Last Tuesday, Senator Charles Schumer of New York inadvertently gave the public a political backstage tour. Before a conference call with members of the press, Schumer was briefing fellow Democrats on specific talking points concerning the current budget negotiations. What he did not know was that some of the reporters were already patched into the call, and the discussion was caught on tape.
“The only way we can avoid a shut down is for Boehner to come up with a reasonable compromise and not just listen to what the Tea Party wants because the Tea Party wants to stick to HR1 with its draconian, extreme -I always use the word extreme, that is what the caucus instructed me to do the other week- extreme cuts and all these riders, and Boehner’s in a box, but if he supports the Tea Party, there’s going to inevitably [be] a shut down. What we are trying to do here . . .”
At that point, the call was muted. When the official conference began, Schumer’s colleagues, Benjamin L. Cardin, Richard Blumenthal, Thomas R. Carper, and Barbara Boxer, all advanced the Tea Party-as-extremist position. Later, Senator Schumer’s spokesman, Brian Fallon, released this statement:
“There’s nothing wrong with reporters overhearing him calling the House Republicans extreme, because that’s what it is. He had just given a speech on the Senate floor saying the same thing. The sooner Speaker Boehner abandons the Tea Party’s extreme demands, the sooner there can be a bipartisan deal on the budget.”
The fact that political parties issue talking points of this sort is not a surprise. What is revealing about the Schumer gaff is that it exposes the use of a subtle technique that the Left has been employing for many years. By labeling center-right organizations extreme, what the Left is attempting to do is push those groups to the fringe in the public’s perceptions. Once it becomes established that a mainstream movement, such as the Tea Party, resides on the far right of the political spectrum, it has the effect of shifting the ideological scale: ostensibly placing the radical Left near the center.
This technique of shifting the center takes different forms. For instance, when Glenn Beck held a rally that was largely viewed as a Tea Party gathering in Washington, D.C., the left-leaning Jon Stewart felt compelled to hold a similar rally. Stewart’s rally was called the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and he also referred to it as the “Million Moderate March.” By holding a counter rally that claimed to be the voice of moderation and sanity, Stewart was purposely working to brand Beck’s audience as extreme while establishing his mostly liberal audience as the commonsense center.
Organizations can also be used to achieve this perceptional shift. Dave Foreman, the environmental activist that founded EarthFirst! has claimed that he formed the radical organization to make the Sierra Club appear more reasonable. In an interview for Smithsonian magazine, Foreman states:
“We thought it would have been useful to have a group to take a tougher position than the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. It could be sort of secretly controlled by the mainstream and trotted out at hearings to make the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society look moderate.”
By forming an extremely radical environmental group, Foreman was pushing groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society toward the center in the public’s perceptions.
Another recent example where the center-shift technique has been employed was in a March 26 piece written by John Avlon. Avlon, a co-founder of the faux-centrist group No Labels who is best known for labeling opponents as “wingnuts,” penned an article for The Daily Beast called “Minnesota’s Bachmannization.” In the editorial, Avlon paints all conservative positions as radical ideology while simultaneously positioning the Left as the commonsense middle:
“Minnesota is a swing state, and its pendulum has swung heavily—from the liberal era of Humphrey and Mondale, past center-right figures like Norm Coleman, and right on to Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann . . . The Minnesota Republican Party has undergone a “Bachmannization” in recent years, lurching to the right on social issues, with the prerequisite purging of centrists and elevation of ideological absolutists . . . In recent weeks, the Republican-controlled state legislature has clashed with liberal Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. Among their headline grabbing and eyebrow-raising legislative efforts have included trying to ban all abortions in the state after 20 weeks and forbidding anyone on public assistance from withdrawing more than $20 cash per month.”
How dare those Republicans clash with a liberal Democratic Governor. How dare they defend the life of a half-formed human being. Observe the language: lurching, purging, clashing, banning, forbidding. One wonders how this article would have read if it had been written by a true centrist.
Avlon, whose ties to the Clinton administration have recently been scrubbed from his Wikipedia biography, works tirelessly to position himself as a centrist, but one can see that when Avlon speaks of the center, he really means the Left. For instance, in his article, the definition of “Minnesota Nice” means liberal:
“The point is that these are not isolated incidents, but indicative of an intra-party atmosphere that is starkly inconsistent with the state’s justified reputation for “Minnesota Nice.” This is, after all, the state that gave us Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor and the Coen brothers.”
The political beliefs of the Coen brothers are unknown, but Bob Dylan and Garrison Keillor are hardly known as ideological centrists. After showing evidence that the Minnesota Republican Party is implementing a conservative social agenda, Avlon concludes:
“ . . . Pawlenty and Bachmann are going to have to answer for the increasing extremism of their home-state Republican Party.”
Conservatives are going to have to answer for their agenda to whom: the Left? Notice how Avlon works to shift the center. By labeling Bachmann and the conservative social agenda as extreme, he is establishing the Left’s social agenda as the default position from where the political debate begins.
It is a well-established fact that the United States is a center-right nation, yet over the last fifty years, the country’s laws and policies have slowly drifted leftward. One reason for this is that the Right has passively accepted the premise that the Left holds the middle ground. By labeling conservative ideas as extreme, the Left is laying claim to a default position in the center. The only thing extreme about a 60 billion dollar budget cut is that the cuts are extremely inconsequential. The only thing extreme about a law that blocks abortions after 20 weeks is the necessity of such a law. The Right needs to reassert itself as the true center in American politics.