21 Feb 2018

Dissecting Centrist Stereotypes in WSJ Op-Ed Blaming Moderates for Problems Ideologues Cause

I don’t read the Journal, save for a rare link that comes across my feed – like this one. I’ve heard that it’s gotten worse over the last few years, so maybe this isn’t as far from their norm as it seems like it should be, but when someone sends you an article, ostensibly about centrists, from a major newspaper – authored by someone who works at Brookings no less… I just didn’t expect to find something so overflowing with completely false information about what centrists think, who we are and blaming moderates for things we aren’t even involved with. I had to respond.


The Democratic Ideal & False Centrist Stereotypes

The first few sentences seemed to be headed in a good direction. He began by speaking about how respect for the outcome of elections is on the decline (I agree), but then first goes off the rails here:

“…disrespect for democratic outcomes has become particularly acute on the center-left.”

That just plain isn’t true. It gets worse:

“That may sound odd. We generally assume the political “middle” to be more reasonable and rational—and less partisan.”

Here’s why that doesn’t make sense:

  1. Centrist are currently and objectively less partisan: Out of the major segments of the political spectrum, there are far more centrists who are independents than those on the left and right, and that has been on the steady rise for some time, as the two major parries have been shifting away from the center. If we had a party, this wouldn’t be the case, as you can see from countries with multi-party systems, where centrists there can be just as ‘partisan’ as others.
  2. Centrists currently tend to be more reasonable / rational: A person doesn’t have their genetic code rewired to be more reasonable if their views happen to land them in the center of a political spectrum (move to a different country, and the same person might be on the left or right). The current difference is that we don’t have well-organized tribes in the center, like the left and right do, so the behaviors that come with tribalism aren’t seen as much among centrists.

More to the point, the few center-left moderate Democrats left in Washington are among those who have been some of the voices of reason amid the defecatory display American politics has devolved into. You don’t see Mark Warner going bonkers over the latest indictments. In fact:



Mr. Hamid goes on to point out that ideologues are usually the ones least likely to be compromise (accurate – brain scan studies have backed that perception up with data), but then goes off the rails yet again:

“But although centrists are by definition skeptical of ideology,”

I can see how, perhaps, someone who hasn’t paid attention to politics anywhere else in the world, or doesn’t know much about American history, might think that, but it is hard for me to fathom how someone steeped in Middle Eastern Studies (his area of expertise) would make such an obviously false claim.

Beyond the people who – falsely – claim that centrism is an ideology (it can’t be, as centrist / centrism here means something completely different in China, Brazil, Denmark or Saudi Arabia), there are centrists who are working on developing one. I hope they fail, as I think an ideology would do more harm than good, but there are also centrists around the world that are steeped in ideology. In large parts of Europe, centrists have similar ideological views as liberal Democrats do here, for instance.

Also… he cited the definition of centrist, so I re-checked – nothing in any of the dozen dictionaries I could dig up quickly that says anything about skepticism of ideology.

He continues with the observation that being less ideological doesn’t necessarily make them less prone to partisanship – which is accurate and fair, and I see why he brings that up because that is a somewhat prevalent myth – among centrists as well the left and right.


Blaming Centrists for Other Peoples’ Problems

Mixed bag so far, but here’s where he starts to build a house of centrist false-stereotype-cards on the partially imaginary foundation described above.

I ruined the surprise a bit, by making his most absurd point in the banner image of this post, but this is the point where Mr. Hamid begins to show just how disconnected he is from what centrists think, and who we are. It’s also where he starts working toward a truly world-class case of projection – blaming centrists for problems hard core partisan and ideologues are the drivers of… and then (he literally says this) saying that more ideologues are the answer.

This all became clear when he started listing people he thinks are centrists, or center-left – all of which are actually liberal / mainstream left Democrats. The political spectrum doesn’t go from left wing, hard / progressive left, and then skip right to centrist, then all the way to far right – there are stages between the far left and right.

Most of the left is made up of just regular ol’ liberals – including all three examples Mr. Hamid brought up in his article:

  1. Representative Adam Schiff – liberal Democrat / not a centrist
  2. Representative Kirsten Gillibrand – progressive-leaning liberal Democrat / not  a centrist
  3. Hillary Clinton – liberal Democrat / not a centrist

Skip down to the last section for some notes on how they aren’t centrists, but the caricature he paints of the center-left is clearlly not of the center-left, but rather that of regular liberal, mainstream Democrats. Mr. Hamid apparently has bought into the idea that the progressive left gets to own the entire left, but if you used a map like that, and a mirror opposite on the right, you’d be left with ‘centrist’ covering around 70% of the political spectrum – which makes no sense at all.

There is no shortage of people who have have gone over the line of reasonableness in their criticism of  President Trump, but the center doesn’t stand out in any way. There is far more of that on the left, and far left.

