Today's Paper Search Latest stories Listen Traffic Legislature Newsletters Most commented Obits Weather Puzzles + Games

Why is American politics so dysfunctional? Whatever the deeper roots of our distress, the proximate cause is ideological extremism: Powerful factions are committed to false views of the world, regardless of the evidence.

Notice that I said factions, plural. There's no question that the most disruptive, dangerous extremists are on the right. But there's another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have also done a great deal of harm.

I'm not talking about the left. Radical leftists are virtually nonexistent in American politics; can you think of any prominent figure who wants us to move to the left of, say, Denmark? No, I'm talking about fanatical centrists.

Over the past few days we've been treated to the ludicrous yet potentially destructive spectacle of Howard Schultz, the Starbucks billionaire, insisting that he's the president we need despite his demonstrable policy ignorance. Schultz obviously thinks he knows a lot of things that just aren't so. Yet his delusions of knowledge aren't that special. For the most part, they follow conventional centrist doctrine.

First, there's the obsession with public debt. This might have made some sense back in 2010, when some feared a Greek-style crisis, although even then I could have told you that such fears were misplaced. In fact, I did.

In any case, however, eight years have passed since Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson predicted a fiscal crisis within two years unless their calls for spending cuts were heeded, yet U.S. borrowing costs remain at historical lows. These low borrowing costs mean that fears of snowballing debt are groundless; mainstream economists now tell us that "the risks associated with high debt levels are small relative to the harm cutting deficits would do."

Schultz, however, still declares debt our biggest problem. Yet true to centrist form, his deficit concerns are oddly selective. Bowles and Simpson, charged with proposing a solution to deficits, listed as their first principle reducing tax rates. Sure enough, Schultz is all into cutting Social Security, but opposes any tax hike on the wealthy.

Funny how that works.

In general, centrists are furiously opposed to any proposal that would ease the lives of ordinary Americans. Universal health coverage, says Schultz, would be "free health care for all, which the country cannot afford."

And he's not alone in saying things like that. A few days ago Michael Bloomberg declared that extending Medicare to everyone, as Kamala Harris suggests, would "bankrupt us for a very long time."

Single-payer health care (actually called Medicare!) hasn't bankrupted Canada. In fact, every advanced country besides America has some form of universal health coverage and manages to afford it.

The real issue with "Medicare for all" isn't costs--the taxes needed to pay for it would almost surely be less than what Americans now pay in insurance premiums. The problem would be political: It would be tricky persuading people to trade private insurance for a public program. That's a real concern for Medicare-for-all advocates, but it's not at all what either Schultz or Bloomberg is saying.

Finally, the hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America's left and right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose. Thus, throughout the Obama years, centrists called for political leaders who would address their debt concerns with an approach that combined spending cuts with revenue increases, offer a market-based health-care plan and invest in infrastructure, somehow never managing to acknowledge that there was one major figure proposing exactly that--President Barack Obama.

And now, with Democrats taking a turn that is more progressive but hardly radical, centrist rhetoric has become downright hysterical. Medicare and Medicaid already cover more than a third of U.S. residents and pay more bills than private insurance.

But Medicare for all, says Schultz, is "not American." Elizabeth Warren has proposed taxes on the wealthy that are squarely in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt; Bloomberg says that they would turn us into Venezuela.

Where does the fanaticism of the centrists come from? Much of the explanation is sheer vanity.

Both pundits and plutocrats like to imagine themselves as superior beings, standing above the political fray. They want to think of themselves as standing tall against extremism right and left. Yet the reality of American politics is asymmetric polarization: Extremism on the right is a powerful political force while extremism on the left isn't. What's a would-be courageous centrist to do?

The answer, all too often, is to retreat into a fantasy world, almost as hermetic as the right-wing Fox News bubble. In this fantasy world, social democrats like Harris or Warren are portrayed as the second coming of Hugo Chavez, so that taking what is actually a conservative position can be represented as a brave defense of moderation.

But that's not what is really happening, and the rest of us have no obligation to indulge centrist delusions.


Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, writes for the New York Times.

Editorial on 02/02/2019

Print Headline: Attack of the centrists


Sponsor Content


You must be signed in to post comments
  • Skeptic1
    February 2, 2019 at 9:07 a.m.

    "Radical leftists are virtually nonexistent in American politics; can you think of any prominent figure who wants us to move the left of, say, Denmark?" Do you not own a television or radio? The Democrat party just elected the most extreme far left representatives since the 1920's. The loudest voices in that dysfunctional party are calling for outright socialism with 90% taxes on the top 1% and outright infanticide as their ultimate pro-choice legislation. That folks is the new radical Socialist Democrat.

  • Lifelonglearner
    February 2, 2019 at 2:42 p.m.

    When we have White Supremacists being referred to by our President, as "good people" the radical right has a prominent role in the Republican party. The Republican Party talks a good game on abortion, but once a child is born, it is survival of the fittest (or at least those born to the right families). Otherwise there would be better funding and management of the foster care and adoption systems. (I do give Governor Asa credit for at least trying). Ditto for tax cuts. Why are taxes not cut from the bottom up since the working poor are effectively paying the highest taxes because they cannot hide their income as nontaxable.

  • joebub61yahoocom
    February 2, 2019 at 8:38 p.m.

    Again I question why this newspaper prints this Undeserving Nobel winner weekly. He is a propagandist who has been continually wrong about every prediction he has made. He swings at the fence hoping to get it right.

  • RobertBolt
    February 2, 2019 at 9:19 p.m.

    I've been the lonely one rejecting centrism in these comments for a while now. I'm glad to see Krugman agrees.