December 27, 2010 8:27 pm

Pity US centrists: no ideas, few fans and no label

The middle needs an ideology too. Without one, it is empty

In the end the lame-duck session of the 111th US Congress belied its mocking designation and got a lot done. It passed the grand tax compromise. It ratified the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. It repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell”, so gays in the armed forces will no longer have to lie about their sexual orientation.

Notable achievements, all. Grounds, even, for optimism about what the next Congress might do? Probably not.

The thing to note about all of these important votes is that – curiously – and despite the contention they aroused on Capitol Hill, they were all quite popular with the American public, as well as being good decisions on their merits. They should never have been controversial in the first place. It is a tribute to the obduracy of the Washington political class that they ever were, and indeed that all three initiatives might easily have failed.

The issues facing the next Congress will be more difficult, starting with the need to curb public borrowing. Continued fiscal stimulus is the right policy for now – which is why the tax package made sense – but the government needs to commit itself soon to a plan for long-term fiscal consolidation, meaning higher taxes and lower public spending. Both will be required. Each will be resisted by one side or the other in Congress, and the public will not insist on haste.

All this will inflame partisan passions. Also, the instant one election is over in the US, campaigning begins for the next. At the moment it is hard to see how a divided Congress – with Democrats and Republicans far apart, positioning themselves for 2012 – can come together to back a plan that calls for pain all round.

Even harder to imagine is that the vehicle for this coming together might be a revival of the US political centre, much as one might wish to see it. Recent efforts in this direction are, sadly, cause for despair more than optimism.

Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.

Oh dear. Accentuate the negative, as any marketing expert will tell you. Put the stress on what you are not. No Labels! Well, come to think of it, keep your labels, as the website says: then, united in the belief that you do not have to give them up, put them aside. I think it means keep them out of sight. Wear your label but hide it, with pride, under your coat.

I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough?

Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof.

In a system that requires opposing sides to deal with each other – and a divided Congress is one such system – a polite exchange of views certainly helps. But there is no reason to think that the mid-point between fundamentally irreconcilable positions has any merit, even if you can say what the mid-point is, which you usually cannot.

US centrists, if any still exist, need some policies and a willingness to defend them, not rules of etiquette. The middle is not an ideology-free zone, where you see “what’s best for America” the moment you take off your partisan goggles. Nothing is resolved by asking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Centrism needs an ideology, too – the more strident, the better. Without one, it is empty. It is No Labels.

What does such an ideology look like? Strange to say, but the US might need to look to Europe to remind itself. The classic form, and the template for subsequent variants, is the celebrated “social market” model of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his disciples, which produced Germany’s postwar economic miracle: in a nutshell, it is social insurance plus economic liberty. It is a fundamentally pro-capitalist worldview, with an ambitious though narrowly defined role for government.

In many ways, this seems a natural fit for the US. A European might think of it as a distinctively American creed. In living memory, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans would have been very comfortable with this philosophy. No longer.

Today, it seems, every Republican must vow to roll back government wherever possible (except for defence), despite the still-shocking failures of basic social provision – including healthcare, education and relief of in-work poverty. Democrats, meanwhile, flirt with straight-forward anti-capitalism. They see the Great Recession as philosophical vindication. Everything that ails their country can be blamed on deregulation, outsourcing, the profit motive and the fact the rich pay too little tax.

Civility in politics is good. A little mutual respect would help, too, in a country as culturally divided as America. But if the next Congress fails to address the looming fiscal breakdown, the reason will not be bad manners or putting party before country. It will be that the contending ideologies are bankrupt, and the dissenters want voters to rally around no labels.

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