I recently attended a forum, sponsored by one centrist and two liberal groups, on opportunities to bridge ideological extremes. The panelists were discussing a new report titled "Crossing Divides." The report addressed recent policy innovations that promise to break through stale polarities and yield real benefits for the poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The forum's moderator, a journalist, began by congratulating the hosts and observing that politics is discredited today because voters are sick of partisan bickering. But hold on. Is the main evil of American public life today "partisan bickering"? Or is it conservative ideology uncompromisingly wrecking public institutions? Could we imagine, say, the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation sponsoring a similar event promoting an ethic that conservatives need to put aside partisanship and meet liberals halfway? At every such conservative event I have attended, the ethic is that the last vestige of liberalism needs to be crushed. Often a token liberal will be invited, either as a foil or a dupe, but there is no careless talk of splitting differences or transcending ideology.
The desire to take the politics out of politics is as old as the American Republic. "Party" was a term of disrepute among the founders, and George Washington famously disparaged factionalism. In reality, however, the U.S. Constitution was a fiercely debated invention. Disputes about high principles were entangled with arguments rooted in self-interests of region and class. Explicit Federalist and anti-Federalist factions were already well defined when the Constitutional Convention began in 1787. Yet the image of society's wisest disinterestedly pursuing a true public interest has loomed large in our national mythology ever since.
The dream of a politics beyond politics enjoyed a second vogue during the Progressive Era, when patrician reformers recoiled from both the abuses of the robber barons and the reaction of a raucous populism. The progressives saw themselves as a force for public good and against class war; they hoped to extend science to the study of society and lend disinterested expertise to public policy. However, in both the era of the founding and the age of reform, these seekers of the common good were hardly value-free; they explicitly pursued stronger public institutions.
We are witnessing another upsurge of post-political high purpose again today, and, oddly, it is being promoted mainly by moderate liberals. I say oddly because conservatives are in a state of ideological ferocity directed against public institutions. Yet instead of producing an equal and opposite fervor among liberals, the right's take-no-prisoners mentality seems to be engendering a veritable epidemic of niceness and conciliation. One thinks of Robert Frost's famous definition of a liberal as someone so broad-minded that he won't take his own side in an argument.
It would be one thing if militant conservatism were truly producing, in the phrase of one recent emblematic book, a coherent, strategic and politically compelling "radical center." Something of the sort occurred in Britain in the 1990s. The Tories had veered so far right that Tony Blair's New Labour was able to define a modernizing political center led by the moderate left. The United States today has no such political force. With the right ascendant, America's would-be radical center is intellectually muddled and politically wishful -- a force for high-minded appeasement. Indeed, the only effective radical center in America today is the radical right masquerading as the center.
Consider the New America Foundation. If any recently founded institution epitomizes the fantasy of a public good that lies somewhere "beyond left and right," it is this one. Created in 1999 by Ted Halstead, co-author of the 2001 manifesto The Radical Center, the foundation raises serious money to promote ideas that Halstead sometimes characterizes as articulating a new politics for a new generation. It subsidizes more than two dozen journalists as fellows of the foundation to explore such ideas and place them in highly visible venues. Halstead gets exceptionally kind treatment from a Washington press inclined to accept the assumption that what ails the republic is outmoded partisan bickering. Halstead's fellows, essentially well-subsidized freelancers, show up in one influential newspaper and magazine after another -- including The American Prospect.
The key political premise of Halstead's Radical Center, co-authored with Michael Lind, is that innovative policies that would energize the electorate are blocked because both political parties "have been captured by their own extremes and special interests ... ." The claim is astonishing. The Republicans, surely, have been captured by their extremes. But the Democrats? The last two Democratic presidents have been moderates; the whole evolution of the Democratic Party has been away from New Deal or McGovern-style politics and toward the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) model. What's more, the Democrats, given the illegitimate circumstances of the 2000 election, have been remarkably timid about confronting President Bush.
Nonetheless, this premise finds an enthusiastic audience among opinion-makers. Halstead scored his biggest publicity coup when The Atlantic Monthly turned over much of its January-February 2003 issue to a New America Foundation- sponsored, 48-page special section titled "The Real State of the Union." The foundation enjoys a useful interlock in the person of its board chairman, James Fallows, The Atlantic's long-standing national correspondent. The special section is essentially an extended infomercial for the foundation and its ideology of a radical center. Most of the pieces are extrapolations of policy ideas in the Halstead-Lind book. The Atlantic, remarkably, has committed to making this partnership an annual feature.
