Beyond the "Center-Right Nation" Meme--Bringing Two Outsider Forces Together

by: Paul Rosenberg

Wed Nov 05, 2008 at 17:00


David's been doing excellent push-back against the "center-right nation" meme that's exploded post-election, just like 2006, but on steroids. While it's vitally important to keep up this fight, I'd like suggest opening up a second front--to wit, thinking about how to coopt all the building centrist narratives.  Doing so goes back to one of the most important 2004 post-election analyses, Chris's "Eureka! Or How To Break the Republican Majority Coalition", in which he distinguished a form of moderate that really didn't fit on the traditional liberal/conservative spectrum. He identified these moderates with states that had a history of strong support for third parties, whose outward ideologies varied from populist to progressive to socialist to Perot's reform party.

At the time, Chris wrote:

While it is currently non-ideological, this segment of the population, which has existed in large numbers since at least the 1880's, has an outlook on politics that is far more closely allied with liberalism than conservatism because of its emphasis on reform. It is, to put it one way, latently liberal. This segment of the electorate can be swung toward the liberal camp, thus breaking the Republican majority coalition, if the pragmatic, non-dogmatic, reformer, anti-status quo, entrepreneurial aspects of liberalism are foregrounded and turned into a national narrative and platform.

So familiar?  Maybe even prophetic?  Not only that, but put this way it exposes precisely why those pushing the "center-right nation" narrative are just as opposed to Obama's message as they are to ideological progressives.  For they are not only arguing against traditional progressive politics, but against any disruption to the status quo.

Paul Rosenberg :: Beyond the "Center-Right Nation" Meme--Bringing Two Outsider Forces Together
I'm planning a more extensive treatment for this weekend, but the essential argument is relatively simple:  The American people never moved to the right along with the political elites after Reagan's election in 1980.  However, the Democrats failed to craft an effective new counter-narrative to consolidate their allegiance.  At long last, that may have begun to change.

In the interim, however, neither party created an effective political program.  Although Reagan was an inspirational orator for the intellectually disengaged, Reaganism never worked in any fundamental sense.  Its economic promises never paid off, as the economy basically stagnated, while income inequality skyrocketed.  Its foreign policy looked to be more successful, as the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Cold War ended, but that really owed more to the Soviet Union's senescence, and the continual redefinition of what Reagan's foreign policy was.  Worse, it had nothing lasting to say about what should come next, but instead inadvertently planted the seeds that would eventually yield 9/11.

Thus, we had two failed wings of insider politics as the Reagan era came to a close, but it took the inevitable post-Reagan recession that dogged Bush I to make that dual failure particularly salient, and propel Ross Perot's 1992 presidential bid.  Clinton, too, ran against this dual failure, but he failed to assimilate Perot's support, when he chose to embrace the Reaganite free trade path.

The Republicans, in turn, made a counter-play, embodied in the reformist agenda of the "Contract With America," but this was much more PR than substance, as the power gained by Congressional Republicans went increasingly toward social conservative agendas that held little interest for Perotista reformers.  9/11 deferred the day of reckoning, but it has finally come, ushered in by Obama's compelling--if somewhat ambiguous--call to reform.

The "center-right nation" narrative seeks to frame Obama--and the reform ideology--in opposition to ideological liberalism.  But if there's anything the reform ideology stands opposed to, it's the very people peddling this narrative, and their dogmatic insistence that nothing fundamental should be changed.

The reality is that ideological liberalism and the reform ideology lie on two different axes.  They are independent of one another, not opposed.  This means they can be harmonized to make each other stronger, or they can be played off against each other to make each other weaker.  But what cannot happen--at least in the current political setting--is that the reform ideology becomes stronger while the liberal ideology becomes weaker--much less that the reform ideology becomes stronger because the liberal ideology becomes weaker.

