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Issue No. 40 (December 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor
This review of Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s book The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (Doubleday, 2001) originally appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of The Responsive Community, an innovative political science journal you can find at most university libraries. I was asked to write it by Amitai Etzioni, editor of the journal (and former domestic policy advisor to President Carter). Co-editors are William Galston (former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton), R. Bruce Douglass of Georgetown University, and Thomas Spragens Jr. of Duke University; managing editor is Andrew Volmert. Subscriptions are $27 / year from Circulation Manager, The Responsive Community, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Suite 282, Washington, DC 20006.
I'd always wanted to try writing like an academic. . . .
Ever since the collapse of the New Left in the 1970s -- but especially since the anti-globalization protests in Seattle -- many writers and activists have been attempting to articulate a political perspective that transcends both politics-as-usual and bitter alienation. Increasingly they’ve begun exploring the notion of a “radical middle” or “radical centrist” politics committed to taking imaginative and often bold approaches to solving the practical problems of capitalism and democracy in the Information Age.
Though the term “radical center” was first used in the 1970s to characterize the beliefs of George Wallace Democrats, its more pertinent political origins are countercultural. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, leaders of the human potential and New Age movements such as Marilyn Ferguson spoke of an emerging politics of the radical center that would synthesize the highest values of the left and right. The Democratic Leadership Council began calling for a “Third Way,” and periodicals ranging from the hyperpragmatic Washington Monthly to the hyperidealistic New Options began imagining a post-liberal, post-conservative, post-socialist world.
The post-Seattle radical middle movement is made up of many currents. There is the serious-minded, non-opportunistic faction of the Third Way, whose ideas are well expressed in the recent work of British sociologist Anthony Giddens. There is the communitarian project of bringing people together by crafting policies that “involve much more than a compromise between Democrats and Republicans,” as Amitai Etzioni puts it in his book Next. There is the emerging civic renewal movement -- brilliantly delineated by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland in Civic Innovation in America -- which differs significantly from traditional social justice movements by seeking common ground with both City Hall and local businesses.
Fueling such movements are rampant desires that have as yet no formal political vehicle -- the desire of frustrated citizens to clean up the political system, stop corporate malfeasance, and restore civility to daily life; the near-universal Gen-X desire for greater individual choice, greater economic fairness, and greater global connectedness (see young British economist Diane Coyle’s books The Weightless World and Paradoxes of Prosperity); and, not least, the longing among grizzled survivors of the Sixties Generation to play the role of political synthesizers and healers -- an aspiration beautifully expressed in Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson’s The Cultural Creatives, and actually realized, at least on paper, in Walter Truett Anderson’s All Connected Now.
Into this glorious cacophony comes Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s The Radical Center -- the first explicit and systemic introduction to radical middle ideas by U.S. authors -- and in most ways it does not disappoint.
The writing is crystal-clear, the arguments as carefully crafted and pragmatic as those you’d find in books from Brookings or the American Enterprise Institute. No surprise there. After capacious intellectual-professional journeys, the authors are now president and senior fellow, respectively, of The New America Foundation, a three-year-old Washington, D.C. think tank specializing in new ideas from young or undiscovered voices. (Halstead is all of 33; Lind, 39.) The Foundation’s 20 fellows publish in radical, liberal, and conservative periodicals, and money is cascading in from liberal and conservative foundations.
The Radical Center is elegantly structured. Definitions come early, and are very similar to those used by writers like Coyle and Giddens. The term “Radical Center,” we’re told, is meant to instantly differentiate the authors’ “principles and policies from those of the Democratic Left and the Republican Right.” The word “radical” conveys that the authors “are interested not in tinkering at the margin . . . but rather in promoting, when necessary, a wholesale revamping” of institutions.
Next comes the heart of the authors’ argument, and if you’re an old activist you’ll smile at the quasi-Marxian nature of it. The “Information Age” -- based on brainpower -- has made us “increasingly competent” as citizens, but our “basic social contract, our political parties, our governmental programs, and our educational and even charitable institutions are designed on the premise that highly educated experts should be in charge of relatively passive, ignorant, and incompetent people. A century ago this paternalistic approach may have promoted progress. Today it retards progress.”
The authors then suggest “design criteria” for an “Information Age political program” -- in effect, a program for the competent masses. First and foremost is “increasing the amount of choice available to individuals . . . : voting choices, educational choices, medical choices, retirement choices. . . .” Another criterion is providing a “true safety net” for those who make unfortunate choices.
The policy chapters -- on the economy, governance, and community, respectively -- don’t just bring the design criteria down to earth. They also demonstrate with great sophistication and panache that the radical middle has arrived as a distinct and cohesive political position.
