Self-Defeating Centrism

During his eight years in office, Obama deported a record number of immigrants, which is traditionally a Republican thing to do. He can’t openly take credit for it, because it would alienate his base — and if he tried, Republican voters literally would not believe it. Part of that is the right-wing echo chamber, but part of it is also that people reasonably expect the liberal party to do liberal things.

Obamacare is another great example: it IS the market-based alternative to socialized medicine, which is traditionally a Republican thing. But he can only sell it to his base as a necessary compromise (despite the fact that it passed solely with Democratic votes), and meanwhile Republican voters still think it’s socialized medicine — because, again, they expect the liberal party to do liberal things. In this example, we have the added twist that they assume anything the liberal party does is liberal, hence the health care debate is now skewed sharply to the right as a Republican policy becomes the far left edge of possible options.

We can see the same dynamic with gun control. Democrats basically decided to give up on this issue and haven’t pushed any serious gun control measures in a long time, other than symbolic gestures after particularly horrifying mass shootings. But the gun lobby refuses to take yes for an answer: they still rile up their base with images of Obama or Hillary sending in the jackbooted thugs to take all the guns. Yet again, we’re dealing with the self-enclosed fantasy world of the right, but also with the fact that people reasonably assume that both sides of a controversial and important issue will be represented in the political system.

In these and so many other cases, centrism is a clear political loser — you turn off your own supporters and gain nothing. If you were designing a political strategy with the goal of long-term defeat, I don’t think you could do better than actual existing Democrats.

10 thoughts on “Self-Defeating Centrism

  1. But you’re totally forgetting that it will work THIS time because this time we will do it right. Centrism can never fail; it can only be failed.

    Seriously, though, one of things I expect contemporary conservatives to do is to forget history. I find it hard to understand how the “left” manages to do so, and to do so with such alacrity. The losses you mention happen ALL OF THE TIME and IN LIVING MEMORY. I guess history is just too Marxist or something. The whole “we need to move even further right since we lost” bit may have been a viable position once (although I don’t think so), but how many times can you go down in utter defeat before you start picking a new strategy? Even the Red Sox and Cubs have manged to turn things around in the 21st century.

  2. This doesn’t touch your main point, which I largely agree with. The “deporter-in-chief” narrative is out there, particularly on the Left. But I’ve read–and it looked plausible, although I don’t know for sure that it’s true–that the record deportations are largely an artifact of book-keeping rather than a real increase. What I’ve read is that rather than catching and releasing, without booking, people caught near the border, now they are all processed before being returned.

  3. Since Jimmy Carter, it’s been clear that triangulation/recentrism is a recipe for long-term defeat. The problem I’m too politically stupid to see a way around is that it’s also been the only recipe for short-term access to power, and without power we got nothing. Have nothing.

  4. Cruth01, thanks interesting artical. I note that in Europe that centre politicians are trying to triangulate the far right now, i.e. Germany making noises about banning the Burqa.

    Let us assume that this strategy will fail to pay off, how do we reach those in the echo chambers instead of writing them off?

  5. You’ve aptly described the process, but who or what is the “self” being defeated by this “centrism”? I’d think that the Democrats in power/seeking power are, as members of the ruling class, actually doing what it is they are expected to do and want to do. The question is why is it that well-meaning progressives and leftists consistently fail to accept this? Presumably they are the “self” being defeated in this formulation – they think Democrats are the only avenue for attaining power, which they’d like to think can be used for good. Maybe they are right about the Democrats being the only avenue. But it hasn’t worked.

  6. Part of the reason so many were deported under Obama is that there is always a multi-year backlog of cases. Once the backlog from Bush era were processed they ceased enforcement and eased deportations. But surely you knew this?

  7. yolacrary: The “self” is the Democratic Party as such, simply insofar as the goal of a political party is to take political power. This strategy has been great for individuals with star power and charisma like Bill Clinton or Obama, but the party as a whole has been absolutely decimated.

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