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Issue No. 63 (February 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Coherent "radical middle" agenda emerges
at New America Foundation conference

While the far right continues to offer no credible plan for a sustainable future, and the radical left continues to flounder and whine, the radical middle is becoming increasingly bold and coherent and compelling in its message.

That’s a conclusion you’d have surely reached if you’d have attended -- as I did -- the Real State of the Union National Policy Forum, February 7, 2005, in the Caucus Room of the historic Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.

The Forum has become an annual event. It’s co-sponsored by the New America Foundation (America’s premier radical centrist think tank) and The Atlantic (now America’s premier radical centrist magazine), and its setting was no accident. No matter how critical the radical middle movement may be of most Democrats and Republicans, its overriding commitment is to reforming The System, not tossing brickbats at it from the margins.

I figured I’d get a front-row seat by showing up in time for the first panel at 9:10 a.m. Imagine my surprise when I opened the huge wooden doors and waded into a Standing Room Only crowd of over 300 journalists, bloggers, policy analysts, Congressional aides, and other idea generators and merchants.

I got an even bigger surprise when I realized that nearly every one of them was younger than my Vietnam Generation self . . . not my usual experience at political gatherings.

And they were there to hear the panelists! Tons of fresh orange juice, fruit slices, and yummy muffins sat relatively unattended by the side of the room while audience members wrote prefatory phrases in their notebooks and spontaneously introduced themselves to one another (the spontaneity was forced, since our chairs were squeezed so tightly together), and up above, what must have been a 100-foot-high ceiling, trimmed in the hopeful reds and golds and blues of pre-World War One America, managed to give us all at once a sense of continuity with the past and majestic, driving purpose.

What divided country?

The first panel, “How Divided Is America?,” made the key strategy point of the conference: Our divisions are largely at the margins . . . so let’s unite the “productive middle” and sweep into office!

Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage (2004), used formidable statistics and a great sense of humor to argue that most Americans have become more united in their views on a whole range of social and political issues over the last 20 years. The only exception, tragically, is “partisans and activists” -- those folks who claim to have dedicated themselves to making a better society for us all. They’ve moved increasingly away from the center over the last 20 years.

Ideologically, our society looks a lot more like a football with a thick middle than like a set of barbells weighed down at the extremes, Rauch explained (even the speakers’ sports metaphors were not your usual fare). In real life, he added, our political, social, and moral conflicts are not so much between groups as within individuals. What we have in the U.S. today is not a majority right or a majority left, but a majority at the “conflicted middle.”

As a result, there’s no majority party in the U.S. today, and the first party that embraces the center -- truly speaks to the center, which does not consist of dullards and mealy-mouths but is full of imagination and angst -- will be the majority party in the U.S. for a long time to come.

The other panelists built on Rauch’s lead. Hannah Rosin, reporter at the Washington Post, argued that our religious divisions are no longer principally among Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Rather, they’re among “traditionalists,” “centrists,” and “modernists” from all faiths. Even evangelicals can, increasingly, be divided into those three camps (e.g., there are now “freestyling” evangelicals, mainly suburban moms).

Rosin's point: Religion is not, per se, a polarizing force, since most religious Americans are neither extreme traditionalists nor extreme modernists.

You can’t talk about divided America these days without bringing up the media, and William Powers of the National Journal was happy to oblige. The purpose of the media is not to homogenize but to inform, he said, and the dominance of the “centralized establishment media” from World War Two to the Internet age was an historical aberration.

For most of our history, he said, our media was decentralized, lively, provocative, even dangerous . . . and that’s what’s happening again today with the rise of cable and the Blogosphere.

And the American people will benefit, he said. Most Americans see themselves as “special” rather than ordinary, and a robust, opinionated, decentralized media is just right for such folks. Also, most Americans need to become more empathic, and a decentralized media encourages us to respect and explore other people’s truths.