This scenario is impossible for a very simple reason: both ideologies share a common enemy--the very people who are pushing the "center-right nation" narrative, and telling us that no matter what, nothing fundamental can be changed.  We need to have a very healthy, robust dialogue about how to harmonize the two ideologies.  Doing this will make it increasingly manifest that they combine to represent a substantial super-majority of the American people.  But to have that sort of dialogue, we must first tell the peddlers of the "center-right nation" narrative to kindly STFU.

I'm not so arrogant as to say what the Obama victory means. Obama himself has already said that it means an opportunity for fundamental change.  I can only say that he's right: it means we have a chance.  A chance at what is up to us collectively. No one has the answer.


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reform vs liberalism (0.00 / 0)
First, as a two-time Perot voter, I can tell you that you are right in making a connection between reform-minded independents and liberalism. Perot was all about reducing the national debt, lobbying reform, and opposing NAFTA. He didn't prefer to talk about cultural issues like abortion, but when cornered, almost always took the liberal position. As a liberal who was strongly anti-Republican, he gave me no reasons not to like him.

The reality is that ideological liberalism and the reform ideology lie on two different axes.  They are independent of one another, not opposed.

I disagree with this based on two generalities:

1.) Liberalism favors democracy while conservatism favors a ruling class.

2.) As a practical matter, most corruption takes the form of powerful elites unduly influencing the government.

This creates a situation wherein reform and liberalism are almost always aligned.



miasmo.com


I'll Get Into This More This Weekend (4.00 / 2)
but there are two different ways that reformists tend to go.  They support strengthening citizen involvement and/or they support weakening governance structures.  The second alternative is often readily co-opted for conservative purposes.

I'm not saying that the two axes are perfectly independent in a strict mathematical sense, as this would be a far too sweeping statement relative to the kinds of data one might amass. But hueristically it's true enough, as shown by past history in which reformers have gone either way.  In fact, under Perot there was a tendency for them to skew right on immigration and budget-cutting.  I wasn't a Perot voter, but I remember some public meetings with a large contingent of Perot voters who were quite xenophobic.  And that was in Los Angeles.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
"reform" (0.00 / 0)
Well, I guess you can call rubbing feces in your hair "reform" if you like, but that doesn't make it so. How can we win this if we so easily surrender on defining our terms?

There were definitely a lot of xenophobic Perot supporters. There were xenophobic reasons to oppose NAFTA and non-xenophobic reasons to oppose NAFTA. The reform aspect of it was to oppose having our trade laws written by corporate lobbyists. That was the way Perot framed it - a perfectly correct use of the term "reform" in my view.

I understand that conservatives often use the term "reform" to refer to "weakening governance structures," but I think that's just a bullshit use of the term. "Weakening governance structures" for its own sake is simply not a reasonable usage of the term "reform." If you want to eliminate waste and fraud and are willing to accept a weakening of a particular government structure as a tradeoff, that's one thing. But let's keep in mind that the "reform" refers to the reduction of waste and fraud.

miasmo.com


[ Parent ]
I'm Just Being Empirical Here (4.00 / 1)
Well, I guess you can call rubbing feces in your hair "reform" if you like, but that doesn't make it so. How can we win this if we so easily surrender on defining our terms?

It's not my idea of reform, of course.  But that is the way in which Perotistas talked, including the xenophobic ones.  And this was not simply Orwellian double-speak on their part, as it was when Newt Gingrich used the same sort of language to woo them.

I agree with your sentiments completely.  But in part they represent a vision we share of how the reform ideology and the liberal ideology are naturally synergistic.  And I think that one key to furthering that synergy is to recognize that it could be otherwise.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
A question of narratives? (4.00 / 1)
I'll accept that the political establishment is to the right of the people, at least on domestic issues - although I don't think that either the political establishment or the people are definable enough to make that statement too categorically, I think it has some rough validity.

But, I don't think it's just a question of narratives.