A radical centrist economy would stress fairness, freedom, and personal responsibility rather than security-as-drudgery. That’s why each of us would receive a $6,000 grant from the government at birth (basically untouchable by mom and dad), which with interest would climb to $20,000 by high school graduation. Later on, as adults, we’d each be required to purchase a “basic” private health insurance policy (we could always buy more if we chose), and the government would subsidize basic health insurance for the poor. We’d also be required to save 5 percent of our gross earnings for retirement (Social Security would be eliminated), and those whose retirement incomes fell below a certain “floor” would receive government assistance. Thanks to these and similar measures, say the authors more than once, each of us would have more real options in life -- and corporations would have far fewer employee administrative costs, enabling them to better compete in the global economy.
Governance would change equally deftly and dramatically in radical centrist society. For example, the federal government would pay for most or all K-12 education -- it’s the “only way to ensure that all students have access to a quality education on a relatively equal basis,” say the authors, sounding very much like the Washington Monthly. In addition, the progressive income tax would be radically simplified -- and made more truly equitable -- by eliminating most tax deductions, credits, and exemptions. Here the authors differ profoundly from Giddens and other radical centrists who advocate generating less tax revenue from income and more from consumption of goods and “bads” (energy, waste, transport).
Like Sirianni and Friedland, Halstead and Lind emphasize that community need not mean balkanization. For example, to combat the “racial divide,” the authors would pursue affirmative action “by race-neutral methods like better primary education for all Americans.”
A closing chapter scours the U.S. for a “coalition of the Radical Center” -- and finds the elements for one among “disaffected voters,” “the newly wealthy and influential elites of the technology sector,” and “young adults.” The authors’ analysis differs significantly from that of Ray and Anderson, who focus not on identifying promising social sectors but on the potential of certain broad values (e.g., altruism, globalism, ecology, self-actualization) to cut across social sectors. Both analyses are provocative, and both seem to be pointing to the same 50 million people.
Halstead and Lind have provided us with an extraordinarily rich blueprint of radical middle society. Policy analysts should find it especially useful. But like many early blueprints, it’s less complete than meets the eye.
Most books setting forth a whole new approach to politics go to great lengths to invoke distinguished or colorful forebears, parallel thinkers, overlapping movements. Jeff Gates’s Democracy at Risk (on economic democracy) and Michael Shuman’s Going Local (on principled decentralism) are two recent and delightful examples. But there’s little of that here. The movements and writers mentioned in this article are nearly absent from the body of The Radical Center. A being from Mars -- or from Time Magazine -- could peruse The Radical Center and conclude that Halstead and Lind are the only comprehensive radical middle thinkers in the world. Ted and Michael: A little generosity of spirit wouldn’t hurt, and it would help immeasurably in building the coalition you say you want to see.
Another hole in the soul of this book is that it shies away from two issues that nearly all other radical centrists put at the very top of their agendas. Halstead and Lind devote a scant page and a half to the environment (and that to a single issue, tradable carbon emissions), and they devote no space at all to globalization, explaining -- lamely -- that “doing justice” to the subject would require “another book in itself.” Both omissions smack of a failure of nerve. Many radical middle thinkers are courageously moving away from the doctrinaire environmentalism of the Sixties Generation (see Gregg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth or Marian Chertow and Daniel Esty’s Thinking Ecologically), and it would have been nice if Halstead and Lind had risked some of their moral capital by at least drawing attention to this important development. And how can you be a radical middle thinker -- which means, among other things, a holistic thinker -- without staking out a position on globalization at the dawn of the 21st century? Giddens, Coyle, and Anderson, all at least as intellectually credible as Halstead and Lind, put the need for socially conscious capitalist globalization at the heart of their recent books, which are all quite short.
A third omission is less tangible, but no less egregious in the post-Seattle world. Of all the books mentioned above, The Radical Center may be the meatiest in terms of public policy; yet when you’re done, it’s strangely unsatisfying. It stirs the mind, but you’re not tempted to go out and fight for the radical center. This is no small matter. As I write, millions of good people are being diverted from mainstream struggles because of the persuasive power of nihilistic texts like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, or messianic texts like David Korten’s The Post-Corporate World. Halstead and Lind are thoroughly sensible, but that’s not enough to inspire a “[b]road-based social movement,” which the authors claim they’d like to see. There’s no animating passion in The Radical Center, and there’s never been a social movement without an animating passion. Halstead and Lind have given us plenty of beef -- but where’s the juice?
Mark Satin is a lawyer and editor of Radical Middle Newsletter. In his 30s he authored New Age Politics (Dell, 1979) and co-founded the New World Alliance, early attempts to spark a “radical center.”
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