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Are Moderates Really Pragmatists?

Matt Yglesias takes aim at the notion that centrism and pragmatism are one and the same:

In the United States, slavish adherence to “moderate” positions is often construed as exhibited “pragmatism” that’s in distinction to the more “ideological” views of people with less centrist views. In fact, moderation can reflect ideology ever bit as much as extremism can.

This is certainly right, up to a point. There are knee-jerk centrists who simply take the left-wing and right-wing positions on any given policy question and decide, without any empirical analysis, that the right answer must be somewhere in between. But the example Matt cites isn't a very good one, and is indicative of an annoying tendency on the part of some liberals to impute too quickly bad-faith motives to centrists. He argues that because Pete Stark's health care plan, essentially a version of single-payer, promises to expand coverage to more people than other major proposals for health-care reform while lowering costs the most, it should be embraced by pragmatists. But, he continues,

what’s incredibly frustrating is that a lot of people who claim to want to change public policy to expand health care coverage and better control health care costs will nonetheless fail to embrace Stark’s plan or anything similar for no real reason other than ideological posturing. It just can’t be the case, as a matter of centrist dogma, that the best solution is actually the most left-wing solution. It’s a far more ideological stance than anything you’ll ever hear from Pete Stark or from me. But the people hewing to it will insist on being called pragmatists.

No doubt there's some number of people of whom this is true. But, of course, there are also entirely valid reasons for a pragmatist to oppose Stark's plan--the fear that it will reduce innovation in the health sector, for instance, or produce an avalanche of lobbyists descending upon Washington to convince Congress to change the nation's behemoth of a health plan to benefit them. (That is, one must look at the totality of the circumstances--simply agreeing that "more coverage" and "lower costs" are generally desirable doesn't mean those are the only factors to be considered.)

It's an interesting question what percentage of self-styled centrists are motivated by these legitimate policy concerns, rather than by "ideological posturing," as Matt puts it. I tend to think most (though not all) political commentators and observers--left, right, and center--sincerely and reasonably believe that their policy views will maximize whatever value they deem most important (justice, soical welfare, what have you). Matt seems to disagree in the case of centrists; admittedly, this is an empirical question and I could very well be wrong, though it's hard to think of how you'd design an experiment to answer it. (This, of course, hearkens back to a lengthy debate Jon Chait had with Jonah Goldberg and others a few years back.) In the meantime, though, here's a proposal. Centrists should always critically analyze their own views to ensure that they're driven by substantive, real ideas, not by a shallow desire to split the difference and stay above the political fray. Meanwhile, liberals (and conservatives!) should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that anyone in the middle of the spectrum must be a wimpy Broderite lacking political conviction. Centrists may be susceptible to dogma too, but the flip side of the coin is that centrism is an ideology just as coherent as any other.

--Josh Patashnik