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Issue No. 104 (February 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Are the best conservative thinkers becoming radical middle?

Over the last three years, major conservative thinkers and activists have been turning away from small-government conservatism, and teasing out a new philosophy.

It doesn't have a name yet -- "strong government" conservatism, "progressive" conservatism, "Sam's Club" conservatism, and "liberaltarianism" have all been offered (see below).  But the important point is that it's not a move in the direction of some mushy compromise with big-government liberalism.  It is a move toward something genuinely new.

It is a move in the direction of governing far more creatively and far more efficiently than we do at present.

It is a move in the direction of what some are calling the radical middle.

Refugees from the left

Until now, most “radical middle” thinkers and activists have come from the liberal side of the political spectrum. For example,

  • James Fallows, chair of the New America Foundation, was a speechwriter for President Carter;
  • Karen Kornbluh, founder of the Work and Family Program at the New America Foundation, had served in the Clinton Administration;
  • Michael Lind, co-author of The Radical Center, had been an editor at Harper’s and author of Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America;
  • John D. Marks, founder and President of Search for Common Ground, had authored two popular and devastating critiques of the CIA;
  • Matthew Miller, author of The Two Percent Solution, had worked in the Clinton White House;
  • before writing my book Radical Middle, I’d been a Green activist and co-editor of the U.S. Green Party’s “Ten Key Values” founding statement.

But there's no reason why the radical middle shouldn't be as attractive to creative disillusioned-conservatives as it is to creative disillusioned-liberals.  All “radical middle” means is taking the best ideas from left, right, center, and off-the-spectrum-entirely, and using them to address our fundamental problems in imaginative but pragmatic new ways.

Both sides now

Now -- with distance -- we can see why the left moved first.

By the mid-1990s, the Democrats’ big-government perspective had played itself out, and some liberals sought to expand and deepen their vision. The “radical middle” was born (see HERE).

Today, that process is repeating itself -- on the political right.

For many conservatives, the Republicans’ small-government perspective has played itself out. And the George W. Bush agenda provides no coherent (let alone principled or appealing) alternative.

By the mid-2000s, many conservatives began trying to expand and deepen their vision, and the best of them sound suspiciously radical middle.

Deviant books, groups, and articles

In the last year alone, this newsletter has reviewed three books by conservatives that borrow extensively (and explicitly, and happily) from non-conservative traditions and insights: Charles Murray’s In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, John Hulsman’s Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (with Anatol Lieven), and John McWhorter’s Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.

We’ve also covered the work of two radical middle start-up organizations whose boards include significant conservatives, Reuniting America and Unity08.

The most telling evidence of a move by some conservatives toward the radical middle, though, is a series of articles that’s been appearing in major mainstream or conservative periodicals over the last three years. It is truly a series: the articles often refer to one another indirectly (or even directly) and they clearly build on one another.

“Strong-government” conservatism?

It began with Daniel Casse’s elegant article “Is Bush a Conservative?” in Commentary Magazine (February 2004). That magazine is a traditional launching-place for “big” conservative ideas, and Casse is the right author for the job -- senior director of the White House Writers’ Group, former Republican Presidential speechwriters helping political or corporate clients craft their messages.

Casse’s major insight is that conservatives are (or should be) no longer interested in small government per se: “With the country at war and all of us highly dependent for our security on government intelligence, law enforcement, and even health-care monitoring, the blanket distrust of government . . . is an odd conservative rallying-cry.”

Casse wants conservatives to favor not “big government” but “strong government.” His reasoning reverberates among all the other articles below:

Strong government need not be intrusive government, or even all that large. Indeed, the central error of liberalism over the past two decades has been to make government both large and weak -- that is, ineffectual and unworthy of public respect. By contrast, a primary goal of conservative governance ought to be to restore to government the power to defend the nation’s interests while providing citizens with the services they want in the most efficient manner possible. Liberalism has failed at that task, and economic libertarianism has little or no interest in it.

“Progressive” conservatism?

David Brooks is one of the most popular conservative political columnists today (and author of Bobos in Paradise, reviewed by us HERE). In “How To Reinvent the G.O.P.,” a featured article in the New York Times Magazine (August 29, 2004), he seconds Casse’s vision of “strong” government (“this sort of conservatism measures its success not by how big or small government is but by the habits it encourages in its citizens”).

