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Issue No. 58 (October 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Five books that
I can still remember the excitement I felt in the early Sixties as book after book came out giving shape and tone to the emerging New Left worldview.
When I devoured books like Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1960), Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), it wasn’t just a secret pleasure -- though in Moorhead, Minn. it was that. Those books gave me a fresh view of the world and its needs and subtly (or not-so-subtly) suggested exciting roles I could play in it.
Same was true for conservatives in the late Seventies. A big, breaking wave of texts, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s riveting commencement address at Harvard University (“A World Split Apart,” 1978), Irving Kristol’s magazine and journal articles (later collected in Reflections of a Neoconservative, 1983), and Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works (1978), gave shape to a dynamic New Right worldview that’s with us to this day.
Today we’re seeing a third wave of books signaling the coming of a third great political worldview.
Over the last year, dozens of books have been published from an explicitly or implicitly “radical middle” point of view. And at least five of those -- all from major publishers -- have been “big think” books, books setting forth the value bases and policy contours of a coherent radical middle politics.
Each has its special terminology. But there’s no question we have an extended family here:
-- Matthew Miller’s The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love (PublicAffairs / Perseus, Sept. 2003) locates itself in the “new center” as distinct from the “new left”;
-- Ronn Owens’s Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Wrong (John Wiley, Jan. 2004) speaks up for the “rational middle,” a term I adore;
-- John Avlon’s Independent Nation: How the Vital Center Is Changing American Politics (Harmony / Random House, Feb. 2004) refers again and again to capital-C “Centrism,” but the term I like best here (and that may best express what Avlon is getting at here) is one he picks up from former Senator Ed Brooke (R-MA): “creative moderate”;
-- In Ted Halstead’s anthology The Real State of the Union: From the Best Minds in America, Bold Solutions to the Problems Politicians Dare Not Address (Basic / Perseus, Mar. 2004), Halstead summarizes the book’s politics thusly: “If there is a discernable ideological bent to [these solutions], its name is the radical center.” (Halstead’s earlier book, The Radical Center (2001), co-authored with Michael Lind and reviewed by M.S. in a political science journal, consistently referred to the capital-RC “Radical Center.")
-- Finally there’s my own book, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (Westview / Perseus, Mar. 2004), which never lets go of the term “radical middle.”
While we’re at it, let’s give props to the first of the full-blown radical middle books, British social scientist Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way (1998), and its better-argued sequel, The Third Way and Its Critics (2000). Both books use the term “radical centre” interchangeably with “third way,” and the latter book also makes use of the term “active middle,” a term calculated to delight any radical middle activist.
We are (extended) family
When I referred to these books as an “extended family,” I was referring to a lot more than terminology.
Each book pitches itself in a very similar way. Miller argues that liberals and conservatives need each other. Owens strives to be the voice of sweet reasonableness. Avlon advocates a “commonsense path that acknowledges the inevitability of change while never straying far from fundamental American values.” The Halstead anthology seeks to be “simultaneously bold and practical.” And I try to speak for all those Americans who are practical and visionary, sensible and creative, etc.
Behind these similar pitches (public faces), the bios of the authors are surprisingly diverse . . . just as you’d find in any real extended family.
There are three generations here. Owens and I are the oldest (gulp), being early Baby Boomers. Miller is a Tweener, b. 1961. And Avlon and Halstead are Gen-Xers, currently in their early 30s and mid-30s, respectively -- and the Halstead anthology includes authors in their 20s.
Our backgrounds are just as disparate. Miller was a policy analyst in the Clinton White House and now writes and broadcasts out of L.A. Owens is a long-time talk radio host in the San Francisco Bay area -- and has become so popular that his show outdraws Rush Limbaugh’s.
Avlon wrote speeches for Mayor Giuliani and now heads a New York speechwriting firm for politicians and executives. Halstead is president of the hottest think tank in Washington DC, the New America Foundation. And I come out of an activist and alternative-culture background.
Our intended audiences reflect our varied backgrounds. Owens is writing for Everyman; nothing in his book would be lost on a 12-year-old. The Miller and Halstead books would appeal to anyone who cares about detailed public policy. Avlon is writing for anyone who cares about electoral politics or American history, and my book is targeted to once and future political activists.
God knows what would happen if we were ever all put in the same room together. At least at first, it would probably be as awkward as your typical extended family gathering.
And yet, the similarities overwhelm the differences. Take the values each of us espouses.
The very fact that each us of expresses a coherent set of values -- and roots our policy proposals in them -- sets our work apart from the timid, incremental, mushy-middle offerings of most books on politics today.
Giddens led the way here. In The Third Way and Its Critics, he proposed six “fundamentals.” Among them: we need a “new social contract, based on the theorem ‘no rights without responsibilities.’” No radical middle writer would dissent from that view.