The New America segment begins with a short introductory essay by Fallows that muses on the ritual of the president's annual State of the Union address and laments the condition of both political parties. Though Fallows is a liberal, nothing in his essay suggests that he considers radical conservatism the more serious menace. The supplement closes with Halstead's own piece contrasting the two faces of America (richest, most powerful nation; highest rates of poverty, etc.). He calls for a new 21st-century social contract, which would trade greater individual flexibility (multiple careers, lifetime retraining) for greater security (new, portable entitlements).
In between these bookend essays, at least 10 of the 13 other articles offer diagnoses of social ills and policy proposals that are, by any reasonable definition, liberal. For instance, foundation fellow and co-author Lind notes the depopulation of the rural heartland, the housing shortage in the big cities and the portability of the wired economy. Eureka! "Imagine a federal program," he writes, "that would help poor and working-class Americans to move not from crowded cities to suburbs in the same general area but from crowded states to low-density states where homes are cheaper and the general cost of living is lower." Lind also wants policy incentives to channel economic activity to these depopulated areas.
Good idea. But Lind doesn't deign to address the political obstacles. The very phrase, "Imagine a federal program ..." is a nonstarter in the current Bush era, let alone a program of national economic planning. (If you want to imagine something, imagine the Republican catcalls at the presumption of large-scale social engineering.)
Ray Boshara, another foundation fellow, decries the widening inequality of wealth and plugs an approach -- "stakeholder accounts" -- that the Prospect has also found attractive. In Boshara's rendition, every American baby would receive $6,000 at birth. This is also a worthy idea, one as old as Jefferson's land-tenure policies that favored freeholders and Lincoln's 1862 Homestead Act, and as new as Al Gore's plan for tax-subsidized Universal Savings Accounts. Boshara calculates that this new federal program would cost "only about $24 billion a year." Why is this worthy idea off the radar screen? Could it have something to do with George W. Bush's $3 trillion in tax giveaways (mostly to the already wealthy) and the attendant squeeze on social outlay generally (let alone on proposed new entitlements)? Boshara doesn't say.
On and on the special report goes: There's an intelligent and liberal call to rebuild the criminal-justice system of parole and early release (John Ashcroft is not mentioned), and a piece deploring the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs and urging "an effective industrial policy" (more conservative catcalls). Another well-intentioned article calls for a new, redistributive federal program to subsidize portable 401(k)-style retirement accounts for all. ("Creating a universal and portable system of accounts would not be hard.") Sure, it would be easy -- if you had the votes. This piece includes no allusion to the Enron scandal or the gutting of the Securities and Exchange Commission and related regulatory issues, no mention of the politics of pension reform and Social Security, and just one breezy aside on how to pay for it. (Repeal Bush's tax cut! As if this were a minor detail rather than a massive ideological battle.)
Yet another smart article, this one by foundation fellow Karen Kornbluh, points to the stresses on working parents and calls for "a sensible modern family policy" built around three remedies: paid parental leave, high-quality child care, and a severance of the connection between family benefits and employment -- in other words, new social entitlements long championed by liberals. In the spirit of the rest of the supplement, there is no mention of the real political obstacle -- the Republican scorn for social investment. Instead, there is the characteristic, politely evenhanded apportionment of blame: "For the past few decades both Republicans and Democrats have tried to lay claim to the 'pro-family' mantle. Neither party, however, has offered a coherent plan ... ."
There are several more such pieces, but you get the idea. Amid all these liberal policy particulars, the closest thing to a forthright liberal ideological statement or political analysis is the essay by our former colleague and frequent Prospect contributor, Jed Purdy, which calls for greater trust in one another and in government. "We know that in the 1990s, without faith in government, faith in business turned out to be groundless," Purdy concludes. Amen, brother.
One questions the judgment of The Atlantic Monthly with some trepidation. There is much to admire here, including some fine social critiques that don't really address policy as such. My quarrel is not with the writers. Many, including Fallows and Scott Stossel, have graced our pages. The New America Foundation surely deserves praise for having created a habitat for first-rate policy journalists. But in the foundation's framing of issues, there is a stunning innocence, naive or disingenuous, of politics. Nowhere in the articles is a trenchant discussion of why any of these proposals would be dead on arrival in George W. Bush's Washington. All presume that government, the necessary instrument of public policy, retains its normal capacity to tax, spend or regulate. But of course all three instruments are forbidden today because of ultraconservative hegemony. What planet are these people living on? It is almost as if a censor went through The Atlantic package, article by article, and systematically redacted any analysis that smacked of politics, let alone partisan politics.
What accounts for the appeal of this post-ideological sensibility to liberal reformers at a time when even moderate liberalism is being crushed? As noted, in some respects the conceit is as old as the republic. Also, The Atlantic, as the premier general monthly journal of culture and politics, doesn't like to think of itself as having a political view. It tacks both moderate left (Fallows, Stossel, Jack Beatty) and truculent right (Michael Kelly, David Brooks, Robert Kaplan), as well as literary and non-ideological (William Langewiesche). There is also the vain liberal hope, reminiscent of the Clinton era, that if you meet a bully halfway, maybe he will reciprocate.
