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The centrist delusion


Jon Chait explains why Joe Biden’s nostalgia for a time when southern segregationists and northern liberals who marched thought about marching saw some marches on TV for civil rights worked together to “get things done” is insidiously anachronistic:

One of Joe Biden’s favorite campaign riffs underscores his belief in the value of civility and bipartisanship. Inevitably, Biden reminisces about his young Senatorial days when he would pal around (and occasionally cut deals) with segregationists. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” he said again last night, launching into his nostalgic riff about the good old days when senators could argue with each other but still compromise.

At first blush, Biden’s segregationist riff is disturbing. When you poke below the surface, it gets even more disturbing. It suggests that he has not grasped any of the tectonic changes in American politics, and that he is equipped neither for the campaign nor the presidency. 

American politics has grown more polarized because the unusual and precarious conditions of the 20th century have disappeared. Politics in the 19th century was deeply polarized around the linked issues of issues of race and big government (we fought a Civil War, remember.) But after Reconstruction was crushed, the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to African-American equality and activist government, while the Democratic Party eventually adopted those identities. In the decades while the Republicans were moving right and the Democrats were moving left, there was a long period in which the parties overlapped. During that time, bipartisanship was the norm. Biden came of political age during the period when polarization had reached its historic nadir: 

That’s the era Biden grew up in and recalls fondly. It has disappeared for reasons that may be lamentable, but are grounded in large, immutable forces of ideology and self-interest. Today’s partisan division reflects the same elemental conflicts between Yankee socially progressive advocates of energetic central government and Southern “strict constructionist” defenders of the existing social hierarchy that divided the political system of the 19th century. 

What’s more, modern leaders have learned that the old conventional wisdom that voters would punish them for failing to get along is false. As Mitch McConnell has bluntly explained, persuadable voters do not pay close attention to policy details. If they see leaders in both parties getting along, they will assume things are going well, and — this is the crucial detail — they will consequently reward the party in power. If they see a nasty partisan fight, they will assume Washington is failing, and reward the opposition. To ask the opposing party to compromise with the majority party is to ask it to undermine its own political interest.” 

Beyond this, Biden’s core belief that a politician’s most important job is to “get things done” is a classic bit of centrist delusion. Getting things done is desirable only if the things getting done are good things to do. Centrists have difficulty imagining that a political program that has enough support to be broadly enacted could actually be terrible, because Joe Biden et. al. have lived their whole lives in a chummy world of mainstream status quo complacency, where sure there are real problems, but doggone it almost everybody wants to do the right thing (aka enact something fairly close to my policy preferences) when you get past the superficial differences that divide us, like the fact that some of us are A-OK with ethno-nationalist authoritarianism and some of us aren’t.


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