thing:

On the right, people are for smaller government as a matter of principle – smaller government for its own sake. And so they naturally imagine that their opponents must be their mirror image, wanting bigger government as a goal in itself. But it’s not true. I don’t know any progressives who gloat over increases in the federal payroll or the government share of GDP. Progressives have things they want the government to do – like guaranteeing health care. Size per se doesn’t matter. But people on the right apparently can’t get that.

Benen thinks he knows why:

The liberal worldview is not about necessarily increasing the size of government or raising taxes; those mechanisms are only valuable insofar as they reach the desired end-point. For the right, it’s the other way around – the ideological goal is the desired end-point.

I can imagine a scenario in which the president hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it’s time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last year and a half, looking closely at what worked and what didn’t, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward – let’s do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way – they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still say tax cuts for millionaires is the better way to go. Why? Because their ideology dictates that government spending is bad, government intervention in the economy is bad, and tax cuts are good.

And Benen notes Jon Chait said this a long time ago:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy – more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition – than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

That is a bit smug and self-satisfied, but Benen likes the notion:

Those on the right want to cut taxes, because tax cuts are necessarily good. They want smaller government, because smaller government is necessarily good. They want to privatize public programs because privatization is necessarily good.

The left has no parallel ideological desires (wanting bigger government just for the sake of having bigger government).

The left starts with a policy goal (more people with access to medical care, more students with access to college, less pollution, more Wall Street safeguards) and crafts proposals to try to complete the task. The right starts with an ideological goal (smaller government, more privatization, lower taxes) and works backwards.

No wonder there can be no middle ground on any issue.

And that manifests itself in all sorts of odd ways, like with Michele Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, and her fateful and prescient chat with Chris Matthews in Hardball – she said there should be an investigation to determine which members of Congress are “pro-America or anti-America.” That might have been McCarthyism, but she wasn’t calling for congressional hearings – she wanted the press to decide just which elected officials were pro-America or anti-America. The implicit message to Matthews was that if Fox news can do this then certainly Matthews’ MSNBC-NBC-CNBC could help out. We could be rid of everyone in government who is anti-America.

Matthews was not impressed. Many were not impressed. Designating certain people as “insufficiently American” – and then purging them from public life – seemed like a bad idea, and rather dangerous. It could lead to dark places. But if there is no middle, as everyone acknowledges, then there really was no problem, as Bachmann seemed to indicate.

And that was prescient. That may have been two years ago, but Sharron Angle, the new Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, is down with that. Greg Sargent notes here that on a radio interview Angle did on the day she launched her campaign last year she “clearly and unequivocally agreed with an interviewer who asserted flatly that there are ‘domestic enemies’ and ‘homegrown enemies’ in the ‘walls of the Senate and the Congress.'”

And now her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is saying that Angle is far “too extreme” for the American mainstream and makes a larger point:

Sharron Angle’s rhetoric is irresponsible and over the top. Let me be very clear. While I may have some differences of opinion with my Republican colleagues in the Senate, I have never questioned their patriotism. For Sharron Angle to agree that any of them – Republican or Democrat – is an enemy of the state is not only an insult to every United States Senator, it’s a disgrace to our country. If she is going to use such rhetoric, she has an obligation to name names and explain to the American people exactly who she thinks is a domestic enemy.

But Angle really is convinced Congress has “homegrown enemies” shaping federal policy. Such things happen when there is no middle. And she inserted herself into the Republican Party, so they must decide whether to roll with this and support her. The Tea Party crowd has laid down the law – any talk of any sort of middle and you won’t get their vote, and your Republican Party will be gone in the blink of an eye. That’s a problem.

As is Marc Ambinder reporting this – Bush Campaign Chief and Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman: I’m Gay – something no one expected:

Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.

Mehlman arrived at this conclusion about his identity fairly recently, he said in an interview. He agreed to answer a reporter’s questions, he said, because, now in private life, he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage and anticipated that questions would arise about his participation in a late-September fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that supported the legal challenge to California’s ballot initiative against gay marriage, Proposition 8.

“It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life,” said Mehlman, now an executive vice-president with the New York City-based private equity firm, KKR. “Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I’ve told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they’ve been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that’s made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”

Oops. A middle ground just appeared:

Privately, in off-the-record conversations with this reporter over the years, Mehlman voiced support for civil unions and told of how, in private discussions with senior Republican officials, he beat back efforts to attack same-sex marriage. He insisted, too, that President Bush “was no homophobe.” He often wondered why gay voters never formed common cause with Republican opponents of Islamic jihad, which he called “the greatest anti-gay force in the world right now.”

Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities – such as the distribution in West Virginia in 2006 of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country…”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.

Now that’s going to be hard:

He said that he plans to be an advocate for gay rights within the GOP, that he remains proud to be a Republican, and that his political identity is not defined by any one issue. “What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party’s philosophy, whether it’s the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married.”

“I hope that we, as a party, would welcome gay and lesbian supporters. I also think there needs to be, in the gay community, robust and bipartisan support [for] marriage rights.”

The Republican Party just didn’t need this. Between the Tea Party crowd on one side demanding no compromise and on the other side the highly-respected establishment Mehlman saying that, you know, we could be nice to the gays, as it seems I’m one of them, they must be in a quandary. Next someone might say, you know, we could also be nice to Hispanics, and to Muslims, as they’re not all building bombs in their basement. And then someone might say, you know, the government might do something right if we let it and maybe we ought to try – and maybe it’s okay if the Bush tax cuts expire and there is more money to do something useful. Where will all this end?

Here’s a thought. What happens when a coworker or friend or family member swears that they will never compromise on anything, ever, and stand there waiting for you to show the appropriate awe and envy at their amazing moral clarity? You nod and say that’s nice – very impressive – and you move on. Such people are a pain in the ass. The middle is there anyway. We all live there.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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