There is a new book out by Jonathan Alter by the title, The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies. This book tells the story of the 2012 election from the perspective of someone hailed by The Washington Post as, “One of America’s most highly respected political journalists…” The promo on the book begins this way…
“The election of 2012 will be remembered as a hinge of history. With huge victories in the 2010 midterm elections the Republican Party had blocked President Obama at every turn and made plans to wrench the country sharply to the right. 2012 offered the GOP a clear shot at controlling all three branches of government and repealing much of the social contract dating back to the New Deal. Facing free-spending billionaires, Fox News, and a concerted effort in 19 states to tilt the election by suppressing Democratic votes, Obama repelled the assault and navigated the nation back to the center.”
When I first read the promo information printed above I was a bit incredulous. I realize that when you have an ideology, right or left, your perspective is quite different, but I must admit that I was surprised that Alter places Barack Obama in the center of the political spectrum. It’s not that all politicians don’t attempt to characterize their positions as centrist, but rather that Obama has unabashedly characterized his intent and his ideology as from the left. His hero was Saul Alinsky, who dedicated his book, Rules for Radicals, to Satan. Since Alinsky was not known for his humor, I think it is fair to assume that his book dedication was serious. Rules for Radicals is, of course, the book that young Barack Obama read and then taught while some sort of an assistant college professor. He was and is committed to the philosophy of Saul Alinsky.
What does Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals, have to say about ethics? Essentially the message is to do whatever you have to do to achieve the ends you desire. Always tell audiences what they want hear, but do what you want to do. Here is a direct quote taken from Rules for Radicals…
“…you do what you can with what you have and clothe it in moral arguments. …the essence of Lenin’s speeches during this period was ‘They have the guns and therefore we are for peace and for reformation through the ballot. When we have the guns then it will be through the bullet.’ And it was.” — P.36-37
Saul Alinsky is the man Hillary Clinton worked for. This is the man Obama reveres. It so happens that Saul Alinsky spoke on my college campus when I was in school. He was a far left radical through and through. He had no ethical or moral principles. He had no love for America. He was as cynical, scheming and potentially bloodthirsty as his hero, Vladimir Lenin. His goal was nothing less than the overthrow of our nation as it was created by the Founders, men whom he openly detested.
That’s why I found it hard to believe that Jonathan Alter would suggest that the views of President Obama are centrist. Nevertheless, it brings up a good question: What is the political center of the United States? Is it defined by winning an election? In other words, if you win an election in some overwhelming fashion, does that mean you are now the political center? That seems to be the assertion of Alter’s book, but it’s not totally clear. Is he saying that his electoral victory defined Obama as holding center ground? Or is he is saying that the policies and ideas of the Obama presidency were the center and that they succeeded in carrying the day when the votes were tabulated? Let’s look at the idea that by winning an election you define the political center.
It is true that President Obama won two consecutive elections, both by relatively narrow margins (52.9% of the 2008 vote and 51.1% in 2012). It was a comfortable margin, but certainly not a landslide of the proportions won by Ronald Reagan in two successive elections (55.3% of the 1980 total vote for both Reagan and Carter; 58.8% of the total vote cast in 1984). Moreover, while Obama was winning the White House, the Democrats lost ground in races for governor, and made virtually no headway whatsoever in recapturing control of the US House of Representatives or making gains in state legislatures.
In contrast, Ronald Reagan had strong coattails. His 1980 election swept the Republicans to power in the US Senate for the first time in nearly 30 years. More recently, the 2010 election was a stunning repudiation of the policies of the Obama Presidency, especially the strong-arm passage of Obamacare. In 2010 the GOP not only won control of the US House of Representatives, but also flipped control of more than a dozen state legislatures, and turned over seats in local elections that had been held by the Democrats since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The 2010 election was truly a watershed election.
Now that we have put a few facts on the table, let’s get back to the Jonathan Alter thesis that Obama policies and the Obama presidency in particular hold the center political ground in America today. The first thought that comes to mind is; if Obama represents the political center, who is to his left? The Unabomber is locked up. Joseph Stalin is dead. Hugo Chavez is pushing up daisies. Joking aside, it is hard to imagine any American politician to the left of Barack Obama.
This brings us back to the original question; does winning a national election define the political center of the United States? Clearly, that is not the case. If it were the case, it would mean that the center gyrated from Barack Obama in 2008 to the Tea Party in 2010 and back to Barack Obama in 2012. Alter’s thesis sounds more like wishful thinking than any sort of astute political analysis.
The review of the Alter book in the mainstream press says a lot more about the bias of those publications, than it does about political and philosophical reality. Here is what those reviewers said…
The New York Times, “Highly informed…”
The New York Daily News, “A calm, virtuoso work of journalism…”
Los Angeles Times, “Excellent reporting…”
I have not, of course, read the book. And, the book may contain some very interesting and informative information, but I do take issue with the implications of the title. It seems a little silly to me to assert that the most leftwing President in history now occupies the political center of our nation. Yikes!
