Over the weekend, Time reporter Michael Grunwald tweeted: “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” The tweet rightly garnered enormous blowback, including from those like me who are otherwise critical of Assange and Wikileaks. Today Conor Friedersdorf wrote a lengthy essay which ably dismantles Grunwald’s statement. There’s an excerpt from the beginning that I think deserves further discussion:
It is nevertheless worth dwelling on his tweet a moment longer, because it illuminates a type that is common but seldom pegged in America. You see, Grunwald is a radical ideologue. It’s just that almost no one recognizes it. The label “radical ideologue” is usually used to describe Noam Chomsky or members of the John Birch Society. We think of radical ideologues as occupying the far right or left. Lately a lot of people seem to think that The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald is a radical (often they wrongly conflate the style with which he expresses his views with their substance).
But Grunwald graduated from Harvard, spent a decade at the Washington Post, and now works as a senior correspondent at Time. How radical could someone with that resume possibly be?
The words “radical” and “ideologue” are tossed around in Washington as damning pejoratives. Likewise, the word “centrist” is used as a compliment. It describes people who are problem solvers, who have unmoored themselves from any hoary ideologies to strive for what’s best for the country. Our politics, which is obsessed with compromise and consensus, lionizes centrists. Not surprisingly, Grunwald is sometimes identified as a centrist.
The centrist crowd likes to pride itself on its intellectual suppleness. But its defining characteristic seems to be a belief that nothing that’s happened recently—not the Iraq war nor the economic collapse nor the failure of President Obama’s stimulus measures—necessitates a reexamination of Washington business as usual or the federal government’s role in our lives. The center thus opposes attempts by the left and recently the right to impose checks on the NSA or the surveillance state. It also opposes attempts by the right to seriously cut the bureaucracy or roll back the government’s domestic power. A recent Pew poll found that, of those who identify as Republicans or Democrats, the least concern for civil liberties comes from each party’s respective moderates.
The center, then, has come to stand for the status quo.
But what happens when the status quo itself becomes radical? That might sound contradictory, but consider what Phil Gramm and Steve McMillan wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago:
Today the total U.S. federal debt is 103% of GDP. Since interest paid to the Fed, the Social Security system and other government pension funds is effectively rebated to the Treasury, taxpayers currently bear only the burden of interest on 60% of this debt. But the size of the debt and the percentage of the debt on which interest will have to be paid are rising.
Some seek solace in the fact that at the end of World War II, the national debt exceeded GDP and still the economy prospered. But when the war ended, federal spending dropped to $29.8 billion in 1948 from $92.7 billion in 1945. Spending as a percentage of GDP fell to 12% from 44%. The U.S. emerged from the war as the world’s dominant producer of goods and services. The demand for dollars around the world was insatiable, and a long period of record prosperity ensued. High GDP growth and inflation eventually brought down the debt-to-GDP ratio.
Americans today face a totally different situation. Spending and huge deficits continue unabated, and growth rates have declined since the recovery began four years ago. The reduction in government spending that occurred following World War II would be politically impossible today short of a cataclysmic crisis.
We are living in an era of debt for which there’s no precedent in our history. Isn’t allowing this to continue radical by definition? And isn’t it pragmatic to support policies that seriously reduce government and start to pay down the debt? Yet the centrists are apoplectic about a Tea Party movement that advocates for just that, simply because they’re vocal and base their objections in ideology. Just let Washington work, the centrists say. They’ve learned nothing.
And the center’s radicalism runs deeper than policy. To oppose practical limits on government, whether on the NSA or the EPA, is to ignore the entire pantheon of history, which is littered with the ashes of abusive regimes. As Newt Gingrich recently asked, “Does he know nothing of history?” He was referring to Sen. John McCain’s blithe response to Rand Paul’s filibuster, but his comment could apply to much of the centrist mindset. To accept that government should solve all our problems, whether directly or incrementally, is to accept that there shouldn’t be any serious limits on government at all. Too many shootings? Implement more gun control, the Second Amendment be damned. It’s not about principle, you see; it’s about finding pragmatic solutions. Anyone who objects on a principled basis is accused of being a rigid ideologue.
It’s small-minded, it hasn’t worked, and it’s becoming more radical by the day. Which brings us back to Grunwald. Many, including in the well-credentialed center, have expressed horror that a Time journalist would call for a government assassination. But really, why not? Julian Assange is a problem and murdering him with a drone strike is an effective solution. Why restrain our thinking with tired old principles from centuries gone by? Gentlemen, fire away.