The Lethal Center

The dangers of quick-fix consensus


In 1949, a 32-year-old child of the New Deal wrote a book that sought to establish the limits of respectable political thought—of consensus and common sense—in the conformist post-World War II era. Positioning himself between the "Doughface progressives" who believed in the perfectibility of man and the "plutocratic reactionaries" who supported free markets, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defined his own position in his book's title: The Vital Center. Summing up the spirit of his age, he wrote, "During most of my political consciousness this has been a New Deal country. I expect it will continue to be a New Deal country."

These days, Schlesinger is not a happy camper. His New Deal country is history, its constituents the denizens of nursing homes and Florida retirement communities. He rants in The Wall Street Journal that "Getting government off the back of business really means putting business on the back of government" and, "A contest in meanness will not enhance the quality of American civilization." Nobody listens or cares.

But a Schlesingerian center lives on in American politics, a Lethal Center that jumps at new ideas to expand government power in the name of "common sense." Like the Vital Center, the Lethal Center seeks to limit respectable opinion through ridicule and ostracism. It, too, is bipartisan, the coming together of "pragmatic" liberals and "responsible" conservatives. It, too, trusts the competence and good faith of government officials and, conversely, doubts that of private citizens.

Above all, it is simplistic. Like Schlesinger's New Deal pragmatism, it offers a Mr. Fix-It approach that promises quick, easy relief for difficult problems. It detests the messy, unpredictable, and open-ended evolution of social and economic institutions in a free society. It promises to short-circuit those complex processes and deliver a cleaned-up world. And, because the Lethal Center frames its positions in terms of common sense, it enjoys wide public support. Lethal Center issues produce lopsided votes in Congress and equally lopsided poll results.

The Lethal Center is not mere statism. It is a particular form of dumbed-down discourse that treats with contempt any suggestion that its "obvious" prescriptions might not be a good idea. It declares that "of course" violence in society is caused by TV cop shows, or gangsta rap, or Schwarzenegger movies, or too many guns. It believes that banning these offending products is the common-sense way to reduce violence—and that such bans will be simple and low-cost to enforce. The Lethal Center knows that illegal immigrants, flag burning, and pot-smoking college students pose a threat to the very fabric of American society and that prison time, hefty fines, and more police powers can save us. The Lethal Center is certain that if we "get tough" with the Japanese, perhaps by sticking 100 percent taxes on luxury cars, trade barriers will fall and Americans will prosper.

The Lethal Center holds that politicians are controlled by "special interests" that keep government from "getting things done." It is forever in pursuit of "meaningful campaign reform" and restrictions on lobbying. The Lethal Center is responsible for feel-good legislation, from the Americans with Disabilities Act to the recently passed Senate bill banning sexual speech via electronic networks. The Lethal Center believes that "of course" every restaurant should have wheelchair ramps and no computer jock should send racy e-mail, even to his wife. Such ideas are "common sense." They move, as Mario Cuomo put it in a recent speech, "away from ideological claptrap and toward progressive pragmatism."

Lethal Centrists like to proclaim their pragmatism. But more often than not their search for simplistic answers leads them into cloud cuckoo land. The queen of the Lethal Center, for instance, is undoubtedly California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Her solution to every problem seems to be a ban. She recently introduced a blatantly unconstitutional bill to outlaw Internet publication of information on making bombs, and her harebrained remarks to 60 Minutes about confiscating guns sent waves of fear through the gun-rights community.

But her wackiest idea has nothing to do with guns or bombs. Feinstein has decided to get tough on illegal immigrants—about 1 percent of the U.S. population—by forcing every American who wants to work to be registered in a federal database and to obtain an identification card. Every employer would have to tie into federal computers to verify that the card is legitimate and the worker is legal. The costs of the registry, in cash as well as privacy, are enormous.

"Whether the card carries a magnetic strip on which the bearer's unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded," Feinstein writes in Roll Call, "or whether it incorporates a digitized photo and signature integrated into the plastic card itself, it is clear to me that state-of-the-art work and benefits eligibility IDs can and must replace the Dinosaur Age documents being used." There you have it: progressive pragmatism in its finest high-tech form, the Lethal Center at work. The government, and the accuracy of its computer records, gets to control everyone's livelihood because "of course" we have to do something—anything—to stop illegal immigration. And "of course" working in America is a privilege, not a right, even for native-born citizens.

The Lethal Center was center stage during the Clinton-Gingrich love-in in New Hampshire, as the two men pandered to a New Deal audience yearning for old-fashioned bipartisan support for activist government. With such convivial appearances, said a questioner, "you may help turn our country around and get rid of this backbiting which has prevented our country from going ahead during the past 10 years." He continued with a ringing endorsement of the United Nations.

Across America, broadcasts and newspapers showed the happy handshake, as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich enthusiastically agreed to a commission on campaign and lobbying reform. Such "reform" efforts have always served to entrench incumbents, stifle free speech, and make running for office a rich man's privilege; these results have sometimes been the unintended consequences of simple-minded laws and sometimes the very intended consequences of devious lawmakers. But cracking down on lobbying and campaign contributions always appeals to the Lethal Center, including the questioner who proposed the commission because he blamed special interests for the fall of ClintonCare. And on that happy day in June, the photo op was more important than debating the merits of either taxpayer-financed campaigns or government-controlled health care.

Clinton and Gingrich also went out of their way to praise Barbara Jordan and her commission on immigration, which recently proposed a 30 percent cut in legal immigration, accompanied by hefty new taxes on businesses that hire legal immigrants and more central planning of which jobs are good enough to justify allowing people in to fill them. That cutting immigration, like raising the minimum wage, would benefit the poor is a Lethal Center truism invoked by Clinton and only tepidly disputed by Gingrich.

The Lethal Center is worrisome because it is popular and populist. Gingrich knows he likes legal immigrants; they're constantly coming up to him, invoking the American dream, and praising his vision of an opportunity society. He knows better than to commend the Jordan commission and yammer on about how illegal immigrants are taking away chicken processing jobs (possibly the worst jobs in America) from the people of north Georgia. But the Lethal Center is hard to resist.

Its only antidote is the Counter Center, which has a different notion of common sense. These are the people who know that of course violence isn't caused by television or song lyrics but by moral choices; that of course flag burning is a trivial issue and flag-protection statutes tantamount to idolatry; that of course huge new taxes on hiring Indian engineers or buying Japanese luxury cars will not make Americans richer or more competitive; that of course campaign finance reforms proposed and passed by incumbents will entrench them in office; that of course owning weapons for personal protection is a natural right; that of course political officials should vigorously debate their philosophical differences instead of playing kissy face; that of course Americans are best served by truth telling about the limits of government competence and the costs of government power.

The Counter Center isn't libertarian, but it is skeptical—of both easy-sounding "solutions" and posturing politicians. Its opponents in the hegemonic Lethal Center slam as "cynical" or "ideological" anyone who dares question their conventional wisdom, but the Counter Center is in fact less simplistic and more pragmatic than the Lethal Center. And it is just as real. Both impulses, both definitions of "common sense," exist in the hearts and minds of most not-especially-political Americans.

The trick is to cut through the pieties of the Lethal Center long enough to remind people of how silly, or threatening, those pieties become when politicians translate them into law. The peer pressure that enforced Schlesinger's Vital Center could withstand neither determined nonconformists nor the lessons of experience. The Lethal Center is just as unrealistic, and just as vulnerable. But to be defeated, it must be resisted. We will be better off if its defeat comes at the hands of loud-mouthed truth tellers than if we have to, once again, learn from our foolishness.