Now more than ever, we need a radical center

The bipartisan failures I wrote about more than a decade ago are more apparent than ever

Published April 20, 2010 1:01PM (EDT)

Can the center in politics ever be radical? One answer was provided in "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics," a book that Ted Halstead and I published in the fall of 2001. In an insightful essay in the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the review, notes the increasing use of the term "radical center" in politics and journalism and argues that, at least in its analysis of American politics, our book was ahead of its time.

As Tanenhaus notes, the phrase "radical center" was originally used by the sociologist Donald Warren in the 1970s to describe swing voters who combined center-left economic views with center-right opinions on civil rights, illegal immigration and identity politics (though not necessarily on abortion or other issues more associated with the Protestant religious right). Thanks to the defection of these voters, the Democrats lost their domination of the presidency in 1968 and of Congress in 1994. But the Republicans were never able to consolidate their power, mainly because their small-government, free-market economics and their hostility to Social Security and Medicare were not shared by radical centrist voters.

To make things even more complicated, as journalists such as John Judis pointed out back in the 1990s, America's loose but real class system produces not one but two centers: the radical center, which is based in the white working class and lower middle class; and the "mushy middle" (or the "sensible center" or "moderate middle), which is based in the corporate world, the corporate media and in many think tanks in Washington. While the socially downscale radical center is center-left in economics and center-right in cultural matters (in favor of lowering the Medicare retirement age, against race-based affirmative action), the socially upscale mushy middle is center-right in economics and center-left in culture (in favor of cutting Social Security and Medicare and also for promoting ethnic diversity in an elite that is homogeneous in class and worldview).

The mushy middle represents the class interests of the college-educated professional/managerial overclass, a group that makes up at most 10 or 20 percent of the U.S. population. That 10 or 20 percent, however, accounts for nearly 100 percent of the personnel in corporate management, news media and the universities. As a result, the only "center" that is ever represented in mainstream political discourse is the mushy middle, whose spokesmen include David Gergen and David Broder. Deprived of credentialed advocates in positions of power and influence, radical centrist voters are forced to find their tribunes among anti-system politicians or journalists, like Ross Perot and Lou Dobbs, whose theatrical styles and appeals to (sometimes justified) resentments allow the establishment spokesmen of the mushy middle to dismiss them as primitive Neanderthals and pitchfork-wielding populists.

With his policy of triangulation, Bill Clinton symbolized the "mushy middle" of identity politics -- "Mend it, don’t end it" for race-based affirmative action coupled with the fiscal conservatism of "The era of big government is over.” To counter the mushy middle, "The Radical Center" in 2001 proposed a neo-New Deal combination of economic egalitarianism, color-blind civil rights, opposition to wage-lowering, union-weakening unskilled immigration, and enthusiasm for innovation-driven economic growth. To provide a sophisticated, non-demagogic articulation of the views of vast numbers of non-elite voters was the purpose both of "The Radical Center" and of the New America Foundation, the Washington think tank that Ted Halstead and I founded in 1998 along with two veterans of the center-left World Policy Institute, Sherle Schwenninger and Walter Russell Mead. Its name inspired by my 1995 book "The Next American Nation," the New America Foundation was influenced by red-state progressivism and populism, inasmuch as four of the five principal founders (after Steve Clemons joined us) hailed from the South or West -- Schwenninger (Nebraska), Mead (South Carolina), Clemons (Oklahoma), and Lind (Texas). (Halstead had grown up in an American family living in Europe.)

Many of the economic proposals in "The Radical Center" were well to the left of center, by today’s standards as well as those of 2001. For example, we called for a “citizen-based social contract,” in which employer-based benefits would be replaced by portable, individual benefits. Recognizing that single-payer healthcare was politically impossible in the foreseeable future, we favored an individual mandate system because the two other alternatives -- pay-or-play and an employer mandate -- would have entrenched employer-based healthcare more deeply.

Even more controversial were our proposals for federal equalization of K-12 school funding, and the replacement of all state sales taxes by the sharing of revenues raised by a federal progressive consumption tax. Today I think that a federal value-added tax made progressive by a rebate would achieve the same result more effectively. True, we combined equalization of school funding nationwide with support for school choice, of the kind that wealthy liberals who oppose school choice for less-affluent Americans like the Obamas, Clintons and Kennedys have always enjoyed. And we favored reducing the corporate income tax in order to encourage investment in the U.S. To speak only for myself, I concede that in hindsight it was folly for us to favor partial privatization of Social Security, at the beginning of a decade that saw two stock market crashes and the worst recession since the 1930s. However, we did so for the egalitarian reason that private accounts might help reduce inequality in financial assets.

In spite of these nods to the right, our economic program represented an implicit repudiation of the center-right neoliberalism symbolized by Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Our goal, we declared, was not to repeal the New Deal but to adapt it to the circumstances of the 21st century.

Why, then, didn’t we call ourselves liberals or progressives? When we were writing the book, the phrase "liberalism" was identified with hard-edged multiculturalism and post-national leftism. As hard as it is to believe after the 2008 campaign, in which Barack Obama surrounded himself with flags, a decade ago some liberals complained that the New America Foundation sounded right-wing because it had "America" in its title, as though liberalism and patriotism were inherently opposed. At the same time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the archaic early-20th-century term "progressive" was being revived by New Democrats like those of the Progressive Policy Institute. These center-right "progressives" sought to replace the patron saints of activist national government, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, with the more remote and less controversial Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis.