But, the concept of the political center is worth considering. In fact, I think it is a topic that should be considered when we hold elections. What should be the philosophical center of politics in our nation? The truth is that the left puts their entire political future in peril if the American people consider the true political center of our nation.
What else can be considered the political center of a nation other than the principles upon which that nation was founded? Politicians come and go, trends come and go, issues come and go, but foundational principles remain constant.
Of course, those principles are open to interpretation. Strong, honest disagreements can and will take place as to what the Founders intended. The Founders themselves vigorously disagreed with each other. One of the leaders of the American Revolution who played a critical role in securing victory over the British, Patrick Henry, opposed ratification of the United States Constitution. Many other vehement arguments took place between the various Founders. But, an honest disagreement over the interpretation of founding principles is far, far different than advocating a complete change in principles. Appreciating the wisdom of the Founders is radically different that rejecting and denigrating those principles.
Using the ideals and principles of the Founders as a yardstick to identify the legitimate political center of the United States is not as difficult as it might seem to be. The Founders were learned men. They were well educated and well-read. And, while they disagreed strongly on a number of issues, there were a number of vitally important principles upon which there was near universal agreement.
Among those principles that gained universal or near universal agreement were…
- Human Nature. Men are not angels, they are morally imperfect and subject to corruption if given unlimited power over others. No man, no matter how enlightened, will always make the right decisions. Therefore the power of any elected individual must be restrained and limited. "It is the nature of man to pursue his own interest in preference to the public good."—Thomas Jefferson
- Government. As George Washington said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Not one Founder would take issue with this clear warning of George Washington. The greatest danger to individual freedom is and always will be powerful, centralized government. In order to create a free society, the overall power of government over the lives of American citizens must be limited.
- Law. The nation must be a government of laws, not a government of human whim. No matter how brilliant or smart or ethical a political leader is, he should never be able to override the law, especially the United States Constitution. Crossing the line from a government of law to a government of man leads to tyranny. “Where there is no law, there is no liberty; and nothing deserves the name of law but that which is certain and universal in its operation upon all the members of the community.”—Dr. Benjamin Rush
- Freedom. Maximum individual freedom was the overriding goal of the Founders. They sought to limit the power of government and to maximize the power of the individual. They realized that there is a direct relationship between the size and power of government and individual freedom. As government size and power grow, human freedom inevitably declines. As the size and power of government declines, human freedom expands. “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.”—Thomas Jefferson
- Justice. Justice must be blind and administered equally to all citizens. The wealth and power of an individual, or the meager circumstances in which he lives, should not impact his treatment under the law. Similarly, your ethnic background should not alter your treatment under the law. While slavery certainly existed at the time of the American founding, the Constitution written by the Founders contained the principles of equal liberty and justice for all Americans. “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever persuasion, religious or political.”—Thomas Jefferson
- Opportunity. The objective of the Founders was opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances into which an individual was born. God chose how and where an individual is born; how that individual takes advantage of opportunity is his responsibility. The Founders would have summarily rejected any idea of government social engineering designed to determine economic outcomes.
- Fiscal Responsibility. The Founders repeatedly warned of fiscal irresponsibility. They warned against indebtedness, especially to other nations. They expressed fears for future generations if the government did not live within its means. “I go on the principle that a public debt is a public curse, and in a Republican Government a greater curse than any other,”—James Madison
- Public Service. Elected officials are to be servants of the people who elected them. They are not to be masters and, following the example of George Washington, no man should view elective office as a career. “[A citizen] must love private life, but he must decline no station [office]…when called to it by the suffrages [votes] of his fellow citizens.”—Benjamin Rush
- Virtue. Virtue is an outgrowth of faith in God. A free society cannot exist if the vast majority of the citizenry are not of a virtuous nature. This seems to contrast with the idea that men are corrupt, but in reality, it does not. The Founders believed in the laws of God and knew that if the people had faith in God and humbled themselves before Him, striving to do his will, freedom would thrive. “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”—Patrick Henry
- Compassion. Compassion is an outgrowth of virtue. The Founders understood that the only true compassion is that expressed and given by one individual to another individual. The use of government to extract wealth from one man and give it to another is not compassion, and the Founders understood that. True compassion occurs only when men are virtuous and free.
- Self-Restraint. Like compassion, self-restraint is an outgrowth of virtue. Unless men exercise self-restraint, a free society cannot exist. When there is a breakdown in virtue, self-restraint declines and mobocracy replaces democracy.
- Prosperity. Every man was expected to work and take care of his own family. The Founders understood that near universal prosperity occurs only when men are free to exchange goods and services without the interference of government. And they knew that whenever government interferes in the free marketplace someone suffers and someone unfairly gains.
While this list is not necessarily comprehensive, there is nothing in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or the writings of the Founders that is in conflict with the statements listed above. Yes, the Founders disagreed on the precise form of government, how much centralization of government was necessary, but none would disagree with the foundational principles listed above.
If, indeed, the Founders are the political center of our nation, who is closest to this political center, the followers of Saul Alinsky or those in the Tea Party who advocate a return to Constitutional principles?