The Strategic Value of Being a Punching Bag

Over at the Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper is annoyed at the tendency of moderate drug policy reformers to spend time attacking hardcore reformers to their left who want to see full legalization of illicit drugs. In particular, he singles out some of the academics who blog at Reality Based Community:

These guys have done a lot of great work….But they have a rather foolish tendency to attack the “legalizer” community, efforts which are not only misguided, but self-defeating….The “legalizers,” which are few and powerless, aren’t just a pointless waste of ink and oxygen, they’re actually helping the RBC case by making them seem like the sensible moderates. Kleiman and company should welcome these folks as holding down the flank of the debate, and focus their attacks on Joe Arpiao and the DEA.

This is a common argument from folks on the extreme left:1 without them, they argue, centrists wouldn’t look like centrists. It’s only the existence of a loud, firebrand flank that makes moderate lefties seem sensible and attractive to the vast mass of non-radical voters. Purely as a strategic necessity, then, moderates should welcome their comrades on the left.

I don’t really know if this holds water or not. But suppose it does. Doesn’t it imply that centrists have to attack the far lefties? If this is all a bit of play acting, with the far lefties playing the role of scary revolutionary, part of that role is to be attacked. That’s what gives centrists their centrist cred.

And yet, whenever this happens, the left flank yells about it. There’s nothing wrong with that on its own, but you can’t do it if you’re also making a strategic argument about your value to the center. That is, you can’t (a) claim that you play a strategic role as a punching bag and (b) complain when you get punched. They go together, don’t they?

1I assume the same thing happens on the right. I’m using the left as an example here because I’m more familiar with it.