Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Consensus Centrism vs. Reactionary Paranoia

Ross Douthat thinks the contrast between Michael Bloomberg and Wayne LaPierre sums up American politics in the Obama era. The mainstream reaction to the Newtown massacre was, he says, "gun control, of course, it's obvious," a chorus led by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was left to NRA lobbyist Wayne LaPierre to offer a conservative response:
It wasn’t so much that LaPierre’s performance made no concession whatsoever on gun restrictions or gun safety — that was to be expected. It was that he launched into a rambling diatribe against an absurdly wide array of targets, blaming everything from media sensationalism to “gun-free schools” signs to ’90s-vintage nihilism like “Natural Born Killers” for the Newtown tragedy. Then he proposed, as an alternative to the liberal heavy-handedness of gun control, something equally heavy-handed — a cop in every school, to be paid for by that right-wing old reliable, cuts to foreign aid.

Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.

The entire Obama era has been shaped by this conflict, and not for the good. On issue after issue, debate after debate, there is a near-unified establishment view of what the government should do, and then a furious right-wing reaction to this consensus that offers no real policy alternative at all.

The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties — from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners — as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas, and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.

The right-wing view is embittered, paranoid and confused. It opposes anything the establishment supports but doesn’t know what it wants to do instead. (Defund government or protect Medicare? Break up the banks or deregulate them? Send more troops to Libya or don’t get involved? Protect our liberties or put our schools on lockdown?) Sometimes the right’s “just say no” approach holds the establishment at bay — as on climate change and immigration, to date. But sometimes, as the House Republicans are demonstrating in the budget showdown, it makes the eventual defeat that much more sweeping.
As a casual sketch of our politics, this has much to recommend it. But there are important caveats:

First, this mainstream consensus is not all "center left." In terms of foreign policy it is rather "center right;" all but one of the Republican candidates for President wanted a more interventionist, more aggressive foreign policy, and higher defense spending. A broad swath of the left, including many Democratic members of Congress, supports a less aggressive policy and major defense cuts. They are blocked by an alliance of centrist Democrats and almost all Republicans.

Second, things like Obamacare or cap and trade for carbon emissions are not really anybody's preferred policies. They are compromises hashed out in decades of wrangling between moderates of both parties. If they are the establishment view now, that is only because they are the most that moderate Republicans will accept. There are plenty of real alternatives to these policies: Canadian-style single-payer health insurance, for example, which would have the side effect of protecting what Douthat sees as important rights of churches. In terms of both the budget and environmental policy, a carbon tax would be far preferable to a kludge like cap and trade. To call these "near unified establishment views" is a grotesque exaggeration.

Third, Douthat's elevation of Bloomberg as the leader of the center left shows the same Northeast bias he dislikes in the mainstream media. After all, one of the big left-wing issues in the past few elections has been marijuana legalization, something more popular in Oregon and Colorado than in New York. The nanny state approach epitomized by Bloomberg's ban on big sodas has plenty of enemies on the left as well as the right.

I share Douthat's frustration with the range of policies that are actually under meaningful consideration. But on may issues there are alternatives. They just aren't alternatives that conservatives are going to like.

No comments: