Radical Middle Newsletter
Idealism Without Illusions




Site Map

E-mail the Editor


Access All Mark Satin Articles, 2005- 2009

Access All Mark Satin Articles, 1999- 2004

Access John Avlon Archive, 2004-2006

Satin's 10 Best Writings Ever


Book's Home Page

Book's Preface

Author's Publicity Schedule


109th and 110th Congresses (2005-08)

108th Congress (2003 & 2004)

107th Congress (2001 & 2002)


1980 - 2009, Complete


Feisty E-mails to the Editor, 2008 - 2009

Feisty E-mails to the Editor, 2007

Feisty E-mails to the Editor, 2006

Feisty E-mails to the Editor, 2005

Feisty Letters to the Editor, 2002-04

Feisty Letters to the Editor, 1999-2001


About the Editor (In-House Version)

About the Editor (By Marilyn Ferguson)

About Our Wonderful Pledgers

About Our Board of Advisors

About Our Sponsor, the Center for Visionary  Law


Issue No. 91 (June 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Downsize the pollster-consultant
industrial complex!

Why are our election seasons so full of mind-numbing rhetoric and so empty of genuine content?

(The answer is all-important. If our elections can’t be a time for genuine dialogue, then we’ll never be able to come up with healing and holistic solutions to our public problems.)

A raft of books has recently been written on just that question (see RE:SOURCES section below). The most vivid and popular is Joe Klein’s Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid (Doubleday / Random House, 2006).

His short answer: blame it on the "pollster-consultant industrial complex."

Klein knows

Klein knows firsthand what he’s talking about. He’s covered every presidential election since Carter-Ford in 1976, first for the alternative press and Rolling Stone, later for Newsweek and then Time, where he’s a regular columnist today. Each of the eight chapters of Politics Lost weaves into and out of one of those elections.

Klein’s novel Primary Colors (1996), a thinly-disguised look at Bill Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, was one of the best-selling political novels of our time. His book Woody Guthrie: A Biography (1980) shows Klein is more than a one-dimensional politico.

His cover story for Newsweek, “Stalking the Radical Middle” (September 25, 1995), helped popularize the term “radical middle,” and Klein has continued to promote radical middle views, including in Politics Lost, where he memorably states, “I still believe in a place called the radical middle.”

(On p. 88 he says he first heard the term from direct-mail king Roger Craver’s partner Tom Mathews in 1981. That is plausible to me, since I first heard it from Craver in 1983 when he used it to characterize my newsletter New Options.)

Klein’s passion

Klein’s motive for writing Politics Lost came from his gut. “I am fed up,” he writes,

with the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo ops, and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days. I believe that American politics has become overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic, and bland; and I fear that the inanity and ugliness of postmodern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship.

Klein’s “insider” descriptions of our last eight presidential campaigns trace the roots of the problem not to corporate malfeasance or corrupt individuals, but to flaws in the political campaign process.  Among them:

-- the triumph of “spin,” which can be traced back to the 1988 presidential election (with Bush-Dukakis it “became the prevailing language of politics and punditry”);

-- the rise of “independent campaign committees” separate from (and often far nastier than) the candidate’s official campaign committee;

-- a polling industry so ostensibly accurate that for most politicians “polling has replaced thinking and feeling”;

-- the rise of direct-mail fundraising, which greatly augmented the influence of the fundraisers and the consultants, and turned many of the bigger fundraisers into consultants;

-- political consultants so “knowledgeable” and experienced that most politicians cede too many decisions to them;

-- political consultants so famous that they’ve become factors in determining which candidates the political parties send their money to;

-- political consultants so on-the-ground powerful that, e.g., they were able to torpedo, by “passive resistance,” Vice President Gore’s desire to make environmentalism and efficient government his themes in the 2000 election (most of Gore's consultants wanted to wage a more populist campaign, and eventually they got their wish);

-- the triumph of partisanship over dialogue in Washington by the late 1970s. “Partisanship -- the more fervent the better -- became the easiest way to gain the attention of the media and the support of the special interests, and thereby the money necessary to get re-elected. Those who were reluctant to play this game, moderates mostly, either were defeated by better-funded fanatics or saw the handwriting on the wall and left Congress voluntarily.”

Stalking Klein’s recommendations

Klein doesn’t just explain why our politics is largely empty-rhetoric-rich and content-free; he tells us what to do about it.

