In the scheme of New York Times pundits, David Leonhardt is one of the lesser-known, but more even-keeled, columnists, showing a tendency toward realism while all around him lose their heads. That’s what made his op-ed on mainstream media’s bias toward centrists so painful.
Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.
Is there an “idea” of centrism? Is it “very much an ideology”? It’s possible, and they’ve conspired to keep it a big secret from me, which could explain why Leonhardt sees it and I do not. It’s not as if centrists have any duty to tell me what they believe in, and for all I know, they’re sitting around at night, chugging brewskies and laughing about how they’ve kept me in the dark. It could happen.
But it’s been my understanding that anyone who isn’t ideologically aligned with the authoritarian right or the authoritarian left falls into the centrist camp, not because of what they believe, but because of what they do not.
In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.
But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.
Journalists convinced themselves that it was their duty to report only on what they believed to be “truth,” and to coin the truly awful phrase “both sidism” to reflect their prior mistaken approach of giving similar treatment to countervailing arguments or perspectives, creating the dreaded “false equivalencies” based upon their normative values of good and evil, truth and fiction.
Compromise was for the weak. “Balance” is no longer somewhere along the spectrum between left and right, but at its exact midpoint. This is why both sides have tried so hard to move the Overton Window as far in their direction as possible, to shift that midpoint in their direction.
The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”
Leonhardt offers this as proof that all the really good change has come from the fringes, and centrists’ ideology would have prevented them from happening. I suggest it shows just the opposite, that these huge “consequential” changes happen rarely, and even then there are questions whether they turned out as well as expected, but the fringes demand a laundry list of paradigm shifts, and they want them now, and most would prove untenable, if not disastrous.
Whether framed as an appreciation of Chesterton’s Fence or that not every wild idea is a good one, the centrists are the one throwing a wet towel on all the radical ideas that would change everything. According to Leonhardt, the media agrees with me.
Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls?
The crux of Leonhardt’s op-ed is that the media is being unfair to Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren because of their myriad radical ideas, “slanting” coverage to the negatives by mentioning negatives at all when they’re false equivalencies.
I recently took a detailed look through the coverage of the wealth tax, favored by both Sanders and Warren, and centrist bias seeps through much of it. The coverage has slanted negative, filled with the worries that centrists have — that the tax wouldn’t work in practice or would slow economic growth.
This is terribly disappointing, not that Leonhardt would say this, but that he would proffer an argument based on the wealth tax at all. The candidates raising of a wealth tax isn’t because they want a stand-alone new revenue stream, but because they need to justify how their myriad freebies are going to be paid. This isn’t an argument about whether raising the tax on long term capital gains for those making over $500 million is a good idea.*
Among the people who fall into Leonhardt’s centrists camp are old school liberals and conservatives, social and/or fiscal, who can discuss these ideas without calling each other racists or soyboys, and whose discussions don’t require that one tribe accept the other’s blind faith in their ideological truth. Beyond that, they may not agree about much of anything at all. Even worse, they may hold strong and firm opinions about what policies are right or wrong, as opposed to the assumption that centrists are just milquetoasts without the balls to take a radical position.
Maybe the one unifying theme among Leonhardt’s centrists is that they won’t shut their eyes and leap off the edge of the cliff for anyone, and prefer instead to think long and hard before making radical changes from which return may be hard, if not impossible, and the potential for massive harm is too great to blindly embrace the fantasy of Utopia.
But is the media the friend of the sensible, the thoughtful, those of various political stripes who choose to think before leaping?
The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be. Sometimes, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are right. Even when they’re not, they deserve the same skepticism that other politicians do — no less, no more.
Au contraire, brother David. The more radical the change, the more it requires critical thought. And journalists, particularly at your paper, are nowhere near skeptical enough, even if you believe they’re too biased toward the center. That says more about you than journalism, and I, for one, am sad to learn this.
*Although they aren’t talking about taxing earnings, but taxing wealth, money already earned and already taxed, because success is unfair to the unsuccessful and irresponsible. But since the cohort of people worth more than half a billion is small, and there are far more people who would like freebies than worry about the principle of confiscatory taking, they can get away with it.