The Fatal Center

by Thomas Frank

Harper’s Magazine Easy Chair (January 2011)

It has been three years now since the statistical beginning of the recession, and the tide of unemployment is still near full flood. Business investors have taken shelter on higher ground. The housing market, built on imaginary sands, has pretty much washed away. Throughout it all, I have waited for some grand enactment of economic suffering: for a “petition in boots” to make its way across the country, as in 1894; for Iowa farmers to blockade highways, as they did in 1932; or for a “tractorcade” to lay siege to Washington, as in 1979. Instead there came a caravan of comfortable people equipped with lawn chairs and tricorn hats inveighing against totalitarianism.

Should you happen to have been outraged by the Wall Street bailout – who wasn’t? – and should you have wished to make your indignation known, just about the only choice you had was to let your snake flag fly. Say what you like about the Tea Party movement, but at least they showed up. They’ve been out there in the park, in your town, every couple of weeks since the Obama presidency began, and they have pretty much had that park to themselves.

Two years ago, you couldn’t talk to anyone about politics without hearing that conservatism’s day was done, that the sun had set on Reagan’s America. The GOP’s numbers were subterranean in those days, their leaders were buffoons, their famous economic recipe – three parts deregulatory zeal, two parts tax cutting, and a garnish of corporate welfare – had been permanently discredited by the economic disaster. Besides, the changing demographics of the nation doomed a Republican comeback. The chorus of sages sang their verdict: the Republicans had abandoned the Magic Middle – that New Jerusalem of the centrist faith – and had followed Sarah Palin rightward into the wild. Just look at the parade of Republican moderates who endorsed Barack Obama. “We need someone who speaks from the center”, an anonymous Republican senator moaned to Politico shortly after the 2008 elections. “Sarah Palin is not the voice of our party”.

This verdict was not original to 2008, of course. Professional political observers have long reasoned that, since the two parties compete to occupy the middle, they must automatically mirror each other. If one is guilty of some transgression, so must be the other; if one party whores it self to K Street, so must the other; if one side has swung right, then the law of the Magic Middle dictates that the other must have swung an equal and opposite distance to the left. Should either swing too far, the median voter would quickly step in to pull it back.

In a much-discussed March 2009 cover story for Newsweek, the former presidential speechwriter David Frum slapped down radio rowdy Rush Limbaugh, who had made headlines by wishing that the incoming president would “fail”. Today such a sentiment seems civil, even quaint; at the time, though, Frum saw such Limbavian outbursts as “kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally”. They might entertain the party’s bitter enders, he acknowledged, but the price of going in that direction was the loss of the “educated and affluent”, who increasingly found “that the GOP had become too extreme”.

Then there was David Brooks, who erupted in the pages of the New York Times on the day after the first version of TARP was defeated, largely, by the most conservative House Republicans, in a vote Mr Brooks called the “revolt of the nihilists”.

They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed. They did the momentarily popular thing, and if the country slides into a deep recession, they will have the time and leisure to watch public opinion shift against them.

House Republicans led the way and will get most of the blame. It has been interesting to watch them on their single-minded mission to destroy the Republican Party …

Now they have once again confused talk radio with reality. If the economy slides, they will go down in history as the Smoot-Hawley’s of the 21st century. With this vote, they’ve taken responsibility for this economy, and they will be held accountable. The short-term blows will fall on John McCain, the long-term stress on the existence of the Republican Party as we know it.

Journalists have their own reasons for worshiping at the altar of the Magic Middle: its numinous powers will protect them, they believe, from accusations of bias. During 2008 and 2009, the punditry faithfully incanted the liturgy: If Republicans hoped to recapture any of the citadels of power, the sages murmured, they would have to moderate their message, soften their brand. Following the compass needle that pointed unwaveringly toward America’s moderate heart, they would have to hie their way to the welcoming center, where the “median voter” sat in judgment over public figures great and small.

Two years later, among November’s triumphant conservatives, opposition to TARP is regarded as a shibboleth, whereas the particular vote Brooks believed would do so much to “destroy the Republican party” is celebrated by Tea Party chieftains like Dick Armey as one of the movement’s formative moments. The seemingly poisonous pronouncements of Limbaugh, meanwhile, proved such a tonic that The American Spectator recently declared him “the undisputed winner of the 2010 election”.

The “median voter” did not shower his wrath upon the GOP for deviating from centrism’s course; he showered votes. And while the punditry proceeded to turn their unfailing perspicuity on the Democrats, informing them of dire consequences now unless they abase themselves before the Magic Middle, certain conservative leaders were laying plans to radicalize the Republicans even more, right over the “political carcasses” – as one conservative strategist put it – of the party’s remaining moderates.

Tea Party leaders talk a lot about the “real America”, but they don’t seem to care much about the Magic Middle. “Policy decisions are driven by the people who show up”, Mr Armey writes in Give Us Liberty (2010), the “Tea Party Manifesto”, adding that Samuel Adams, the original Boston Tea Party ringleader, believed he needed only “an irate, tireless minority” to prevail. And perhaps Armey and Adams are correct. For years – decades – the Republican Party seems to have paid little attention to the compass of public opinion. “You can’t explain where the Republicans have gone by looking for some grand shift in median voter sentiment”, I was told by political scientist Jacob Hacker, coauthor with Paul Pierson of Winner-Take-All Politics (2010). “The middle of opinion distribution has moved modestly over the last twenty years – shifting left and right only very slightly over time. We’ve hardly seen a dramatic shift. But the Republican Party has gone far, far to the right, from having a moderate wing to being an extremely unified conservative party.”

