Being Mainstream

Be reasonable.

It’s a pretty innocuous request, on the surface. At its best, a call to reason is a reminder that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. But in the slippery world of American politics, it’s worth remembering that everything is relative.

It’s no coincidence that we use relational terms to define political positions: in the current political climate of the United States, a handgun ban would be considered pretty far left, while the complete repeal of background check for gun buyers would be considered rather right-wing. Anything in between could be considered “centered”.

But of course, among those centrist positions are some more palatable to the left and others better suited to the right – a ban on extended magazines is to the center of our hypothetical positions, but it’s unmistakably leftist in character.

Therefore, it’s worth paying attention to the goalposts when a politician begs another to come to the center. While voters in the US tend to react warmly to calls to bipartisanship and centrism, for those interested in actual policy it’s important to see who really wins in a so-called “compromise”. Much of the political deadlock in the the US today comes from the fact that a hard line against raising taxes of any kind is a pretty extreme position, so any “center” ground is immediately fatal to one of the negotiating sides.

Thus, it’s not surprising to see some politicians deploy an appeal to the center as a merely tactical move: by trying to define the acceptable space for compromise before the other side can do it, they can ensure that any deal that emerges contains favorable terms.

Today, we got to see two appeals to the mainstream in action, both a little questionable.

The first came from Senator Lindsey Graham, who said on CNN that “Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy.”

Some background: Hagel is President Obama’s nominee for leadership at the Pentagon, and he has received some criticism for decrying a “Jewish lobby” (or pro-Israel lobby) in Washington that keeps a good number of politicians from considering flexibility in the Middle East.

The United States has been reliably supportive of Israel, and most Americans probably do see Israel as a more legitimate state than the newly renamed “State of Palestine” (nee Palestinian Authority), if only because of Hamas’ ties to Iran and the uncertain state of affairs between the erstwhile Authority and its counterparts in Hamas.

But it does clearly favor Graham and his Republican counterparts to place the acceptable limit of thought at absolute defense of Israeli action, and question as somewhat un-American any criticism directed at Israel. This maneuver – setting the “mainstream” exactly where Graham wants it to be – may cost Hagel a job.

The second appeal to the center came from Mitch McConnell, trying to define the acceptable limits on a deal regarding the upcoming debt ceiling debate. His essential argument, as outlined by Slate, makes the claim that any deal that can be passed by a divided government must be considered bipartisan – and as a result, raising revenue going forward will be completely off the table.

This is merely saying that anything we do coming up will look like compromise, so we’ll use a Republican list of demands as the starting point for any negotiation. Hardly a true compromise.

This semantic trick works best when the mainstream is either sharply divided, or public feeling is unclear. It’s hard to argue that mainstream thinking will get Americans to endorse a nationwide conversion to the Church of Scientology.  On the other hand, if there’s doubt about the zeitgeist, it just might be worth making a run for the reasonable high ground – if you stand to gain from setting the ground rules for acceptability.

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