Politics & Policy

Centrism, Shmentrism

A tie doesn't mean that both sides are in agreement.

Whoever wins, the country wants the president-elect to govern from the dead center,” writes Andrew Sullivan in the latest New Republic. Every talking head and pundit agrees. Joe Klein writes in the current New Yorker, “There is only one possible governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent bi-partisanship.” Night after night, the experts tell us that this deadlocked election is the result of the fact that the American people want a “centrist” government.

As Colonel Potter was fond of saying, Horse Hockey. This “mandate for bipartisanship” is guaranteed to be the spin from whichever party loses the Churchillian battle for the chads. And, yes, the next president will be under incredible pressure to be bipartisan; that is different from saying that’s what the people want.

Let’s put it this way: If 100 people bet on one boxer and 100 people bet on the other boxer, and the two boxers end up knocking each other out, why in the world would you leap to the conclusion that everyone wanted a tie? The Cold War was a tie of sorts, but it was not the result of two sides wanting one.

Indeed that’s why so many people are referring to the current situation as a Cold Civil War. This was one of the most deeply partisan elections in American history, and perhaps the most partisan of the 20th century. If you look at the county-by-county map of the election results, two things will pop out at you. First, many of the cultural divisions coming out of the Civil War endure. Second, George W. Bush won this country in a topographical landslide. The cities voted for Gore. The rest of the country — minus a few suburbs — voted for Bush. Indeed, Bush won four times as many counties as Gore did. This reveals, I think, a yawning cultural divide.

The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser surveyed the academic literature recently and reports that scholars believe the voting public is more deeply and reliably partisan than at any time this century, even as the non-voting public is increasingly disengaged (and the tumult in Florida should only serve to solidify that fact). So when the pundits tell you that the American people want bipartisanship and centrism they are not basing their opinion on the wishes of those who cast votes. They are basing their opinions on the results of the gridlock those votes caused.

The political “centrism” that’s coming will be directly contrary to the ambitions of either side. No matter what, there will be no huge tax cuts; nor will there be cradle-to-grave government-run health insurance. Sure, the voters may have spoken, but half of them shouted “Black!” and the other half screeched “White!” and the result is grayness for as far as the eye can see.

Personally, while I wish the conservatives had super-majorities in all branches of government, I take some satisfaction from the current gridlock.

While the voting public didn’t vote for centrism, I like to think the non-voting public did — in the sense that low voter turnout is a sign of social satisfaction. The system’s chugging along well enough that millions of Americans don’t think it even matters enough to pay attention to what the federal government is doing.

I see it as an example of complexity theory. Billions of decisions and millions of individual actors all intending one thing produced something completely different. The people who care about politics wanted sweeping action, but the system responded by saying, “No, thanks, we’ll take it slow.”

Wall Street mavens are fond of pointing out that markets are smarter than any individual investor. The distributed and accumulated wisdom of millions of decision makers yields an intelligence superior to the intentions of armies of buyers and sellers. The market evolves a will of its own that transcends any human will. The “market wants this” people say, even though there is no Joe Market issuing fatwahs. It could well be that this is what’s going on in American politics as well. So when Andrew Sullivan says, “The country wants the president-elect to govern from the dead center,” he’s right. The country may want it, even if the voters don’t.


I’m here in New York preparing for my trip to Merrie Olde England, where I intend to take advantage of all their legendary talents. First, I’m going to a dentist, then to grab a fine meal, and then later I might take the Chunnel and pop on over to France for a quick tutorial in personal hygiene and martial stick-to-it-ivness.

(Before I continue, I challenge readers to come up with a better spelling of “stick-to-it-ivness.” Please send all entries to the editors of The Nation).

Anyway, as I said, I’m here in New York at the offices of National Review and National Review Online, where the pace and stress from the continuing crisis are taking their toll. Chris McEvoy, the Mussolini of online journalism — he keeps the ones and zeros on time — is quietly muttering and writing out long lists of names, only to then cross then out with much vexation, as if that would, in some voodoo way, utterly destroy those named. Kathryn Lopez has two tanks in her office. The first is filled with mice. On each mouse is a Post-it Note with the names of various members of the Palm Beach canvassing board, assorted Democratic lawyers like Jack Quinn, and Gore media sycophants like Jonathan Alter written on them. In the second tank is a very large snake, named Justice. Jessica Kelsey, our webmistress, simply says, “No” to any question, statement, or sound.

All in all, we’re holding up well. Especially me, because I’m gonna make like Jimmy Hoffa and disappear into that speed bump of a country known as England. I leave tomorrow morning and I hope to monitor events from across the pond. I will be filing dispatches, so please stop with guilt-trip e-mails about my departure. Besides, if things take a turn for the worse back in the States, I will mount the resistance from abroad like de Gaulle (except I will spend less time talking about cheese). In the meantime, I hope you’ll stick around. Because if you don’t, the next name Chris McEvoy crosses out could be yours.


The Latest