Oh, he’s coy about that. Toward the end of the book he says he doesn’t want to tell us what to do: “Sorry. Not this time, not this book. I find most of the worthy suggestions packed into the last chapters of political books to be insufferably boring. . . .”

Don’t pay any attention to that. Klein occasionally sounds like one burned-out political writer, and who can blame him? Probably most sensitive people writing about American electoral politics for three decades will sound burned-out at times. But if you troll through Klein’s entire book looking for "worthy suggestions," you’ll find a treasure-trove of them. Among the most important:

-- Don’t abandon serious candidates for carefree mavericks! Some politicians can be loose-lipped to a fault (Ross Perot is Klein’s favorite example here), and the point isn’t to find leaders who’ll Hold Nothing Back but to find leaders who’ll treat the public like the intelligent and responsible adults that most of us at bottom are;

-- Don’t encourage candidates to spurn the advice of credible pollsters and “prudent” consultants. Such advisors can be invaluable (if Senator Kerry had paid more attention to the consultant Jim Margolis, Klein implies, then Kerry might have won the Presidency). The trick is for candidates to listen to pollsters and consultants without becoming overly dependent on them;

-- Do seek out candidates that exude “a deep respect for” their audiences, as Robert F. Kennedy famously did when he addressed a largely black audience in Indianapolis the day Martin Luther King was shot;

-- Do seek out candidates that say what they think as plainly as possible, and that speak from their hearts;

-- Do seek out candidates that are “real leaders,” e.g. that tell us things we don’t know and things we might not want to hear;

-- Do seek out candidates that believe in at least one idea or program that has less than 40% support in the polls;

-- Do seek out candidates that keep a “better angel” by their side, someone who’s trusted enough to say to the candidate, “John, you were well known for protesting the Vietnam War. Do you really want to avoid talking about Abu Ghraib?”;

-- Do seek out candidates that can laugh at themselves;

-- Do seek out candidates with the common sense or vision (or both) to build toward a new political perspective that can replace liberal and conservative boilerplate.

The real problem

The real problem with our political system, Klein seems to be saying, isn’t in our rules or in the depredations of the rich and powerful so much as it is in our inability to find candidates or BE candidates that -- when the chips are down -- are honest, balanced, courageous, mature, and visionary.

There are plenty of ways to reform the system that would make it easier for such candidates to run for office and win (see our review of Steven Hill’s 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy HERE), and if Klein can be faulted it’s for failing to highlight those ways.

But he is after bigger game here. Ultimately, he seems to be saying, we can’t create a better society until more of our politicians embody “strength, originality, and a vital humanity.” And there’s no 10-step formula for that.



Most of Klein's criticisms are implicit in his wonderful political novel Primary Colors (1996), and most of his suggestions for change are implicit there too (easy to see if you read the novel AFTER reading Politics Lost). 

For other recent books that ask why our political life is so dismal, see Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? (2006), and Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? (2006).

For venomous attacks on Klein’s book from the traditional left, see Jonathan Chait, “Primary Errors,” The New Republic (24 April 2006), and Thomas Frank, “Joe Klein’s Turnip Day,” New York Observer (1 May 2006).  Chait compares Klein to Neville Chamberlain, Frank accuses Klein of still being "enthralled by the creaking swingerisms of the 60s," such as the concept of authenticity.


WHY "Radical Middle"?


50 Thinkers and Activists DESCRIBE the Radical Middle 

50 Best Radical Middle BOOKS of the '00s


100 Great Radical Centrist GROUPS and  Organizations

25 Great Radical Centrist BLOGS


Generational Equity and Communitarian platforms 1990s

First U.S. Green Party gatherings, 1987 - 1990

Green Party's "Ten Key Values" statement, 1984

New World Alliance, 1979 - 1983

PDF of  the Alliance's "Transformation Platform," 1981


What the Draft Resistance Movement Taught Me

What the Civil Rights Movement Taught Me


New Options Newsletter, 1984-1992 (includes back issue PDFs!)

New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1976,  1978 (includes 1976 text PDF!)


50 Best "Third Way" Books of the 1990s

25 Best "Transformational" Books of the 1980s

25 Best "New Age Politics" Books of the 1970s


10 Best U.S. Political NOVELS

50 Current Political IDEOLOGIES

50 Current Political  MANIFESTOS