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July 03, 2013 3:11 PM So’s-Your-Old-Man “Centrism”

By Ed Kilgore

Like most people who read about Bishop E.W. Jackson’s latest strange missive to the world, my first reaction to this story from DailyKos’ Hunter was hilarity:

In today’s E.W. Jackson news, the actual Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia says that Democrats are divisive and are focused on social issues and aren’t nice upstanding moderate statesman-types like E.W. Jackson is. Let us behold his wisdom, which like all true political wisdom is presented in the form of a fundraising pitch to stupid people:
“In an email fundraising pitch, Jackson says his Democratic opponent Ralph Northam is ‘running on divisive social issues’ and that he ‘wants to prevent women from having safer access to health care by relaxing safety standards on abortion clinics!’
“‘With an extremist focus like this — how can we trust Ralph Northam to be Lieutenant Governor,’ Jackson writes.”
Northam’s other “extremist” positions include backing “Obamacare,” not hating gay people and maybe wanting fewer American schoolchildren to be shot in their classrooms because Freedom. As for the Democrats themselves, Jackson insists the party “even defended convicted infanticide murderer Kermit Gosnell,” something you and I did not witness but which figures prominently in the eternally running Twilight Zone episode that is the conservative mind.
Jackson concludes by asking for monies to fight Northam’s “extremist allies, Planned Parenthood,” apparently using the usual conservative definition of “extremist” as “a person or group I do not want to exist, but which rudely continues to exist anyway” and signs the whole thing off “In Liberty, E.W. Jackson,” adding another entry into the long list of words that I suspect do not mean what E.W. Jackson thinks they mean.

Yeah, it’s pretty funny, but there’s something serious and enduring going on here that is worth noting. In the perpetual struggle-for-the-center that is so central to U.S. two-party politics, there are two ways to “seize the center.” One is to occupy it with policy positions and messages that appeal to a majority of the electorate. The other is to push your opponents away from “the center” by accusing them of extremism. Many successful campaigns do both.

The “push-off” strategy has long been a staple of base-oriented candidates in both parties. But it’s become particularly important to Republicans in this era of asymmetrical polarization, because (a) the “occupy the center” approach just isn’t available to them, and (b) blaming polarization on Democrats is a crucial element of reinforcing media and public perceptions of “false equivalence.” To put it another way, Republican accusations of Democratic extremism are a big part of how conservatives have tilted American politics in their direction.

Jackson is the running-mate of another sturdy right-wing culture warrior, Ken Cuccinelli, and their pollsters are telling them they absolutely have to convince swing voters they wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking about nothing other than creating jobs for Virginians. So ludicrous as it may seem, the good Bishop is doing what he’s told in promoting the idea that it’s his opponent, not his own self, who is obsessed with “divisive” issues and out of the mainstream.

As Hunter suggests, of course, there’s another thing going on: fanatics genuinely believe that people who do not share their manias are “extremist,” not to mention unpatriotic, dishonest, and conscious agents of Lord Satan. So Jackson can probably call Ralph Northam a nut-case with a clear conscience.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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