In addition, our politically incorrect views on race and immigration set us apart from the multicultural liberalism of 2001. In our chapter "Unity and Community in the Twenty-first Century," Halstead and I rejected identity politics and ethno-racial Balkanization, in favor of an optimistic, inclusive vision of an American melting pot that blends races as well as white ethnic groups. In the tradition of liberal integrationists like Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington, we called for a return to the original colorblind vision of the civil rights movement: "The legitimate goals of affirmative action, like increasing the presence of blacks and Latinos in higher education, the professions, and politics, can and should be pursued -- but by race-neutral methods." Inspired by the recommendations of the late Barbara Jordan’s immigration reform commission, which presented its findings in 1997, we called for measures against illegal immigration and a shift away from unskilled and toward skilled immigration: "An immigration policy geared to Information Age America would favor skilled immigrants over unskilled immigrants."

Our optimistic vision of an emerging post-racial America distinguished our synthesis of economic liberalism and moderate social conservatism from the sullen, nostalgic, exclusionary populism of the right. So did our celebration of innovation-driven technological and economic change. Ever since the 1980s, when early neoliberals like Gary Hart were known as "Atari Democrats" after a then-fashionable Japanese video game system, the center-right New Democrats had championed science and technological progress. But with a few exceptions, like Robert D. Atkinson, the neoliberal agenda of deregulation, trade liberalization and hostility to entitlements had less to do with the needs of Silicon Valley than with the interests of Robert Rubin’s Wall Street. In contrast, many of the founders and early officers of New America had been on the pro-manufacturing side of the industrial policy debate in the early 1990s.

Was "The Radical Center" correct about the subject of its subtitle, the future of American politics? Nearly a decade after the book’s publication, the gap between majority values and the positions of the two parties remains more or less the same. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Americans opposed reducing the deficit by cutting Social Security and Medicare by a margin of 3-to-1, and 60 percent favored higher taxes on those making $250,000 a year. While other polls show that majorities favor help for the disadvantaged on a race-neutral basis, a Pew poll in 2009 found that 65 percent of all Americans, and 88 percent of white Americans, reject "preferential treatment" to help "blacks and other minorities." According to a recent Zogby poll, 63 percent of union households believe that immigration is too high and only 5 percent believe it's too low. To be sure, the majorities on these issues do not necessarily overlap completely. But it surely says something about the unrepresentative nature of our political system that Americans who hold all of these majority views cannot find them represented even in one faction of either of the two national parties in 2010, any more than in 2001.

"Obama Defies Critics by Holding to the Radical Center," reads the headline of a column by Albert Hunt. On the contrary, to date President Obama has been the soft-spoken tribune of the mushy middle. The Obama administration shares Bill Clinton’s combination of moderate economic conservatism and muted identity politics -- rejecting progressive proposals for nationalizing failed investment banks and watering down tough Wall Street reforms, and supporting race-based university admissions. The Clinton-Obama synthesis represents the preferences of the affluent metropolitan elite, not the values of the suburban working-class majority.

Although it contained much that was valuable, the recently enacted Democratic healthcare reform law was a setback for the "citizen-based social contract" that Halstead and I called for in "The Radical Center." Inferior as it was to a hypothetical single-payer system, our proposed approach to universal healthcare coverage would have completely replaced employer-based coverage and abolished the tax credit for employer-based health insurance. While it shares an individual mandate with our proposal, the new healthcare law extends and entrenches our dysfunctional system of employer-based coverage by penalizing large companies that do not purchase health insurance for their employees.

In spite of the lack of a radical centrist wing of one of the two national parties, America is still a democracy, however flawed, and politicians respond, however reluctantly, to the voters. To the distress of economic conservatives and social liberals, in the decade since we wrote "The Radical Center," popular pressure has moved the center of gravity of American politics to the left in economics and to the right in the politics of identity. During the Bush years, Congress passed the Medicare drug benefit, which, for all its flaws, was the greatest expansion of the Medicare system since its origin. And public opinion ensured that Bush's plan for partial privatization of Social Security died without serious consideration in a Republican-majority Congress. Anger on Main Street is forcing Wall Street-funded Democrats to take a tougher line on financial reform than many no doubt would prefer. Meanwhile, voter initiatives and judicial rulings have rolled back the more divisive forms of race-based affirmative action. Today progressive politicians who support earned citizenship for most illegal immigrants, a policy that I favor, are compelled to acknowledge the need for effective immigration law enforcement. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a leader of immigration reform efforts in the U.S. Senate, uses the term "illegal immigrant" instead of the politically correct euphemism "undocumented worker," and President Obama has said: "We are a nation of laws and we are a nation of immigrants."

Our ideas about tax reform, too, proved to be well ahead of the curve. In 2001, we baffled liberals and conservatives alike with our call for cutting the corporate income tax and adopting a national consumption tax. A decade later, the idea of using a value-added tax to address the deficit and lower corporate tax rates has moved to the center of public debate.

Clearly someone has been reading us. In his New York Times column of March 23, 2010, without mentioning our book, Thomas Friedman called for a "tea party of the radical center." Many of Friedman's purportedly bold new radical center proposals -- from increasing federal funding to K-12 and admitting more skilled immigrants to nonpartisan redistricting and alternative voting -- are borrowed without acknowledgment from "The Radical Center." Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

It remains to be seen whether the new enthusiasm for the phrase on the part of arbiters of the conventional wisdom like Friedman is more than an attempt to rebrand the mushy middle as the radical center. But under whatever name, what Ted Halstead and I described as the radical center a decade ago is needed now more than ever.

Michael Lind is policy director of the economic growth program at the New America Foundation and co-author of "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics."

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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