By the end of the “How Divided Is America?” panel, the question on everyone’s lips was not whether the U.S. was fundamentally centrist (few doubted it), but whether radical centrists had appealing and practical solutions to our fundamental problems. Solutions that weren’t mushy-middle compromises but holistic and integrative new syntheses. Solutions worth fighting for in the political arena.

The rest of the panels sought to say “YES!” to that question.

Rethinking domestic policy

The tone was set by Ray Boshara, head of New America’s Asset Building Program. He didn’t do what many Democrats are doing these days and disparage President Bush’s concept of the “Ownership Society.” Instead, he did the radical middle thing. He embraced the positive core of the concept and said, Let’s figure out how to make this work for all Americans . . . and especially for those of us who own few or no assets.

His concern for the asset-poor had nothing to do with guilt-ridden, limousine liberalism. It was hard as nails. It had the good of the entire society in mind.

If we target savings incentives to those of us who don’t own or save much, he said, we’d accomplish three things for the nation as a whole.

First, we’d boost the national savings rate -- enabling us to reduce our reliance on foreign investment.

Second, we’d spread the ownership of assets -- smart move since we’re collectively making more money from asset ownership now than we are from working!

Third, we’d produce better citizens -- since it’s well established that people think more about their futures and their kids’ futures (also vote more, take better care of their neighborhoods, stay married longer, etc.) if they feel they have an ownership stake in society.

How to give them that stake? Boshara was virtually bubbling over with good ideas.

If individual accounts are established as part of Social Security reform, we could have government offer big matching deposits to low-income workers.

If lifetime or retirement savings accounts are established, we could have government offer big matching deposits to asset-poor Americans.

Most exuberantly, Boshara urged the creation of children’s savings accounts, untouchable until adulthood. And he urged that government deposit additional amounts of money into poor kids’ accounts.

One version of that idea is about to be introduced in Congress by very conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and very liberal Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) -- proof to Boshara that there can be a meeting of diverse minds at the radical middle.

Proof too that a “new social contract” is in the air. It would say to every American that we’re going to make sure you have enough assets to make something of yourself . . . and in exchange, you’re going to have to make responsible life choices.

Michael Calabrese, Vice President of the New America Foundation, beautifully reinforced Boshara’s radical-middle ownership society message by arguing for a national health care system that would be both mandatory and affordable.

Individuals, not employers, would be required to purchase basic insurance coverage; the government would subsidize low-income insureds on a sliding scale; state-based insurance pools and mandatory preventive care would keep costs relatively low.

Karen Kornbluh’s presentation on “Family Economics” put yet more flesh on the radical middle ownership society concept. Kornbluh, surely one of the few policy analysts to work for both Robert Rubin (D) and Alan Greenspan (R), argued that it’s not enough to provide day care. We need to invest in children’s skills from an early age. We need a veritable “skill-side investment strategy.”

Begin kids’ education at age three. Support great after-school programs. Create Boshara-like “parent accounts” for education and child-care, with subsidies for low-income parents. Give parents a right to request part-time or flexible work schedules from their employers, and reward employers for granting them.

Batting clean-up on the panel was budget guru Maya MacGuineas. Besides directing New America’s Fiscal Policy Program, she’s now President of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, one of the few entities in Washington that’s trusted enough to bring wary Congresspeople and visionary think tank people together for public discussions.

She faced the cost of the wonderful programs suggested by Boshara et al. head-on.

We can afford them, she said. But our fiscal policies are going to have to be as realistic and imaginative (i.e., as radical middle) as our new programs.

A “progressive consumption tax” would help, she said. Today’s taxes are neither fair nor efficient nor sufficient. So let’s drastically reduce taxes on income and capital gains -- thereby encouraging savings -- and have the tax burden fall on consumption, especially unnecessary consumption.

Each year, you’d calculate your total income just like you do now. But then you’d subtract the value of all your savings that year. The resulting figure would be the amount you’d be taxed. And if the IRS exempted taxes on the first $25,000 you spent, you’d have a lot fairer and more efficient tax system -- in practice -- than anything that could be built through the old progressive income tax system.

