Monday, February 21, 2011


Is there a more cowardly or pathetic talking point than the claim that America is a “center-right” country?

You’ve read it in syndicated columns and heard it from the stump and Sunday talk shows. Two trends attend each utterance. First: only right-wing spokespeople happen to say we live in a center-right nation, funny that. Second, and more telling: they only invoke the “center-right” to prove something else entirely; they never bother to establish this rather grand and contradictory stipulation up front. Through unchallenged repetition it’s become the sort of given-concept/received-truth that structures a debate before it has a chance to begin.*

Silly stuff first. Insofar as “center” means anything at all, it cannot tilt one way or the other. It’s like saying the Equator is a “center-North” line of demarcation. So when conservatives insist America is a “center-right” country, they’re really saying the right holds the center. Thus we discover that “Obamacare” (another sly coinage) is unpopular not because it’s an unholy mess with something to offend everyone, but because it’s a “liberal policy forced on a center-right country.” Arguing from this vantage is rather like conquering India with nothing but a Union Jack:

Liberals may agree that America has trended to the right over the past few decades -- but that’s an altogether different argument from this sideways assertion that America has an immutable, right-leaning identity. To say that America has trended to the right is to admit the movement and intervention of History -- which is to admit that it may trend back the other direction, too. It doesn’t matter if you view politics as a pendulum, a Punnett Square, a spectrum or Scott Sumter’s trippy hexagram. The conservative “center-right” talking point is a sad dash to flee the dialectic line of scrimmage. It provides nervous conservatives with a fixed identity that can never be lost, only momentarily challenged. And so, like the Baptist frat boy who only sucks dick when he’s really high, conservatives can convince themselves that America remains, at heart, an essentially conservative nation that lapses into liberalism from time to time. Simple as that, bro.

This is why, for conservatives, a proposition is “wrong” when it ceases to be “American.” (The argument-from-identity also goes a long way to explain the pageantry of the Tea Party.) Liberals have their own smug way of rigging the debate and, speaking as a liberal, I consider it every bit as toxic as the right’s rabid nationalism. For liberals, a proposition is “wrong” when it is “too fucking retarded to merit my consideration.” How much more fruitful (and civil) would our national debates be if we could concede, at the outset, that arguments-from-identity and arguments-from-fucking-stupidity are really just pissy admissions of defeat? If I could enforce one rule on a cable talk-show, it would be that no one gets to call anyone un-American or stupid.** Intelligence and ignorance are not fixed qualities like eye color; Red and Blue are not fixed states on an electoral map. Real America is a giant, silly precocious mutt of a country that constantly hews to a different hue. That’s why I love it.

In his brisk history primer The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus*** charts the ascendency of liberal and conservative movements according to the ebb and flow of two basic governing strategies: consensus and orthodoxy, respectively. Liberal movements accrue power through “big tents,” accommodation and compromise (to the aggravation of the base); conservatives through appeals to purity and identity (to the enduring joy of the base). This is why the Republican response to Obama’s 2008 mandate was not cooperation or concession, but should-to-shoulder obstruction. It was really the only play left in the game.

But the larger question remains: Is America a “center-right” country, even if that’s a fucking retarded concept?

No. No, it is not.

Why would a center-right country elect a liberal president by the largest margin in twenty years? And then approve his performance by the most durable measure in thirty? For any domestic issue, when has the right-wing position been on “the right side of history” in any sense but the ordinal? The Civil War? Women’s suffrage? Prohibition? The Great Depression? Civil Rights? Health care reform? Gay marriage? The environment? Financial reform? Those last three are particularly surprising failures because conservative ideology, read straight, would make a very strong case for fiscal fair play, family stability, and environmental conservation, but whatever. Conservatives for conservation? I know, it’s crazy.

Now that we’ve carved up the “center-right” canard -- placing center at center and right where it belongs -- let’s make a wishbone wager with the hyphen: What are the odds our Republican leaders will recognize the best of their beliefs, forget their ancient failures, and find common cause with this rightward-leaning, leftward-moving nation?

I give it a zero-plus.


* the way the phrase “political capital” changes what we mean by “democracy” and “capitalism.” Or the way “War on Terror” hides, through escalating repetition, what it nakedly declares: a psychological struggle.

**Okay, so that’s two rules. Don’t call me stupid. It’s un-American.

***Considering his title, you might suppose Tanenhaus was arguing for the necessary or inevitable collapse of conservatism and that Karl Rove’s baleful dreams of a “permanent Republican majority” were being replaced by a liberal version of the same. That’s too bad for any knee-jerk cover-judges out there because the book is really just a swift, gentle survey of broad political movements. The title merely denotes the latest tide-shift. As far as the actual "death of conservatism," his modest thesis has it that the movement that began under Goldwater, fell apart under Nixon, crystallized through Reagan, entered its decadent phase in the George W. Bush administration. It has therefore spent itself and no longer works as a credible political philosophy. Whether Obama has anything compelling to offer in its place ...?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Karl, I saw this post on your face book page... I had a couple of comments. I generally agree that the term "center" is certainly construed to whatever side wants it to be. You'll find no better example than when Senators debate a judicial nominee and always talk about whether the candidate is "outside the mainstream." That mainstream means many things to many people and it never really gets defined as far as I've seen.

For the pundits that label America "center-right" I suppose they look at the classic political science spectrum and compare to other countries in the world and say, "well we (U.S.)certainly aren't as liberal as some European countries, but definitely not as far right or authoritarian as some Middle Eastern Countries (for now) so we must be somewhere 'center right'." I will concede that your anaylsis also has merit that it is also a manipulating term too.

While I agree that it's pointless to box in the U.S. in some compact term I have to take issue with the second to last paragraph. What people define to be conservative and liberal is not always in the eye of the beholder. I can point to many examples of where liberals or "progressives" were not on "the right side of history." The Civil War was not about "right" vs. "left" but a clash of cultures. Northern conservatives whether they were Democrats or Republicans were very loyal to the northern cause. Woodrow Wilson, one of the leaders of the "progressive movement" was fiercely opposed to women's sufferage and racial equality. Warren Harding, Wilson's conservative successor, was a supporter for women's sufferage and even called for anti-lynching legislation throughout his presidency (this may not seem much but he was the first to do so). Prohibition was not a "right" vs. "left" issue either. It takes both sides to amendmend the constitution and both supported prohibition and repealing prohibition. We can debate what brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression, but one fact you should know is that the drastically high number of unemployed people in the U.S. did not ease until we started mobilizing for WWII in 1940.

I suppose it remains to be seen what the "right side of history" is on the contemporary issues you mention. I view gay marriage not as "right" vs. "left" but a change in culture. I can attest that about 80% of my young conservative friends support gay rights (myself included)not to mention Dick Cheney. There are obvious differences on Health Care and financial reform, but rightward thinking people never proposed to do nothing or denied there were issues. The Glass-Stegal Repeal was supported by both sides.

Having said all that I'm not trying to say that conservatives have been on the "right side of history" all the time if one can even reach a consensus on what is the "right side of history." What I'm trying to say is that you can't define conservatives as all in the same. I think that echos your point about labeling this country as "center-right." It all depends on prespectives. What I call progress may be different than what you call progress. Neither one will always be 100% right or wrong.

Sorry for the long post. Congratulations on your new show!