Democrats, for their part, tend to do the opposite, dreaming of bipartisanship and states neither red nor blue and of some reasonably arrived-at consensus future in which the culture wars cease and everyone plays nicely forevermore under the smiling, beneficent sun of free trade and the knowledge industries.

The short explanation for this striking divergence is the ever growing power of organized money, which has created all manner of “asymmetries” between the parties and among the different pieces of the electorate. In Hacker and Pierson’s book, we learn how money mounts primary challenges to Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative, how money musters gargantuan lobbying efforts against measures like financial reregulation, how money causes “grassroots” groups to sprout from the earth, and how money nurtures a faction within the Democratic Party that pushes rightward on economic issues.

Obvious, though the power of money might seem to you and me, this basic fact of political life has proved extremely difficult for professional political experts to grasp, so utterly have they fetishized the theory of the Magic Middle. The idea of two perfectly counterbalanced political enterprises competing for a politically sophisticated monad-in-the-middle is so pleasant to believe, so elegant in its harmonic order. The great, overarching fact of American politics in the past forty years has been the rise of the right, but the wise men stand at the foot of this Everest and announce that it’s level ground as far as the eye can see.

I was thinking about all this as I watched the last act of the 2010 electoral cycle, comedian Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity”, jokingly known as the “million moderate march”, an event that brought a few hundred thousand people out to the National Mall on October 30. Here at last, perhaps, was the liberal counterpart to the Tea Party movement.

But no. Whereas there was something noble about Mr Stewart’s invocation of the ordinary American getting along with his neighbor in the course of everyday life, the gathering itself betrayed a larger desperation. Despite the jokes and the jolly I’M WITH REASONABLE T-shirts, the rally seemed to me like a final attempt to make the Magic Middle theory work by sheer incantation, to persuade the public to play the part that the dramaturges of the media had scripted for them.

And the hordes of unreason arrived at the gates, as expected, three days later.

There is something characteristically liberal about describing one’s project as a defense of “sanity” – against “the assault on reason”, as the title of Al Gore’s 2007 book had it. After all, certain Democratic leaders understand their party as a consortium of professionals, of people whose reason has been certified by the meritocracy of higher education and licensed by the nation’s official organizations of expertise. As for the right, the mission stated by Conservative Caucus leader Howard Phillips at the dawn of the Reagan era seems more valid today than ever: “to organize discontent”.

The past few years have been good ones for organizers of discontent. For the reasonableness community, on the other hand, those years have brought one credibility disaster after another. First, reasonableness’s faith in rational economic behavior was drowned in a flood of obviously fraudulent mortgage loans – a trillion dollars’ worth of them, a torrent that also carried off whatever authority was held by the financial professionals who packaged and sold them to one another. Regulators missed it until it was too late. So did journalists.

But other men of reason and expertise then proceeded to bail out those financial professionals, to restore them to their bonus-happy status quo ante – while leaving you and me to struggle through the worst times in seventy years. As I write this, the forces of reason are allowing banks that claim their files are in order to continue foreclosing on people’s houses even though all evidence suggests that those banks didn’t bother with basic paperwork requirements – a form of corner-cutting that would draw a very different reaction were you or I to make a habit of it. Never has the system seemed more obviously rigged or the rule of professionalism more like a bargain between cronies.

This situation should have been a silver-platter gift to those on the left, as similar doings were in the 1930s. But liberals these days are reluctant to speak plainly about such matters, either because they truly believe the free-market faith or because they are afraid that if they don’t at least pretend to, party funders on Wall Street will accuse them of “class warfare” – a fear that has been validated even though the Democratic response to the economic crisis has been craven.

The right, meanwhile, has been waging a class war for years now, raging against the devitalized “liberal elite” who comprehend so little of the authentic Americanism that transpires in places like Branson, Missouri, and your local NASCAR venue. And this may point us to the most consequential “asymmetry” of all: liberals have trouble talking about the obvious realities of class, while conservatives freely spin all manner of theories about the snobbish anti-Americanism of judges or doctors or graduates of fancy colleges.

The organizers of discontent had the perfect answer to the ascension of Obama: a rhetorical weapon their laboratories had developed back when busing and abortion and evolution seemed like the issues that mattered. After a few tweaks to update the old stereotypes, the weapon was ready to be redeployed. And so, in the most economically volatile climate in almost eighty years, it was the ultraconservative American Spectator that published first a cover story and then a book, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (2010), in which author Angelo Codevilla provided the Tea Party movement with an intellectual frame for its rebellion. It was that well-known habitue of the right-wing think-tank world Charles Murray who lambasted the “new elite” in the Washington Post the week before the election, describing a privileged caste of the well-educated who were “isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans”.

We may not believe in “death panels”, or in President Obama’s secret Kenyan agenda, or even that the bank bailouts were evidence of a socialist takeover, but let us give the Tea Party the credit it has earned: here is a movement so dubious it borders on spurious, and yet it has, in the space of two years, completely halted what so many commentators once believed to be a wave of epoch-shifting righteousness. The “elites” the movement has damaged the most – the priests of the almighty middle – aren’t the power-lusting liberals its rank and file thought they were gunning for, but the deed deserves our respect nevertheless. For smashing our complacent faith in the Magic Middle and for giving the world a hard and unmistakable lesson in the architecture of American power, every citizen owes them gratitude.

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