Shorter David Brooks: The Center matters, even though it doesn't need a definition.
What's so ridiculous about this is that causal influences are simply assumed, not proven. Clinton leads in the polls--that proves that the center, not the netroots, rule the roost. But Brooks never really tells us what defines the netroots, the center, liberals, or even conservatives. He leaves these ephemeral labels up to our imagination to define. Worse is his presumption of having insider information. Take this:
The fact is, many Democratic politicians privately detest the netroots' self-righteousness and bullying. They also know their party has a historic opportunity to pick up disaffected Republicans and moderates, so long as they don't blow it by drifting into cuckoo land. They also know that a Democratic president is going to face challenges from Iran and elsewhere that are going to require hard-line, hawkish responses.
Really? This is a fact? Which Democratic politicians? At what point, policy-wise, does one drift into "cuckoo land?" Or how about Brooks' formula for success:
Finally, these Democrats understand their victory formula is not brain surgery. You have to be moderate on social issues, activist but not statist on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy. This time they're not going to self-destructively deviate from that.
Isn't this basically how John Kerry ran his campaign? Isn't this how "centrist" Democrats talk today? Yet in the decisive election of 2006--which Brooks never mentions--Democrats--netroots candidates, in many cases--won by opposing the war, supposedly a position outside of the center. So does that mean that the majority of the country are represented by the netroots, the majority that thinks invading Iraq was a mistake and wants to leave within a year?
The idea of the center is one which arose in an era of government which achieved consensus through solid majorities. Now that the parties have realigned themselves better with their constituents, consensus is more difficult to achieve. That is normal. The period when the center held was the abnormality. And even then, "centrism" wasn't a political philosophy, but rather the result of several factors: Democratic majorities in government since the New Deal; collusion between politicians and interest groups; widespread agreement on Cold War foreign policy; the rallying power of individual politicians; the weakness of a coherent opposition message. Today, these factors still matter (other than the Cold War) but their relative influence is less. Interest groups matter, but their composition is different. Individual politicians still command respect, but rarely can they influence bodies of government single-handedly (Show me one politician today with the influence of Lyndon Johnson at his peak). And the center-right conventional wisdom of Washington politics is grossly out of proportion with the rest of the country. The center is a mushy concept; it is the product of political moments, and today's political moment favors a center that is largely in tune with Democratic policy positions, which happen to be largely in sync with netroots policy positions.
Now I'm not writing this to defend the netroots. The netroots are simply political activists who have political preferences. There's nothing new there. So what about social, domestic (really the same, aren't they?) and foreign policy? Where do the (liberal) netroots stand? It seems to me that on social issues, the netroots are largely libertarian. Government shouldn't be taking away rights or imposing moral standards on the community. On the social issues dear to conservatives, they are activist. They want amendments banning abortion, gay marriage and laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution and promoting Christian tenets. The left simply opposes these things. Being "moderate," as Brooks says, on social issues is, by definition, being in the majority on the issue. There is no middle position. Do majorities support the right to abortion? Do majorities support the right to homosexual marriage? That's the issue. And while I doubt a majority would say they support a "right" to gay marriage, I also doubt a majority could be mustered to create a constitutional amendment banning it. On a state-by-state basis this plays out a bit differently of course, but at a national level being moderate on social issues is to be cautious, not activist. I just don't see don't see a lot of activism in favor of social issues in the netroots; it seems to me that they're playing defense to make sure a minority of conservative activists can't impose their narrow views on the world.
On domestic policy there is certainly an activist component to the netroots, which shouldn't surprise us, since they're political activists. Universal health care? You bet. Expanding the social safety net? Absolutely. Keeping our environment clean, infrastructure maintained and country safe? Yes. Now naturally this entails some expansion of the state, so the false choice Brooks gives us between statism and activism is meant to paint netroots activists as socialists. But in the main, on the issues I cited above, the netroots are largely in sync with the country. Of course people want security, safety and a clean environment. Liberals, Democrats and the netroots believe government can--not must--provide this. Conservatives do not. On domestic policy I think there is no doubt that the public at large is more trusting of Democrats on these issues.
Foreign policy. First an important distinction. Being "antiwar" is not a policy position. It is a reaction against particular wars. The netroots and the country at large hate this war because it is costly, pointless and based on shifting rationales and lies. They are opposed to this war, not war in general, and most people don't choose to protest on the street to make their feelings known. Obviously there are people who are simply pacifists. Fine. That's a principled position very much in the minority. I would wager that the majority of people absolutely are willing to fight to defend the country when the enemy is clear and the objectives for victory are clear. That is why people turned against Vietnam and now against Iraq. It is very true that hawkishness is in short supply in the netroots. But it is also true that hawkishness belongs to a very small minority of people who largely influence or make decisions regarding war without any of the consequences associated with it. Bellicose pundits and foreign policy analysts dominate here. Which is why, incidentally, the military is largely conservative regarding conflict. They know the costs of war, have served in war, and exist to prevent wars when possible, and decisively win them when necessary. Why hawkishness has infected mainstream Democratic politicians is a question I won't get into here. But I would argue that this is precisely the place where the netroots and the Democratic establishment are most at odds.
So there you have it. Democrats, the public and the netroots are largely in sync on policy. And leaving aside foreign policy, the big difference between the netroots and the Democratic party is that the former are activists (with all the attendant baggage that comes with being an activist) and the latter are politicians (who have their own baggage). They have a relationship. They need one another. Just like the public and the politicians need one another but don't necessarily get along. Trying to gloss this over with vague appeals to the center is intellectually dishonest and lazy. It is bad journalism. Fortunately I, and hopefully others, don't treat Brooks as a serious journalist. He's just another cowardly pundit, afraid to say what he really feels, hiding behind the civility afforded him as a proponent of centrism.