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How the Media and the Elites, Not the Voters, Move the Country to the Right

Chattering classes are convinced Chris Christie will move GOP to the center. This totally misunderstands history.
 
 
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Chris Christie’s recent reelection victory has touched off a round of predictable nonsense in the chattering classes. Just as surely as it was obvious that groupthinking Democrats were foolishly giving Christie a pass in advance of the election, groupthinking elites across the spectrum are now touting variations on the idea that Christie — a supposed “moderate” — is just what the GOP needs to steer it back to the center, restoring its political relevance and winning the White House, just like Clinton did with the Democrats in 1992.  Of course, the notion that Christie’s a moderate is absurd, as Elias Isquith quickly pointed out here at Salon the day after the election.

The media may eventually fall back to a more plausible take: that Christie, like George W. Bush before him, is a governing conservative, not a burn everything down conservative. It’s a distinction that’s not always easy to make when you look too closely at results (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”), and it’s definitely situational in the long view, in light of Corey Robin’s devastating demolition of the myth of “Burkean Conservatism” in “The Reactionary Mind,” where he dwells and expands upon just how un-Burkean Burke himself became in “Letters on a Regicide Peace.” But in the here-and-now, that difference certainly may register in terms of ability to soothe big business as a whole, and appeal beyond the base — especially when the media helps out, as it did during 1999 and 2000, painting Bush as a bipartisan Washington outsider (ignoring both President Pa, and Senator Grandpa) while falsely smearing Al Gore as a liar.

But it’s a good deal harder to remake the other half of the narrative into anything close to reality.  Clinton definitely helped move the Democratic Party right (passing NAFTA, diminishing labor’s influence in favor of Wall Street, signing onto Gingrich’s version of “welfare reform”), no question about that — although his populist campaign, “putting people first,” sent a rather different message. But to the center? That’s a mighty hard claim to square with the massive defeat the Democrats suffered two years later — losing the House for the first time since 1954, losing a majority of state governors for the first time since 1970 and losing control of a plurality of state legislatures for the first time since a 20-20 split in 1969 — losses that took more than a decade to fully recover from.  The Democrat’s 1994 landslide losses ought to be enough to disrupt, if not refute the “move to the center” narrative. But for various reasons it’s like catnip to the chattering classes. They just can’t let go of it. Considering its attractiveness as a mirror-image narrative for what the GOP is facing now, a more critical look at what actually happened with the Democrats in the ’80s and ’90s is something that’s long overdue.

To begin with, the “move to the center” narrative is implicitly based on the “median voter” school of political science analysis, which paradoxically assumes that low-information median voters are the crucial drivers in U.S. politics, while at the same time assuming they’re sophisticated enough to move incrementally left or right, in careful calibration to how parties and candidate present themselves. The most potent, coherent counter theory comes from political scientist Thomas Ferguson, laid out in his 1995 book, “Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.” Ferguson builds on Mancur Olson’s insight in “ The Logic of Collective Action” that small groups with specific self-interested goals are more readily organized for political action than large groups representing broader, common interests.