And that’s just scratching the surface of what a great radical-middle fiscal policy could do, MacGuineas said.

We should start taxing “more of what we want less of,” such as pollution and use of non-renewable resources, rather than “more of what we want more of,” such as wages and capital gains. (Longtime readers of my newsletters may recall that the incipient U.S. Green Party was talking about this as far back as 1984.)

Most important of all, perhaps, we should put “means testing of entitlements onto the table.” WE SHOULD CUT BENEFITS for those who can afford doing without them, and not cut benefits for those who can’t afford doing without them.

If this were a cheering sort of crowd, I’d have stood up at that point, cheering away. But you could tell from the body language in the room that MacGuineas had just said the very bravest, very most forbidden, very most necessary thing, and we loved her for it . . . even though the fitted suits and stylish skirts of many of those in attendance made it clear that they’d be among those who’d be taking the hits.

Rethinking the war on terror

This is Washington DC, land of super-busy people (even me, alas). So instead of breaking for lunch, we continued sitting in our scrunched-together chairs and had our lunches handed to us, delicious sandwiches and apples. I looked up again at the magnificent ceiling; it had the effect of a prayer or a drug on me, inspiring me, prodding me on.

Which was important. Because instead of some lighthearted luncheon speaker to break our serious mood, in strode Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Counter-terrorism -- the one top official who tried to warn the Bush Administration about Al-Qaeda in the months leading up to the 9 / 11 attack.

He’s burlier than he looks on camera, and his shoulders are slightly stooped now, I can’t imagine why.

Instead of sharing the contents of the grisly scenario he’d just published in the Jan. / Feb. Atlantic (“Looking Back from 2011 -- An Imagined History of the War on Terror”), he laid out a full-blown, long-term strategy for coping with terrorism.

First and foremost, he said, we’ve got to be clear about whom we’re trying to affect, and how.

Let’s say the Islamic world consists of four concentric circles. In the innermost circle are perhaps 500 people who’ve pledged themselves to Osama bin Laden personally.

In the next circle are perhaps half a million people, members of regionally based Jihadist organizations.

In the third circle are millions of believers in Islam who’ve been persuaded that the Jihadists are right, and may be providing them with financial support.

The final circle consists of the entire Islamic world, about 1.3 billion people.

Our government’s biggest mistake, Clarke said, is to confuse decimation of the innermost circle with victory in the war on terror.

Long term, our most essential task is to persuade the people in the second and third circles that Jihad is self-defeating and that there’s a better way to achieve social justice, which we can help them achieve.

In other words, we need to engage in a “battle of ideas” against the Jihadists -- and it’s one we dare not lose.

But battling over ideas is only half the task, Clarke said.  He is a radical centrist, which means he’s equally committed to achieving homeland security directly -- by reducing domestic vulnerabilities (e.g., of our chemical plants), by capacity building (e.g., devising a rational formula for dividing homeland security funds among the states), and by thinking carefully about civil liberties.

He claimed we “need a debate” about the nature and role of civil liberties in an age of terror. But it’s hard listening to him without concluding that closed circuit cameras, see-through screening devices, and a national ID card with “biometric” identifiers (permitting fingerprint or retinal scans) are small prices to pay in exchange for making it harder for Jihadists to kill thousands or even hundreds of thousands of us in one fell swoop.

Rethinking foreign policy

After Clarke’s constructive but alarming talk, I was sure the last panel, “Regaining America’s Footing in a Changing World,” would be anticlimactic. And some part of me was hoping for that . . . my God, it had been over four hours of nonstop heavy talk now. . . .

But I was not to be so unlucky. Michael Lind, once a conservative (see his Up From Conservatism, 1996) and now a radical centrist, children’s book author, and epic poet (The Alamo, 1999), gave an extremely rich presentation.