The mainstream left might be the greater evil on this front, vs the progressive / far left, but given how closely I follow virtually every centrist site, organization, politician and social media account – I do know that it’s much higher with them than in the center, or center-left in specific.


Centrist Boogeymen to Arguing for Ideologues

My Hamid’s words all build up to statements like this, speaking of Bernie Sanders’s wing of the left:

“Instead, they have focused their efforts on broadening the Democratic Party’s base with a more inclusive populism that takes seriously the systemic causes of inequality.”

You are just dead wrong about this, sir. Progressives are far from the only people with ideas on how to work on inequality, and if they had control of the party, they’d make it even more of a narrow tent than it already is. They are not more inclusive – they merely want to move the party farther left, include more of their own, while pushing the centrists left in the party out and taking the reigns from the mainstream left.

It’s absolutely fair to highlight hypocrisy from that dominant faction in the Democratic tent – I know I do, but if you think Sanders is any better, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sanders spent his presidential campaign touting himself as a champion of anti-corruption and transparency (something I respected), but since ending his campaign, he’s gone right back to taking PAC money (as he has for decades), and even went so far to start his own dark money group. Try to bring that up to his fans (not kidding – go do it, and see what happens), and you’ll see just how tribalistic they are.

Larger elements of the progressive left are also far more virulently bigoted toward centrists than any group save fringe elements and certain right wing factions that I call the ‘blight wing‘.


Pretending Ideology and Having Ideas is the Same Thing

Mr. Hamid makes another critical error here:

“People want something to believe in, but in the absence of a strong ideological sensibility among Democrats, partisanship and alarmism offer ready recourse.”

This just has no basis in reality, and liberal Democrats are no less inherently ideological then progressive Democrats – they merely have different ideological stances. If there were an ideology that aligned with centrists here, most of us in the center would subscribe to it.

It’s also a complete farce to pretend as though submitting to an ideology, in any way, is required to have strong, consistent stances. If anything, the ideologues are the worst on this front.

Thomas Jefferson quote on needing to stand on principles.

  1. How many conservatives in Washington have said that they’re for balancing the budget, and then when they have the power to do something about that, their actions say the opposite – including the ideologues Mr. Hamid argues we need more of?-  (100% – every. single. one.)
    • Followup: How many of their ideologue followers keep supporting them anyway? (the vast majority)
  2. How many liberals or progressives love to pretend like they’re against corruption, but when you point out a politician on their side that does the exact same thing as what they criticize others for – it’s okay for them? (>90% in my experience)
    • Followup: How many supporters did Bernie Sanders lose when he made it clear that he was lying about being against dark money groups and PAC donations… by starting a dark money group and going back to taking PAC donations again, like he has his whole career? (a sliver)

To make it clear that I’m not saying that this is unique to ideologues:

  • How many centrists say they’re against dark money, but get defensive and make exceptions when they’re reminded that The Centrist Project / Unite America is a dark money group? (about half, in my experience)
  • How many anti-corruption reformers make exceptions for dark money groups they like? (around 2/3 – including the anti-corruption organizations Represent.Us and American Promise, who champion anti-corruption and transparency, but promote leaders of dark money groups from time to time)

Even more interesting – those numbers drop by a significant minority if you bring those issues up from an account that is overtly with that group of people. In case you’re wondering, yes – I’m an online marketing nerd, so I’ve A/B tested that theory (as much as such a thing can be A/B tested, by just one person).


Strawman Centrism vs What Centrists Actually Think

“There’s nothing wrong with partisanship per se, but it’s a problem when the parties view each other as enemies and existential threats. Centrism may seem an obvious solution, but too little ideology can be as dangerous as too much.”

This is such a bizarre statement on so many levels… Mr. Hamid is absolutely right that the concept of major parties seeing opponents as enemies is a very real problem, but that is at least just as rampant on the progressive left than mainstream left that you mistakenly call centrists, and actual centrists are – by far – the least likely to engage in that sort of behavior, although we are by no means immune.

The whole framing of the statement is also odd. Centrism can’t solve problems that mostly come from other groups, any more than the right or left can solve problems in the center. His comment about the amount of ideology also just doesn’t make much sense, as the amount of it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it, how zealously it is adhered to and what acts it’s used to justify.

Next, we have the most obviously faulty point he makes in the entire article:

“Does this mean we need more ideologues? The word sounds like an insult, connoting inflexibility and narrow-mindedness.

The word ‘ideologue’ brings up thoughts of inflexibility and narrow-mindedness… because that’s essentially what it means.

Merriam Webster: “(1) an impractical idealist, (2) an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology”
Oxford: “An adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.”
Collins: “a zealous exponent or advocate of a specified ideology”
Dictionary.com: “a person who zealously advocates an ideology.”

It just doesn’t pass the ‘map test’ – a map is only as useful as it matches the terrain, and this ‘map’ doesn’t.