First, it's the constitution.  We have a system that rewards small states, through the allocation of Senators and the electoral college.  We then have the negative power of the filibuster: this tends to reward minorities that resist change.  These result in a leveraging towards racists/cultural conservatives, etc.  We also have a president who is commander in chief, which leads to evaluating candidates as military commanders, not as civil authorities, which also gives us a rightward spin.

Second, it is private ownership of news media and dependence on advertising.  There is no way that the message of the far left can emerge from this media system, except as a diversion.  The far right will always have more media exposure than the far left, and that will skew the dialogue.

Third, it is the corrupt nature of the political financing system.  As long as monied interests control the system, no true influences from the left can enter the political process.

I would be shocked if the political establishment of this country could ever become other than what it is - fundamentally middle to far right with a veneer of centrism - without changing these structural biases.  

I don't see this a a pernicious "meme."  I see it as a hard reality.  That people in the political establishment attribute it to "the people" is annoying perhaps, but "the people" is always the tagline for someone's desired outcome.  Whether the people are center-right or whether they are just manipulated into acting as if they were center-right is almost an accademic question.

I think the only way to attack this is to destroy the structural biases (if that can be done).  But I don't think narrative is really the tool, because the narrative of a center-right nation, is effectively correct.  


Using My Argument To Refute My Argument (4.00 / 2)
Pretty clever.

I argue that the people are well to the left of the elites.

You argue that I'm wrong, the elites are well to the right of the people.

And then graciously add that the fact the elites project their rightwing position onto the people is "annoying perhaps".

Much the same way that genocide and global warming are annoying.

Perhaps.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Quibbling. (0.00 / 0)
I thought my main point was that the narrative of a center right nation can't be defeated by an alternative narrative, because the rightward tilt of the political establishment is structural, not based on some "meme," and that ultimately the narrative is supportable in identifying results.  

I apologize if I didn't make that clear.

If you want to address that point, feel free.  If not, that's ok.  Yesterday leaves me less pugnacious than I am typically, so I'm not interested in a long sniping thread.  


[ Parent ]
I Don't Disagree With The Background Points So Much (4.00 / 1)
But what rather what you make of them.

The whole point of the meme is to naturalize a very unnatural--not to mentioned anti-democratic--concentration of power.  Conservative narratives do this virtually all the time.  And one counters those narratives, in part, by showing that there's nothing natural about said state of affairs--that they result from a very unnatural way of structuring society.

Thus, in the process of countering the meme, one also throws light on the underlying hegemonic infrastructure.

I thought my main point was that the narrative of a center right nation can't be defeated by an alternative narrative, because the rightward tilt of the political establishment is structural, not based on some "meme,"

(A) But I never said that the rightward tilt of the elites was based on the meme.  It's the other way around.

(B) Regardless of whether one can defeat the meme or not, one can contest it.  One does not attack only when one is assured of victory.  If one were to fight like that, one would never fight at all.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
OK. (4.00 / 2)
I understand that - although I might not be following you precisely - you want to construct a narrative that combines nonpartisan reform inpulses and liberalism (I'm sure I didn't state that to your satisfaction), to counter the constant repetition of the notion that "voters punish leftists."  I think that's a fine, noble enterprise.

But, to digress just a touch, I want to focus on what is "natural" and what is "unnatural" in our political system.  In my view, it is entirely natural that the political system is as it is: not natural in some sort of ideal of justice, but because it springs as one would expect it to from its roots.

America is a military empire.  Countries that enjoy that status are militaristic, with all the cultural baggage of militaristic societies.  I don't expect that we will shed that baggage until we are no longer an empire.

The Constitution is wildly skewed in favor of regressive politics, and was roughly intended to be by the framers.  America will always be somewhat regressive.

The media, political system, and culture all serve the economic system, and the current economic system is global corporatism.

Because of these fundamental realities, I don't think that it is possible to significantly change the political structure.  These realities aren't permanent, but they are not going away any time soon.  For that reason, I think it is comparatively easy for the right to build a strong and enduring propaganda infrastructure that advances right wing interests through the mainstream, but almost impossible for liberals.  

