In his latest column, entitled “The Gullible Center,” Paul Krugman does something rather odd. On the one hand, he very effectively demolishes the idea that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal represents anything other than a radically conservative agenda for the country, while establishing Barack Obama’s bona fides as the closest thing available to a “centrist” when it comes to a balanced approach to dealing with the budget and all the associated issues. On the other hand, he is so furious at “centrists” for their failure to figure all this out that he virtualy spits out the c-word as a epithet, a condemnation all the more sweeping because he does not name a single name, though I’m reasonably sure he has his New York Times collegue David Brooks in mind.
I know “centrism” is already an epithet to many progressives, representing that yellow stripe of cowardice in the middle of the road, stab-in-the-back triangulation, corporate whoredom, etc., etc. And for similar reasons, some people with views often described as “centrist” or “center-left” sometimes disclaim the term, implying as it does not a coherent or morally defensible point of view but a relative and wavering position between two fixed poles.
But to just regular folks out there–particularly the 35-45% of Americans identifying themselves as “moderates”–there’s some value in the brand, implying as it does a certain degree of reasonableness and perhaps even unpredictability. And as it happens, self-identified “moderates” are a much larger segment of the coalition that votes for Ds than the one that votes for Rs. Given that reality, does it make more sense for progressives to deny that people like David Brooks (much less Paul Ryan!) are “centrist” in any meaningful sense of the term, or instead to make the term itself so toxic that it’s ceded to crypto-conservatives because anyone to their left has stopped using it? That’s probably an easy question to answer for those who think an insufficiently loud-and-proud progressive message has kept Democrats from energizing their party base or awakening a “hidden” populist majority that sees no difference between “centrist” Democrats and conservative Republicans.
For those of us not so convinced that maximum polarization is an unambiguously good thing, or who believe that for all the many shortcomings associated with them, ideological “brands” do have some political value, then it’s not that great an idea to call both Barack Obama and David Brooks “centrists” in the same column, while trying to deny that one is at all like the other. In other words, it’s not helpful to be a mushy moderate in one’s definition of “centrism.” By all rights, the brand should belong to the Donkey Party right now–it it wants it–because it has been so decisively abandoned by the party of Paul Ryan. It’s better to police membership in the centrist camp than to burn it down.