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‘Centrist bias’ smothers much needed reform

December 23, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

The political establishment loves the center. But it’s the radicals who end up writing history.

By John F. Harris
Politico Magazine, November 7, 2019

Washington journalists these days are having many conversations with Democratic operatives and veterans of previous administrations that go something like this:

This is insane. Our party has a death wish. We are going to blow this election and give the country four more years of Donald Trump.

These downbeat Democrats are talking generally about what they regard as their party’s dangerous lurch to the left in the 2020 campaign. Most often these days they are talking specifically about Elizabeth Warren.

The right has been fulminating for decades about liberal bias in the media. More recently the left, including Bernie Sanders, has inveighed against capitalist bias caused by corporate ownership of news organizations.

Meanwhile, a quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike.

I am not terribly self-conscious about my predispositions to see politics and governance a certain way. These wouldn’t be my predispositions if I didn’t think they had something going for them. But the recognition of bias imposes an obligation to push against default thinking and explore the possibility that it is wrong.

Here’s the main reason it might be wrong: The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.

It is clear that Warren, who has so far run the most disruptive and effective campaign of the Democratic race, is ready to divide the country and her party over the proposition that a much more aggressive role for government is needed to bring business to heel and protect individuals and the global climate from the predations of a free market. Sanders has won a corps of devoted backers animated by the same disdain for centrism.

I’m not saying that familiar Democratic voices like Rahm Emanuel (“Someone needs to say it: Medicare for All is a pipedream”) or Bill Galston (her new plan may be “the longest suicide note in recorded history”) or Steve Rattner (“a Warren presidency is a terrifying prospect”) are wrong. I am asking how they are so sure they are right.

Fundamental societal change comes from people burning with grievances, obsessed with remedies, ready to demolish old power arrangements to achieve their ends.

John Harris was formerly political editor at The Washington Post and then founding editor of Politico.


How ‘Centrist Bias’ Hurts Sanders and Warren; The media has a bigger problem than liberal bias.

By David Leonhardt
The New York Times, December 22, 2019

John F. Harris is about as mainstream as the mainstream media gets.

Last month, Harris wrote a column that I can’t get out of my head. In it, he argued that political journalism suffers from “centrist bias.” As he explained, “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.”

The bias caused much of the media to underestimate Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016. It also helps explain the negative tone running through a lot of the coverage of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders this year.

Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.

In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.

But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.

This seemingly radical possibility turns out to be quite common, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — author of the classic book, “The Vital Center,” no less — pointed out. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”

Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls?

The skeptical questions for the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, often challenge the substance of their ideas: Are you too radical? Are you being realistic? And, by golly, how would you pay for it all?

As regular readers know, I’m a moderate on Medicare, immigration and college debt, among other subjects. John Harris, for his part, confesses to “a pretty strong bout” of centrist bias.

But maybe that’s why we recognize it and pine for more objective coverage. Not every policy question posed to Democrats needs to have a conservative assumption, and not every question posed to Republicans needs to have a liberal one. If Warren and Sanders are going to be asked whether their solutions go too far, Joe Biden should be asked whether his solutions are too timid: Mr. Vice President, many economists believe that inequality is bad for an economy, so are you doing enough to attack inequality?

Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it. It helps explain why the 2016 presidential debates focused more on the budget deficit, a topic of centrist zealotry, than climate change, almost certainly a bigger threat. (Well-funded deficit advocacy plays a role too.) Centrist bias also helps explain the credulousness of early coverage during the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Both Democrats and Republicans, after all, largely supported each war.

The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be. Sometimes, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are right. Even when they’re not, they deserve the same skepticism that other politicians do — no less, no more.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

With our highly polarized politics there is often a tendency for the mainstream media to try to be fair in covering both sides of the issues, often resulting in a “centrist bias” in the reporting. Health care is a case in point.

One view is to minimize the role of government and rely more heavily on markets to ensure that health care is affordable and accessible for all, placing much of the responsibility on the individual. Another view is to place the role of financing health care in the hands of our government, funding the system through equitable taxes, ensuring affordability and accessibility of health care for all. Since these are often considered to be extreme views, the media seeks to report on centrist solutions that meet in the middle.

So what is the centrist position in health care reform? Use public policies, such as Medicaid and community health centers, for those who cannot pay for their care or the insurance to cover it, and depend on private health plans for those who can. However, there is a dispute between the sides over trying to fill in the voids with Medicare, including private Medicare Advantage plans, with subsidies for private plans offered in the ACA exchanges, and now with whether or not a competing, Medicare-like public option should be offered.

So do we really have two extreme views which require centrist solutions? Many decades ago, Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow demonstrated to us that markets do not work in health care. So that is an extreme view. What about universal public insurance? That has been shown to work in many nations. So that is not an extreme view. Trying to craft a centrist program by combining a market-based program that does not work with a public insurance program that does work inevitably results in a fragmented, dysfunctional system – precisely what we now have.

Those supporting mere tweaking of the current system have a centrist bias, but, as John Harris states, “The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.” An extreme position may be bad, as with a nation that supports regime change through war while rejecting diplomacy. But it can be good, as with the many nations that have elected to implement some form or other of a national health program, as opposed to leaving patients at the mercy of the markets.

There may be some disagreement as to the precise model preferred for a national health program, but since we would be starting with an agreement to abandon false centrist solutions we should move forward with the most efficient, effective, and equitable model out there – a single payer model of an improved Medicare that covered everyone. A national health service model would also be an option but would likely be rejected as being too disruptive.

Regardless, we need to remain acutely aware of centrist bias and reject it for what it is – a mechanism of smothering the reform that we desperately need.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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