Applebaum’s Stewart Rally Stretch

A weak cry for centrism

Still scratching my head after reading columnist Anne Applebaum’s op-ed in The Washington Post Monday.

The piece is essentially an evergreen columnist’s lament for centrism—come on guys, we need to work together—but Applebaum has gone the topical route by shoehorning her argument into the frame of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” taking place in Washington this weekend. To say the fit doesn’t quite work is like saying the Sasquatch would struggle a little getting into Cinderella’s glass slipper.

Applebaum begins:

I don’t know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It’s bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a “Rally to Restore Sanity” is to make it into a television comedian’s joke. But it’s far worse that the “moderates” in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Applebaum then continues:

This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word “moderate” has now come to mean “liberal” or even “left-wing” in American politics. It has been a long time since “moderate” Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party: Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors. “Moderate” Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist: In their place, we have “conservative Democrats.” Nobody pays attention to them either — unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against health-care reform. And then he is vilified.

On language, Applebaum may have a point. The “moderate” label is disappearing. But there’s another point to be made on language here: while Stewart has called his rally the “Million Moderate March,” no one has delusions that this event will be a gathering of centrists, or was intended to be, and no one reporting on the matter has referred to its attendees as “moderates.” This is a liberal event, organized by liberals, attended by liberals, and as Applebaum points out, bussed in by liberals. And, also, it’s a comedy production.

It’s a liberal circus—and frankly looks like fun—and as such is about as likely to cloud anyone’s idea of the term “moderate” as Glenn Beck’s rally was to change anyone’s view of the word “honor.” Both are deliberate misnomers. Using the Stewart rally as a point of liftoff for her column, which in the end feels unrelated to anything much at all, makes it feel not only disjointed from a writer’s standpoint, but out of touch.

It’s worth noting too that Applebaum doesn’t really define what a moderate actually is—something you should probably do if you’re going to fret over it’s redefinition or elimination as a word altogether. Instead, we learn that Michael Bloomberg is an example of a centrist, because, well, he says he is, and supports those who fit his definition.

It’s a forced and pretty confused triple pike in all, but does give the columnist a topical lede and this heavy-handed kicker.

Which is why this Jon Stewart rally is such a gloomy development. I’m sure his Million Moderate March, if it happens, will be amusing, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun by calling it “tragic.” But if that’s the best the center can do, then “blackly humorous” wouldn’t be that far off.

For a good roundup of similar arguments from those worrying about the rally, see this post at TBD from Ryan Kearney.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.