Co-opting Centrist Arguments for Extremist Ends – Badly

The fact Mr. Hamid ends his post by arguing for the very thing he railed against throughout the op-ed. If there was any doubt that he didn’t mean much of what he said above, he made it plain here:

“But politicians who are committed to a set of ideas also tend to have less to prove. They don’t need to play to the base; they can lead the base. Congress—and the country—could use more of them.”

After a few hundred words criticizing ideologues… he argues that we need more ideologues.

Ideologues already lead the bases and yet they continue to play to said party bases – certainly more than anyone else. Centrist democrats barely even try, mainstream Democrats often seem like they’re purposefully trying to anger elements of their own base, and progressives clearly play to the base on the left the most.

Ideologues, by Mr. Hamid’s own – earlier – admission, are among the biggest roots causes of why our politics are so completely dysfunctional. Saying that the problems they’ve been major driving forces behind would be solved by there being more of them just doesn’t make any sense. The progressive and freedom caucuses already are the most inflexible, and we appear to agree that that isn’t what the country needs.

But we’ll find out soon, one way or the other, as the Dem wave is going to put more power into the hands of progressive ideologues, and the small number of moderate Republicans left likely will bear a disproportional amount of the electoral load, as many of them are in swing districts or states.

So we’ll see what happens when you get your wish, Shadi. I’d love to be proven wrong… but we’ve been getting more ideologues for several election cycles, as centrists are cast out of both parties, and the issues you bring up above have just been getting worse and worse, so that really doesn’t seem at all likely.

Click here to read Shadi Hamid’s full op-ed in the Wall Street Journal >>



Notes: Clinton, Schiff & Gillibrand – No Centrists Here

One quick note before I get into this. Often people trying to dishonestly paint others as being different than they really are, so they can use that false impression to bolster a weak argument. When confronted with reality that isn’t conforming to their worldview, an unfortunately typical fallback is to start spinning – starting in with rhetorical gymnastics

I know a discussion is about to go off the rails the moment someone asks something like, “How do you define centrist?”

The answer is ‘I don’t, and neither do you.’

If we’re not using a common language, then we’re not communicating. We can quibble about where the exact lines are, but words have definitions independent of our opinions and if you choose to make up your own, then you’ve stopped communicating and are just using deceptive marketing at that point.

Political scientists have a pretty keen understanding of where the American people stand on issues, and there are resources like this, this and this where you can get at least a rough understanding of where politicians are, based on issue stances and/or voting records. Out of the nonpartisan organizations that put out these sorts of things, they all show the same thing – all but a small minority of of elected Democrats in Washington are on the left third of the spectrum, and all but an even smaller portion of the

Below you’ll see the mapping you can find of three major politicians Mr. Hamid brought up in his op ed.


Kirsten Gillibrand – Mainstream to Progressive Left / Not Centrist

I’m not even sure why Mr. Hamid even brought up Gillibrand, because he countered his own argument by using her as an example, only to note that she has shifted hard left in recent years:

OnTheIssues & GovTrack maps, showing Kirsten Gillibrand is a liberal, pushing progressive - not a centrist
OnTheIssues & GovTrack maps, showing Kirsten Gillibrand is a liberal, pushing progressive – not a centrist.


Exhibit A: Adam Schiff – Mainstream Left / Not a Centrist

Schiff is also far from a moderate, but rather a liberal, mainstream left Democrat – not centrist, nor raging leftist progressive:

Adam Schiff is not a centrist - he's liberal
OnTheIssues & GovTrack maps, showoing that Adam Schiff is a liberal / mainstream left Democrat – not a centrist.



Hillary Clinton – Mainstream Left Democrat – Not a Centrist

And last – the most obvious – is Hillary Clinton, who obviously isn’t a centrist. If she was, her strongest base of support would have come from centrists, while it actually came from the mainstream left:

Banner showing that Hillary Clinton is a mainstream liberal, not a centrist
OnTheIssues & GovTrack maps, showing that Hillary Clinton is a mainstream liberal Democrat – not a centrist

Author Details
After a few years of blogging on other sites, Solomon launched ‘Rise of the Center’ – the precursor to Uniters.org, leading to a number of interviews and freelance opportunities, most notably covering the 2012 election cycle on WNYC.org – the website for the largest NPR station in the country, in New York City – and reported from the floor of the 2012 Democratic & Republican National Conventions. After a hiatus from politics, the horrific circus of the 2016 election, and more generally increasing extremism and corruption, brought him back to this project.
After a few years of blogging on other sites, Solomon launched ‘Rise of the Center’ – the precursor to Uniters.org, leading to a number of interviews and freelance opportunities, most notably covering the 2012 election cycle on WNYC.org – the website for the largest NPR station in the country, in New York City – and reported from the floor of the 2012 Democratic & Republican National Conventions. After a hiatus from politics, the horrific circus of the 2016 election, and more generally increasing extremism and corruption, brought him back to this project.

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