Owens suggests the simplest values: we should strive to be “liberal-to-libertarian” on social issues, but “far more conservative” on economic issues and foreign affairs.
Miller wants us to craft public policies as if we didn’t know whether we were personally rich or poor. If we all began from that position of uncertainty, he says, we’d all support three imperatives -- equal chances of education for all, equal economic opportunity for all, and a guaranteed minimum standard of living. But he’d stop way short of guaranteeing equality of outcomes.
Avlon’s values are basically the same. He wants us to evenly balance “opportunity” and “responsibility,” and -- so long as that’s actually done -- not obsess about equality of outcomes.
You can count my political values on the fingers of one hand. I’d have us maximize choices for every American as much as possible; guarantee a fair start in life to every American; maximize every American’s human potential as much as possible; and be of genuine help to everyone in the developing world.
Halstead’s values are slightly different, in fascinating ways. He’d emphasize “flexibility” and “fairness” (in his 2001 book, he did not emphasize fairness, but did emphasize implementing a “true safety net”). He does not emphasize maximizing human potential, and neither does any other radical middle author but me -- perhaps because I’m the only one to have had positive experiences in the human potential movement (Owens, the Bay Area talk show host, goes so far as to mock that movement).
Halstead’s anthology doesn’t emphasize being of use to developing nations in general so much as it emphasizes being of use to the middle class in developing nations -- possibly because Halstead the think-tank president wants to make foreign assistance seem as hard-headed as possible.
(Slightly) different "middles"
Although all five books seek to speak for a “middle” or “center,” each defines that slightly differently.
Halstead’s 2001 book targeted “alienated voters,” “enlightened business leaders,” and “young adults,” and the anthology includes a provocative essay delineating three types of alienated voter -- populists, liberals, and social conservatives. Their anger is a lot less corrosive than cynicism, the essay concludes.
Miller distinguishes among three types of Americans: certain Democrats characterized by timidity and confusion, certain Republicans characterized by indifference, and the rest of us, admirably perceptive and balanced and willing to make pragmatic trade-offs.
I have three somewhat similar categories -- self-sacrificing individuals, self-aggrandizing individuals, and caring persons (especially but not exclusively knowledge workers and members of the “creative class”).
Avlon asserts that about 50% of us (p. 1) -- or maybe 66% of us (p. 14) -- make up a moderate majority. Owens puts the figure at 60% and calls us a “majority without a voice.” We’re not simplistic, he says, we look at each issue on its merits, we try to listen not just bloviate, and we’re actually willing to change our minds in response to new facts or good arguments.
Each book sees the current era as a dramatically new moment in American history calling for fresh and innovative solutions to public problems. But each book tells a different story about how we got there.
Giddens, of course, created the template for this when he described how British social democracy -- for all its admirable qualities -- had evolved into a “dull conformity” by the 1990s.
The Halstead anthology says we’ve written three “social contracts” over the course of U.S. history -- the founding contract; the post-Civil-War contract; and the New Deal / Great Society contract, designed to build a “mass middle class society.” Now we need to write a fourth social contract for the “post-industrial age.”
Miller argues that, over the last 20 years, the liberal vision and the conservative vision have taken us about as far as they can go. What we need now is a “fully funded Third Way, a set of well-funded policies that harness market forces for public purposes.”
Owens says we’ve lived through four disconcerting “watershed events” since 1960 -- the downing of the U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union (when we first learned the government would lie to us), Vietnam, Watergate, and the coming of the Internet (which helped make political extremists respectable). Now, though, with 9/11, we’ve learned to appreciate our nation’s significance and potential for good in the world and we’ve begun to recognize our need to heal our differences as a people.
I detect the rise of “radical middle” political activity twice in American history -- once during the late 18th century (Ben Franklin et al.), and once during the late 20th century, when neoliberals, neopopulists, neoconservatives, and transformationalists each began espousing parts of the truth we’d need to address 21st century issues.
Avlon takes an even more expressly historical approach. Most of his book dwells on “acts of courage and integrity” by creative-centrist elected officials over the last 100 years, from Teddy Roosevelt to Margaret Chase Smith to Rudy Giuliani (Avlon’s former employer). Ostensibly Avlon’s book is an attempt to record the centrist political tradition; really it’s an attempt to create one.
All five books devote the bulk of their pages to discussing or suggesting public policies. What’s striking is that -- without any collaboration so far as I can tell -- there’s a near-consensus on so many public policy positions. It’s the best evidence to date that the radical middle is a genuinely new and coherent political perspective.
Take national health care. Halstead, Miller and Satin would all extend coverage to every American -- not by having the government take control of the health care system, but by requiring all Americans to purchase private health insurance . . . and subsidizing those of us who couldn’t afford coverage.