I don't like these realities.  I grew up with the notion that this country was "free" held "opportunity" was "just" and "democratic" - and I've come to realize that these are comparative terms and that we needed pretty invidious comparisons to maintain these illusions (the Soviet Union served this well for quite some time).  But the relatively narrow freedom and opportunity that does exist here is exactly true to its roots. Most people I know, even liberals, seem to cherish these illusions, and that frankly creeps me out a bit, but that's another post.

I would really like to pass some strong labor and environmental legislation, bolster the safety net, bring a modicum of sanity to foreign policy, and reform healthcare.  But I fear that isn't going to happen, in part because the left doesn't realize that it can't defeat the system.  We need to work within the system. I hate the fact that it will still probably be slow, and that we will be twenty to forty years behind the rest of the industrial world on social progress.  

Which is why I'm so very concerned about the progressive movement.  It seems so concerned with narratives and framing ("memes" - which I find to be a particularly pernicious concept here, in that it implies ideas have a strength of their own, not the strength of money and repetition).  The right didn't create its infrastructure by framing (although it is a useful concept for marketing and argument) - it built its infrastructure on dollars, prejudice, and the fact that it can insert unreasonable ideas into the public debate with impunity because the political and media environment is receptive to them.  We cannot duplicate it.  We have to find an entirely different road, and unfortunately the only one that seems possible to me is a slight variation on the weak brand we currently have.

So, I have exactly the same concern that these "center-right" writers do - that the left will waste the relatively slim opportunity we do have by throwing itself into a wall again and wondering why it didn't budge. That's why I think it is wrong-headed to make centrist Democrats the enemy, as the progressive movement often does. That's why I'm a bit of a troll on this board.  I'm interested in what the people here have to say, and I do enjoy the site, but I'm seldom convinced.  

So, when you say it's better to fight a battle that you might lose, I say that fighting the centrist Democratic elites is largely a suicide mission, and I'm concerned you're going to drag me on it with you.  I'm not talking about this relatively isolated media issue specifically, but the war against the Democratic elites within the party - for example, the war against the Clintons and the DLC.    

Anyway, that's my perspective on most of what is posted here.  You can ridicule it all you like; but I'm not alone in these views, and they aren't a consequence of ignorance.  I appreciate the sincerity and commitment of the main posters here, including you.  Perhaps you'll change my viewpoint someday.


[ Parent ]
On second thought (0.00 / 0)
perhaps "memes" is the right word, since right wing talking points are given a leg up by the structure of the political establishment, so that have a replicating force all their own.  It's just that the right can have memes, and the left can't.

[ Parent ]
Clearing The Air (4.00 / 1)
But, to digress just a touch, I want to focus on what is "natural" and what is "unnatural" in our political system.  In my view, it is entirely natural that the political system is as it is: not natural in some sort of ideal of justice, but because it springs as one would expect it to from its roots.

By "unnatural" I mean it has to be maintained by force or coercion.  Of course it's "natural" for an unnatural system to behave unnaturally, and try to convince all concerned that it's perfectly natural to do so.

The Constitution is wildly skewed in favor of regressive politics, and was roughly intended to be by the framers.

True as regards the impacts of slavery.  However, it's amazing how little sense of history people have.  At the time it was written, the Constitution was a radical document.  No God. No King. No hereditary titles. Provisions to mitigate against a standing army.  It was nothing short of mind-blowing at the time.

America will always be somewhat regressive.

"Always" is pretty damn long time.

The media, political system, and culture all serve the economic system, and the current economic system is global corporatism.

Because of these fundamental realities, I don't think that it is possible to significantly change the political structure.  These realities aren't permanent, but they are not going away any time soon.  For that reason, I think it is comparatively easy for the right to build a strong and enduring propaganda infrastructure that advances right wing interests through the mainstream, but almost impossible for liberals.  