In addition, he suggests that Casse’s vision fits beautifully into a now-dormant “third tradition” in American political life running from Alexander Hamilton to Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt. (Aficionados of radical middle literature will be reminded of Michael Lind’s wonderful revisionist anthology Hamilton’s Republic (1997) as well as John Avlon’s paeans to Lincoln and TR in Independent Nation (2004).)

Most important, Brooks argues that this third tradition -- he dubs its the “progressive conservative” tradition -- needs to be resurrected for our time. And he doesn’t just stop with abstractions (promote social mobility, etc.), he outlines a whole new platform for getting us there. These planks can give you the flavor:

  • multilateral “nation-building apparatus”
  • reduce entitlements benefits for upper-income people
  • early-childhood intervention programs
  • wage subsidies for families
  • base teacher pay primarily on performance
  • “rake out the tens of billions of dollars of corporate subsidies. They can be reduced only all at once, in a great sweep that overwhelms the parochial lobbying campaigns that groups will mount on behalf of each one”
  • much simplified tax code with flatter rates and far fewer credits, deductions, phaseouts, etc.
  • spend serious money on a wide variety of innovative energy technologies, from hydrogen to nuclear
  • make national service a “rite of passage for [all] young Americans”

Nearly all these proposals can be found in my book Radical Middle (2004), and many of them can be found in most of the other “big-picture” radical-middle books that have been published over the last six years (see, e.g., HERE).

Pro-family and pro-working class?

Although Ramesh Ponnuru is only 32, he’s been a prominent conservative pundit and senior editor at National Review for many years. In “Ladies and Gentlemen, a Tax Reform” (National Review, November 7, 2005), he demonstrates that Brooks’s ambitious new proposals are no fluke. He outlines a 10-point tax reform plan that’s not only “pro-family” but dramatically pro-working class.

The principal pro-family feature is the vastly enlarged child credit ($2,500 per child). The principal pro-working-class feature is so surprising that I’ll give it to you in Ponnuru’s own words:

Fold the personal exemption and most of the itemized deductions into a much larger deduction of $15,000 per adult. [Thus] the basic cost of living would not be taxed.

“Some conservatives will say this plan is too progressive,” Ponnuru explains. “They’ll say that it leaves too many people paying no taxes at all, and that these people will have no incentive to vote against big government. I used to share this concern myself. I don’t anymore.”

The “party of Sam’s Club”?

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam write with such authority that you’d never guess they’re both in their mid-20s (see HERE for a delightful article about a party at their three-bedroom rowhouse in a less than glamorous part of Washington DC). In “The Party of Sam’s Club” (Weekly Standard, November 14, 2005), they (correctly) define the Republican Party as an “increasingly working-class party” and (exasperatedly) urge it to do “something for their voters," something helpful and real:

Serving the interests of these voters [would mean] talking about economic security as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can’t have an “ownership society” in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own.

The bulk of their article consists of policy proposals offered as “a starting place for a discussion that the Republican Party desperately needs to have.” Like David Brooks’s proposals above, many of them could have been taken straight from the radical-middle playbook:

  • very generous baby bonus
  • subsidies to parents who provide child-care in the home; or, alternately, tuition credits for years spent raising children (“modeled on veterans’ benefits . . . . Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country’s long-term survival”)
  • “market-oriented” health care coverage that’s mandatory but affordable for all
  • wage subsidies for low-paid workers
  • “earned legalization” program for immigrants coupled with increased spending for border control and serious sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers
  • consider removing “all families earning less than $100,000 from the tax rolls” (take that, Ramesh Ponnuru!)
  • consider imposing a single tax rate of 25% on all earnings over some high threshold
  • consider imposing a consumption tax
  • eliminate the home mortgage deduction for everyone but low-income couples and families with children

The authors end their article by proposing what they call the “And Theory” of conservatism. “Many of our political choices are really false choices,” they explain, and “core conservative principles can go hand-in-hand with imaginative solutions to the nation’s problems. So [we] should be in favor of helping recent immigrants get ahead and slowing the flow of illegal labor -- in favor of providing a helping hand to the hard-working poor and cutting subsidies to the idle and shiftless -- in favor of a tax policy that favors the working class and the productive rich.”