Militarily, this may be a “unipolar” world, he said. But economically and diplomatically, it’s an increasingly “multipolar” world, and we’re going to have to recognize that and get good at living in it.

Partly that means just relaxing in it. For example, all around us now nations are cooperating with one another in part, at least, to assert their independence from us. China and the European Union are cooperating on technology, China and Brazil on rocketry, etc. There’s no reason for us to get into a snit about any of that.

And it’s true, said Lind, that India and China may dream of being “regional hegemons.” But so what? They don’t appear to want to dominate the world militarily. It’s OK for other powerful nations to have their own Monroe Doctrines.

If the U.S. worried less about micromanaging the world and more about playing a constructive role in it, we might all be better off, he said.

Sherle Schwenninger, co-editor of The Bridge to a Global Middle Class (2002), made approximately the same point. He spent 15 minutes shaking his head at the way the U.S. has alienated the key oil producing countries AND the key oil consuming countries; at the way our fiscal bullying has harmed nearly everyone except Mr. Euro.

How can we get our credibility back?

Addressing that question was the task of Robert Wright. Very conservatively dressed and unassuming-looking, you’d have never guessed that besides being a superb policy analyst for New America, he’s a pioneering evolutionary psychologist (author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, 1999). And even if you viewed his bio on New America’s website, you’d have never guessed he’s a spiritual thinker, several times appearing in the magazine What Is Enlightenment?, probably the most substantial spiritual periodical in the U.S. today.

Around the world, nations are becoming more democratic, Wright said. Increasingly, governments are reflecting the will of the people -- “grassroots opinion” -- whether or not those governments look formally democratic to us.

And that changes everything, he said.

More and more, you need the “affection and respect” of those peoples and governments before you can be an effective actor in the world.

Military strength is nice. But before you can use even that effectively, your motives must be seen as legitimate.

In this kind of world, “public diplomacy” (Radio Free Europe, etc.) is insufficient or worse. The establishment no longer has a monopoly or near-monopoly on the media people use. The U.S. has got to do other and more difficult things if it wants to win the world’s trust.

For example, we’ve got to try to restore our reputation as an honest broker in the Middle East.

And we’ve got to try to nurture the further evolution of multinational institutions like the WTO, and international institutions like the U.N. That means treating them as legitimate venues within which to exercise whatever power we have. And it means paying our fair share of their costs.

Above all, living in an increasingly populist world means learning to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and see ourselves as others see us.

We are the rich kid on the block, Wright said, and if we want to share the world and work in the world with everyone else, then we’ve got to understand that that’s how we'll be seen. And proceed with appropriate sensitivity and humility.

For example, the Janet Jackson incident (in which the singer bared her breast during the halftime festivities at the Super Bowl) might have seemed trivial to us. But over a billion people were watching, in nearly every country on Earth, including hundreds of millions of Muslims. What sort of message about democracy, or capitalism, or liberty, or ourselves, were we sending them?

Part of the meaning of terror, Wright said, is that Americans need to do some soul-searching and re-thinking.

Needed: Soul-searching and re-thinking. That was the fundamental message of the Real State of the Union conference, not just with regard to foreign affairs but domestic as well: If we care about the economic well-being of future generations, shouldn’t most entitlements be restricted to those who really need them?

The question and answer period veered off into oil and things. Polite though the crowd may have been to that point, we quickly began filing out. Our minds had been filled, and finally, with Wright’s remarks, our hearts had also been filled.

On my way out, I couldn’t help looking up at the majestic ceiling one last time. It gave me a giant energy boost.



For essays by some panelists and by no-show panelist James Fallows: The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2005). For more essays by panelists: Ted Halstead, ed., The Real State of the Union (Basic / Perseus, 2004). For New America Foundation: 1630 Connecticut Ave. N.W., 7th Flr., Washington, DC 20009. For a readable overview of the radical middle perspective and movement: Mark Satin, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (Westview / Perseus, 2004).


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