Doing violence to history

by John MacBeath Watkins

In general, I've steered clear of political commentary in this blog, since the world has enough of that, but as a reader of history, I have to take issue with David Brooks' latest column.

He invents an angry voter, who he christens Ben. Ben worked hard, believed in a society where hard work is rewarded and indolence is not, yada yada,

This setup is followed by the following assertion:

"Once there was a group in the political center that would have understood Ben’s outrage. Moderates like Abraham Lincoln believed in the free labor ideology. Their entire governing system was built around encouraging labor and rewarding labor."

Lincoln was our most divisive president. His election was followed by a large number of states attempting to leave the union. They did so because they did not regard his views as moderate.

In fact, he believed that an entire rentier class should be deprived of their property and forced to give that property to itself. I've had some people argue with me that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, but if you read the Declaration of the Causes of Secession issued by Confederate states, you'll find that those driving the secession made themselves amply clear. Here are a few sentences from the Mississippi declaration:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution...

...It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

More declarations here.

You could not have free labor, which as Brooks notes was what Lincoln believed in, and have a property right to laborers. These are rights in conflict, and there was no middle ground. The country spent its entire existence up to the Civil War trying to find such middle ground, and explored pretty much all the options. Sometimes, doing the right thing is not centrist or moderate.

Brooks also does violence to more recent history. Suppose a president wanted to be the centrist figure Brooks longs for. Suppose that president wanted to tackle one of the biggest problems the country has, the problem of healthcare. One thing he could do is adopt the best ideas of the other party, and anticipate that they would support reforms instituting those ideas.

Obama's health insurance reforms drew on ideas used in the 1993 Republican healthcare reform plan, supported by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and instituted in Massachusetts by Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of that state. Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewett, in his book A Mormon in the White House? praised the plan, saying:

This brilliant bit of legislating was born from a partnering between Romney and his policy team with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Once Obama adopted the plan, Romney, the Heritage Foundation, and Hewitt all distanced themselves from its core ideas. The Republican talking points about ideas they had once supported said the plan was socialistic and un-American.

Where is there room in this sort of conversation for a centrist? Brooks asserts that "...the political center is a feckless shell. It has no governing philosophy. Its paragons seem from the outside opportunistic, like Arlen Specter, or caught in some wishy-washy middle, like Blanche Lincoln. The right and left have organized, but the center hasn’t bothered to. The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes."

No. The center has been defined out of existence. Think tanks once seen as centrist, such as the Brookings Institution, have not ceased to exist or issue policy papers. Partisans choose to define them as belonging to one side or the other.

The lessons of history are there to be learned, ignored, or misinterpreted. Brooks attempted the first and instead did the last of these.