Anybody who watches the mainstream media with a critical eye notices a number of tropes they keep returning to again and again. One of them is their love of "moderates" or those who get "beyond partisanship." Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman are three examples of national politicians who have been hailed as centrist figures, whatever that means. In fact, the idea that the nation needs more "moderation" has been the basis of quite a few books in recent years, among them Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics, and most recently, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. Who or what is a "Wingnut"? According to author John Avlon1,
It's someone on the far-right or far-left of the political spectrum. They are the professional partisans and the unhinged activists, the hard-core haters and the paranoid conspiracy theorists.
So the problem with these Wignuts is both their tone and views. As far as national figures go, Glenn Beck is, of course, the worst sinner, offering a regular "Comrade Update" on his show and warning of a slow descent into Communism. John McCain's nomination in 2008 was a "repudiation" of the more extreme Karl Rove(!) but the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was divisive. The Tea Party is uncivil and represents "the birth or white identity politics," an idea that the author informs us he owes to David Frum. Other villains of the Right include Michael Savage and of course, Rush Limbaugh.
To be a good centrist, Avlon needs a Wingnut of the Left for every one on the other side of the political spectrum. Among liberals, he targets exclusively antiwar figures such as Code Pink and Michael Moore. It was Winguts who ran the antiwar Ned Lamont against the hawkish Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primaries. Avlon doesn't include an example of anyone too liberal on social issues or illegal immigration for civilized society.
Just because he calls himself a "moderate" doesn't mean that Avlon is exactly in the middle on every issue; the former Giuliani speechwriter is "fiscally conservative and socially progressive." How convenient that all respectable non-wingnuts have similar views. If one simply didn't like partisanship, it would be easy to lionize someone who, say, was conservative on social issues but moderate on economic ones like Pat Buchanan, who's very genial to boot. Or a fiscally conservative and antiwar politician such as Ron Paul. Quite clearly, a "centrist" isn't one who takes a little here and a little from there, but one who does so in a way that puts him on the same side of the Establishment.
Besides social liberalism, another trait that moderates must share is a belief in a strong central government. The author tells us that the modern Republican Party defends federalism and states' rights. Southerners for most of the 20th century remained hostile to the Party of Lincoln and stayed in the Democratic coalition until federal power became the force that championed integration. This is the extent of Avlon's arguments against federalism. Why couldn't a moderate be someone who wants to stick to the Constitution and allow different states to do as they please? Because on issues such as race and homosexuality, Washington is likely to be much further to the Left than the majority of the country.
A centrist can never be too big of an interventionist either. John McCain may want to fight a nuclear war over South Ossetia, but since he's denounced Jerry Falwell, he's ok. Moderates can't let the world alone any more than they can allow American states to decide important issues for themselves. Here's another definition of a "centrist": one who believes that the center of the world must continue to be Washington, DC.
I was once told by a conservative activist that the Supreme Court had ruled that colleges can allocate money to political groups if an equal amount is given to both conservative and liberal causes. Such an arrangement doesn't give power to any particular faction, but to those who decide where the "center" is. On most college campuses, it's somewhere between a Communist and a Democrat. Or is the center calculated based on the opinions of the general population? In that case, 40 percent of Americans believe that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be illegal, the same percentage that favors gay marriage. Of course, you can guess which position is considered the reasonable one whenever you hear someone on TV complaining that the extremes are taking over America.
Avlon's only enemies to the left are non-interventionists, the "blame America first" crowd as he calls them. A poster at The Daily Kos said that he hated George Bush and Code Pink "staged 'die-ins,' screamed during congressional hearings, protested military recruitment stations and attempted citizen's arrests of administration officials." Why couldn't the gals do something "moderate" like start a war that killed half a million people? Are we supposed to value the feelings of Condoleeza Rice over that many lives?
This is one of many things that bothers me about the "less partisan than thou" crowd. There is no sense of priorities. Some things are worth getting upset about. And while it's often claimed that extremism turns off the more indifferent majority, recent American history has proven the opposite. It was the murderous Black Panthers and Weathermen who made affirmative action and federally enforced feminism eventually seem like moderate positions. And the fact that we have Communists in the universities makes the once unthinkable New Deal seem conservative. Also frustrating is the intellectual vacuum that develops amongst those who eschew ideology. Avlon tells us that centrists want to "move our nation not left or right, but forward," which is the most meaningless statement on politics I think I've ever read.
In the end, at least honest and extreme Leftists have actual arguments, no matter how much we may disagree with them. In that way they're different than the more respectable sounding conservative and centrist elites who would like to see policy based on the sensibilities and shared worldview of those they see at cocktail parties. They do little more than ask us to look at our country and civilization and not get too fussy about what they want to continue doing to it, and for that matter the world.
1 -- Whether it means anything or not, Avlon's wife is Republican strategist Margaret Hoover, a granddaughter of the former president. Here she is demanding racism be "squashed" on Bill O'Reilly.