The books are hardly carbon copies of one another. Miller would have the government create “insurance pools” so individuals could purchase insurance at lower rates. The Halstead anthology includes a great chapter on how to cut unnecessary medical care (now said to cost $400 billion a year). True to type, Satin concentrates on building preventive and alternative care into the system.
But, obviously, these aren’t disagreements so much as differences of emphasis -- and perfectly complementary ones, at that.
In education, Halstead, Miller, and Satin all agree that improving teacher quality is key, and suggest multiple means for achieving that difficult goal -- including counteracting the influence of the teachers’ unions. In addition, Halstead and Miller propose realistic (i.e., fully-funded) voucher programs, and Halstead and Satin propose federalizing and equalizing K-12 education expenditures across the U.S.
On race, Avlon, Halstead, Owens, and Satin all speak out against identity politics and the policies that bolster them (Miller doesn’t address the issue).
Avlon resurrects the bittersweet career of the nearly forgotten Senator Ed Brooke (R-MA), who claimed to be an American first and a black man second. An essay in the Halstead anthology celebrates our coming “mestizo” identity, and I call for economic class-based affirmative action and the “rise of a new American persona -- neither ‘white’ nor ‘minority’ -- with a new, blended consciousness (and skin tone).”
Halstead (ed.), Miller, Owens, and Satin are all deeply committed to promoting economic equity, though each studiously avoids making use of the hectoring, guilt-inducing rhetoric of the traditional left.
Halstead (ed.) calls for a guaranteed income -- based on income from public assets like sale or lease of the airwaves -- OR stakeholder accounts (e.g., $6,000 goes into an interest-bearing bank account for every child at birth . . . and could be drawn upon at age 18 for constructive purposes only). Miller calls for targeted tax credits that would induce employers to provide jobs for every able-bodied American. I call for stakeholder accounts and employer tax credits. Owens calls for providing a “minimum level of subsistence” to all.
Foreign policy horizon
Only a few of these books deal with foreign policy in any depth. But you can detect an emerging consensus here too -- on an approach that’s at once realistic and idealistic.
Owens gets at the realist part when he urges us to adopt a national ID card making use of our thumbprints. “[L]et’s be real,” he says. Between identity theft and terrorism, normal, innocent America is gone for good.
Avlon gets at the appropriate balance when he reminds us that JFK sought -- so hard -- to find a place beyond “appeasement or war.”
In the Halstead anthology, one essay calls for a “balanced trade policy.” Another calls for a “standing U.S. government office to manage nation building.” Another reminds us that democracy in the Middle East can only come “with an Islamic face.”
The most provocative essay calls on us to extend massive amounts of credit to consumers in developing countries (would build up an international middle class and simultaneously create markets for us).
Most of these ideas and approaches are echoed in my book.
What is to be done?
Put these books together and you’ll discern a coherent political strategy.
First and foremost, get informed! Miller implores his readers to get informed (and berates the press for doing such a poor job of informing us). Owens movingly tells why he’s devoted his life to trying to foster “lively, thoughtful, animated, and intelligent” radio conversation. I go so far as to urge all readers to attend graduate or professional school.
Next, get involved in social change projects at work, in your communities, or in national or professional organizations. This goes all the way back to Giddens and his celebration of the new-style small groups, movements, national organizations, and international non-governmental organizations of our time.
Then, accept that we need skilled political leaders, not just an informed and engaged populace. Miller is especially compelling here: radical centrism “won’t be an issue like civil rights or Vietnam, where an agenda bubbled up urgently from the grassroots. We’ll need leadership to inspire followership here.”
Finally, last but not least, get involved in traditional electoral political work. The radical middle is not about revolution, it’s about changing the real world for the better.
That’s why each of these books highlights campaign or electoral reforms.
That’s why the Halstead anthology emphasizes that both major parties are empty shells . . . “mere vessels” . . . and ripe for reinvention.
That’s why Avlon tells how three independent governors of the 1990s managed to use public office to foster social change.
And that’s why I urge my readers to think about running for office.
A new worldview
Each of these books is original, self-contained, and endlessly provocative. (Unusually well-written, too, if you don’t mind my saying so.) Each deserves to be read and pondered by all caring Americans.
But put them together and they’re more than the sum of their parts.
It is only a matter of time before some incipient movement, such as the one featured on page one of this newsletter, uses them to create a coherent political platform.
Beyond that, their take on the world is the same. Apart from differences of pitch and tempo you’d find in any extended family, the music is the same.
You can be sure that, right now, thousands of young people in places like Moorhead, Minn. are poring over these books and thinking, This is a fresh view of the world that speaks to my needs and dreams. This is a way of looking at the world that suggests exciting roles for me. . . .
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