You remind me the Marxists with their iron laws.  As Willow would say, "Bored now."

Their are no iron laws of history.  The changes in racial and gender relations I've seen in my lifetime were held to be impossible--if not inconceivable--for thousands of years.  But they happened in the twinkling of an eye, from an historical perspective.

Everything worth doing is impossible.  Until it's done.  And then it was inevitable all along.

I would really like to pass some strong labor and environmental legislation, bolster the safety net, bring a modicum of sanity to foreign policy, and reform healthcare.  But I fear that isn't going to happen, in part because the left doesn't realize that it can't defeat the system.  We need to work within the system.

You've got it exactly backwards.  You can't possibly "pass some strong labor and environmental legislation, bolster the safety net, bring a modicum of sanity to foreign policy, and reform healthcare" without doing battle with the powers that be.  It's not about defeating it necessarily, but it is about pushing it back.

Which is why I'm so very concerned about the progressive movement.  It seems so concerned with narratives and framing ("memes" - which I find to be a particularly pernicious concept here, in that it implies ideas have a strength of their own, not the strength of money and repetition).  The right didn't create its infrastructure by framing (although it is a useful concept for marketing and argument) - it built its infrastructure on dollars, prejudice, and the fact that it can insert unreasonable ideas into the public debate with impunity because the political and media environment is receptive to them.  We cannot duplicate it.  We have to find an entirely different road, and unfortunately the only one that seems possible to me is a slight variation on the weak brand we currently have.

No one ever said that the right created its infrastructure by framing.  I don't know where you get such ideas.  The right used its infrastructure to communicate messages consonant with its framing.  What I find frustrating in communicating with you is that you have some very valid insights jumbled together with statements like this that you seemingly just pull out of your ass.  

So, I have exactly the same concern that these "center-right" writers do - that the left will waste the relatively slim opportunity we do have by throwing itself into a wall again and wondering why it didn't budge. That's why I think it is wrong-headed to make centrist Democrats the enemy, as the progressive movement often does. That's why I'm a bit of a troll on this board.  I'm interested in what the people here have to say, and I do enjoy the site, but I'm seldom convinced.

In part you're seldom convinced because you seldom understand what is actually being argued.  (See above.)  You do grasp a fair deal of it, but then right in the middle of it all you insert something where tab "A" is inserted into slot "Zebulon", and you wonder why people look at you funny.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
For what it's worth (0.00 / 0)
1.  As to my sense of American History, there are a million interpretations.  It isn't hard to find an historian who thinks the Revolution wasn't radical - religious freedom, press freedom, and the rise of a merchant class had made considerable progress in Britain.  Although the repudiation of titles may seem radical, it was one of form, rather than substance, as it is today.  Slavery was part of the entire package.  It seems to me that the situation that remained in Britian - title holders of status, but some fluidity in the ranks - was far morally superior to one that retained the same inheritance laws and built a society on hopeless racial slavery.  America was as much if not more a step backwards as forward.  But that's just me, perhaps.

2.  America will always be regressive.  Show me another conclusion from the separation of powers (which, whatever its merits, prevents unified action), and the composition of the Senate.  The figures are on the net, but as I recall it takes representatives of about 18% of the population to stage a filibuster.  That's regressive: permanently.  This isn't a matter of iron laws of history, but the foundational structure of the government.  Parlementary systems are more susceptible to change.

3.  As to changes in racial and gender relations, those are worldwide.  America is seldom, if ever, at the forefront.  We rank about 70th worldwide in women in public office.  We just elected an african-American President, but the only reason he even had a shot was that his personal history was atypical and he promised nothing to the black community, so we could call our avoidance post-racial.  Race relations in America are still dismal, and many many nations far exceed our vision of equality.  In fact, I don't know if there is a single measure of social progress at which the United States excels.