Did Anthony Giddens (The Third Way, 1998) or Ted Halstead and Michael Lind (The Radical Center, 2001) or any other radical-middle author ever say it better?

A “tendency” within both parties?

David Frum, 46-year-old former George W. Bush speechwriter and major conservative theorist (Dead Right, 1994), not to mention celebrant and cultural historian of the 1970s (How We Got Here, 2000), is less reconciled than the other writers here to the death of small-government conservatism.

In “Republicans and the Flight of Opportunity” (Cato Unbound, May 1, 2006), he places a big part of the blame on Tom DeLay’s so-called K Street Project, which ended up “subordinating the Republican Party to the wishes of the business lobbying community.”

He hopes small-government conservative ideals will live on as “a tendency within both parties rather than as a compact and self-conscious movement in control of one of them,” just as Progressive ideals did in the 1910s and 1920s.

That would enable conservative ideals to play a tempering role in American politics generally -- much as they do in the Brooks, Ponnuru, and Douthat / Salam agendas above.

Liberal / libertarian alliance?

Brink Lindsey is Vice President for Research at the Cato Institute, Washington DC’s prominent libertarian think tank, and he’s fed up with the traditional conservative / libertarian alliance.

In his widely discussed article “Liberaltarians” (New Republic Online, December 4, 2006), he argues that contemporary conservatism has become “squalid and corrupt, a Nixonian melange of pandering to populist prejudices and distributing patronage to well-off cronies and Red Team constituencies.” He also argues that a liberal / libertarian alliance might make a lot more sense today:

Many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of [our] era -- the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion . . . -- were championed by the political left. . . . Liberals and libertarians already share considerable common ground, if they could just see past their differences to recognize it. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia. . . . Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. . . . The central challenge in cementing a new fusionist alliance . . . .is to elaborate a [common] vision of economic policy. . . .

To persuade readers that a liberal / libertarian alliance is possible, Lindsey offers a raft of “fusionist” economic-policy suggestions. Among them:

  • reduce or eliminate farm subsidies
  • zero-subsidy energy policy
  • “shift taxes away from things we want more of and onto things we want less of”
  • tax the rich “when they’re splurging,” e.g. by capping the deductibility of home mortgage interest
  • tax everybody’s energy consumption
  • supplement the incomes of the unemployed and the working poor
  • fund public health care not for all people, but for “the poor and those faced with catastrophic expenses”
  • fund public pensions not for all elderly people, but for the indigent elderly

Of course, anyone who’s been reading this newsletter regularly has encountered similar suggestions time and again -- from “radical middle” writers and activists.

Grand synthesis needed ASAP

One reason radical-middle ideas haven’t galvanized this country -- yet -- is that they’ve come largely from disillusioned thinkers and activists on the left.

I believe that the articles above demonstrate not only that there’s a new opening to radical-middle ideas on the part of key conservatives, but that conservatives have unique and vital contributions to make to the emerging radical-middle agenda and worldview.

Let us hope that conservatives, liberals, libertarians, Greens, and everyone else that has something useful to add will come up with a grand radical-middle synthesis soon.

Or at least what Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (unknowingly echoing radical-middle author Matt Miller) call a “grand bargain.”

Let us hope that it’s built not on books and articles alone but on what Brink Lindsey calls “engaging one another regularly.”

And let us hope it quickly rises to the level of what David Brooks calls “some new governing philosophy that will . . . transform the partisan divide.”

For if radical-middle thinkers from the left, from the right, and from all other incomplete precincts can agree on anything, it is this: Time is short.



For critiques of some of this material from the point of view of the traditional left, see Kevin Drum, "Liberaltarians," Washington Monthly Online (December 4, 2006), and Ezra Klein, "The Rise of the Republicrats," American Prospect (September 12, 2006).  I consider both critiques to be overly (even laughably) cynical -- classic instances of what novelist Saul Bellow used to deride as hardboiled-dom.


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