This is one of those (exceedingly) rare opportunities to praise somebody like Rich Lowry, so I'm going to take advantage of it. In a column at NRO
, Lowry addresses one of the few topics lefties and righties can generally agree on: the irritating and vacuous self-righteousness of a certain style of "centrist" rhetoric.
Lowry's target is Lou Dobbs - "the CNN business anchor who has built his show around a straight-talking populism" (and here's yet another rule of political rhetoric: beware "straight-talk," as it's usually cover for twisted logic). Lowry points out one of the more vapid "centrist" tricks, which is to "spout clichés drawn from the Right and the Left — any one of which has a 50/50 chance that the average person will agree with it," and then go on to dress them up in "angry and dire rhetoric."
This leads to the most interesting graf:
There are various ways to tap into public disgust with partisan politics as usual. One is with a tonal centrism. That is what is offered by Barack Obama, a liberal who presents himself with a tone of sweet reason. Then there is a technocratic centrism: the bland, policy-oriented politics of the sort former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would have offered Democrats had he run for president. Finally, there’s an apocalyptic centrism, spiced up with paranoia and economic ignorance, and warning of the end of America as we know it. Think Ross Perot.
First, note that of the three examples of centrist politicians Lowry cites, two are Democrats and one an independent. This may indicate an acknowledgment that the modern GOP is not a party that can in any sense be described as appealing to the American political center. Or it might represent a conservative commentator's frustration, after a negative public verdict on six years of conservative government, with the prospect that Republicans may be forced
toward a more moderate politics.
Second, let's note how Lowry is describing Obama-style centrism, as contrasted with other forms: it's a "tonal
centrism": that is, liberal politics couched in a narrative of "sweet reason." Of course, we can count on a conservative to look for the boogyman behind every moderate progressive, but I think that Lowry sees what many on the left don't: while Obama is carefully making his name as a moderate, it's not necessarily that his ideas are following his rhetoric to the center. Rather, he's using an artfully inclusive language to describe how the American center is, in fact, the natural home of progressive ideas. We'll return to this later this week.
Third, I just really like the term "apocalyptic centrism."
And, says Lowry, that's Dobbs:
Dobbs is in the Perot tradition. He has taken Dennis Kucinich, Pat Buchanan, and a dash of John Bolton, thrown them into a blender and come up with a worldview that is nationalist and populist, while giving both of those things a bad name.
This, inevitably, is where Lowry goes on to lose the plot. He attacks Dobbs, not for channeling Americans' economic insecurities into a confused package of righteous nationalism and reactionary anti-immigrant populism - but for taking those insecurities seriously to begin with: Dobbs, says Lowry, is ignoring "an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and the 20 years of growth since the early 1980s, interrupted by only two brief recessions."
But, of course, Lowry is a conservative, so we shouldn't expect him to get this part. The economic insecurity Dobbs taps into is, of course, entirely real, despite Lowry's cheerfully cherry-picked statistics. In fact,
wages have been sluggish and the job market is slowing with the end of the housing boom, family debt is rising and savings are shrinking, and Americans can't help but notice deepening budget deficits and massive foreign ownership of the growing national debt. Those are just the recent indicators, during a period in which the economy has supposedly been humming along nicely. On a larger scale, income inequality has increased sharply
in the United States over the last 25 years, and American workers find themselves with far fewer protections than their counterparts in every other Western industrialized nation: from family leave and sick days, to - inexplicably and inexcusably - the lack of universal and affordable health care.
Lowry and the clueless conservatives, there is every reason why Dobbs should find so broad an audience: he understands the depth of Americans' economic anxieties in a way the administration and the majority of the punditocracy do not. The problem with Dobbs is that he's more a Bryan
than a Roosevelt (whether T.R. or F.D.R.): he articulates a fire-breathing anger over the economic plight of middle America, but his simple-minded protectionism and vicious, dull-witted anti-immigrationism are no more a cure for those woes than Free Silver
was in the late 19th century.
What Americans need is an economic progressivism that can keep one foot grounded in the realities of global capitalism while rejecting the dogmas of orthodox "free-market" conservatism. Something like that approach may be founded in the smithy of the 110th Congress, but on the national level it will require leadership that is both committed to progressive principles and skilled at broad consensus building. And I didn't mean for this to become another post about the prospects of an Obama, but there you go (and to be fair, Obama is not the only Democratic leader I think capable of filling this role).
History has shown that the periods of conflict between elitist conservatism and apocalyptic populism are usually a prelude to much more succesful eras: those of sensible progressivism.(Paul)
Labels: centrism, economics, Lou Dobbs, National review, NRO, populism, Rich Lowry