So, although I don't dispute that social progress is possible, and can be rapid, I think the tendency of American society is to be forty years behind other industrialized nations.  My vision is that the centrist Democrats slowly will drag the country in line with the rest of the world.  I'm doubtful much more is possible, and push from the left against the power structure - especially the Democratic power structure - is as likely to send us backward as forward.

I actually have some ideas about what the Democrats should do, but they begin with building the Democratic brand, not the progressive brand, and minimize fighting within the party - decidedly partisan, but big tent.  But we are far afield from the original topic.  I look forward to your weekend post.


[ Parent ]
Who Are We? (0.00 / 0)
I think Americans (voters) are in basically in three groups:

Kitchen Table - (the majority) they care about their families, good schools, college, low crime, good jobs, financial  survival.  If they are so blessed to have disposable income they can be generous to charities and research.  If they are not afraid of being mugged by the homeless they will give and care about the homeless.  If in jeopardy they give to political campaigns, and vote in elections.  These are good people.

Do Gooders - they either have money or don't care about material things - they are usually smart, and passionately care about the poor, homeless, ecology, and social injustice, sometimes to a fault.  These are good people but unless you act, and think, and do just like them they can be hard to take and they won't like you either.

Authoritarian Conservitives - They want everyone to think and do just like them or they will pass laws to make you.  Most could be good people if they didn't have their heads stuck so far up their personal agendas.

I think we should have three-parties.  Kitchen Table, please.

 


I think the key word in your original post (4.00 / 1)
was co-opt.  We need to make the narrative that the progressive movement IS the middle.  Obama and the Democrats will govern from the middle because they ARE the middle. Dynamism about women's rights, gay rights, voting rights in defiance of Repig efforts to fix elections, rational discourse, abortion rights, non-participation in paranoid militarist fantasies of persecution.  All that stuff belongs to the middle, the reasonable attitude.  

Organizing society to help all of us develop our full potential can just as well be recommended as moderate as it can liberal.  We know it's really liberal, but if there is a concern with balance, isn't the progressive attitude the balanced one?  

Conservatism is a psychological attitude (among other things) which has survival advantages only when there is a serial killer in the house.  The rest of the time it's over the top and counter-productive.  Progressivism is a philosophy which is servicable in the everyday normality of rational life.  What progressivism is recommending is in fact normality. Conservatism is a nightmare being dreamt by a rich old man with no friends, and no joy in life.

How's that play?


People are generally angry at both parties. (0.00 / 0)
While they are currently cutting Obama slack, I'm not sure that they are doing the same for either party in general.

A pox on both houses of yesteryear would be a winner in my book.  Independents swing the elections and simply sway back and forth between worse and worst because they have no place else to go.   We need to wrest control away from the establishment.  It is the only way to change the package and not just the wrapping paper and bow.  


If You'll Recall (4.00 / 2)
The Democrats were momentarily popular when they took power in Congress in 2006.  It was precisely because they were so "bi-partisan" that their approval sank so severely.

What matters is giving the people the change they want.  The Dems didn't do that last time--which is probably one reason they didn't gain as many seats as they should have.  But it's not too late to regain public approval--as shown by the fact we still did gain seats.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
People want success (0.00 / 0)
Which ever direction Obama trends, Left or Right, he needs to be able to demonstrate success if he hopes to keep folks supporting him.

All the anti-war protest in the world could not force anyone to question the invasion of Iraq until the endeavor began to fail in ways that could not be covered up.  Had Bush been successful (a very long shot, IMHO) in Iraq, its likely his approval ratings would be much higher.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Absolutely. (0.00 / 0)
Dems were popular for about five minutes.  Did you hear? They didn't have sixty votes.  If I heard that one more time while 3 Republicans and goat kept them tied up in knots, I was going to throw something.  If Obama follows their lead and turns into a Clinton rerun, I swear I'll throw my mouse at him. Returning to the Clinton WH of the 90s does not constitute change.  

[ Parent ]
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