A somewhat less elevated explanation is the politics of funding and marketing. Ted Halstead's brand of policy entrepreneurship has multiple appeals. It attracts financial support from high-tech executives who tend to combine a social liberalism (clean environment, reproductive choice, gay rights, political reform) with an economic individualism (low taxes, heroic entrepreneurship, techno fixes). And big mainstream foundations, whose program executives are often more liberal than their business-dominated boards, find it soothing to embrace the premise of policy solutions beyond left and right. Some liberal foundations have even been convinced that Halstead's ostensibly post-ideological stance actually conceals a muscular progressivism. If so, as Winston Churchill remarked when Lady Churchill termed his 1945 election defeat a blessing in disguise, it is certainly well disguised.
In addition to foundation funders, The Atlantic Monthly/New America supplement had commercial sponsors. At an all-day kickoff event at the National Press Club, the room was festooned with banners from the likes of Shell Oil, Lockheed Martin, Archer Daniels Midland, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and the Nuclear Energy Institute. Does this sponsorship produce discreet self-censorship? In a moment when business allies of the Republican Party have a lock on national policy, The Atlantic's catalog of America's social ills and opportunities had scarcely a word about corporate abuses or corporate lobbying. At the Press Club event, Halstead and luncheon speaker Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) formed a mutual-admiration society. Breaux enthused about Halstead's book. Halstead heaped praise on the senator. But Breaux is no radical centrist. He is a fairly ordinary, moderate conservative. If the foundation's manifesto were ever reduced to legislation, we could count on Breaux to vote most of it down.
Let's return to the aforementioned report, "Crossing Divides." The report was published by Demos, an organization created in 1999 by mainly liberal foundations to work on broadening political democracy and narrowing income inequality. At the forum I described, the other sponsoring organizations were the resolutely progressive Women's Union and the third way civic-reform group MassInc. Demos' current president, Miles Rapoport, is a Prospect contributor. Demos does superb work, yet the hopeful premise of its latest report has largely been taken over by events, namely by Republican hegemony. "Crossing Divides" asserts, "During the last decade, Republicans and Democrats have come together to enact or expand several historic efforts to enhance economic well-being" in several policy areas. This is partly true, though it was truer before Bush took office.
The report's cases in point, if we unpack them, are an interesting blend of three distinct strands. Some older policy successes are indeed real breakthroughs that appealed to liberal and conservative constituencies, though for different reasons, and relied on genuine coalition politics. Exhibit A is the Earned Income Tax Credit. Liberals like it because it subsidizes wages and reduces poverty. Conservatives like it because it cuts taxes and uses the tax system rather than a programmatic bureaucracy to help the poor. Both sides like it because it rewards work rather than idleness and keeps families together. Score one for "beyond left and right."
A second category of supposed common ground, however, describes essentially conservative wins, where liberals were dragged along kicking and screaming and settled for relative crumbs. Take welfare reform, which Demos mentions only in passing: A more generous liberal version whose objective was to reward work and help children was simply sacrificed to conservative ideology in the "compromise" of 1996, the thrust of which was to coerce work. In these policies the devil was in the details. And the right, by playing hardball, has prevailed on most of the specifics. It's certainly true, as the Demos report deftly observes, that "the transformation of welfare to a work-based system has helped illuminate the hidden costs of work faced by all families and has spotlighted the problem of the low-wage labor market: the lack of good jobs that help workers escape poverty; inadequate health care and child care for low income workers; few opportunities for advancement; and pockets of high unemployment."
Unfortunately, this welcome shifting of the policy spotlight from lazy welfare queens to virtuous working families has made little practical difference in how low-wage work is rewarded. The Republicans have gone right on, toughening work requirements and shortchanging work supports and kids. The latest version of welfare reform is even more draconian than the 1996 one. Bush's budget has an estimated shortfall of $5 billion to $10 billion in the child-care funding needed to keep safe the children of the newest wave of working mothers.
A third brand of presumably innovative, post-ideological policy is promising policy that turned out badly, because the right played bait-and-switch. In 2001, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) gamely negotiated a grand education compromise wherein Democrats supported high-stakes testing for public schools and President Bush agreed to provide more federal money. A year later, Bush broke the deal, and simply yanked the extra money. An example favorably cited in the Demos report is the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. In the early 1990s, Democrats were stymied in their efforts to get universal insurance, so in 1997 they settled for SCHIP, a fill-in-the-cracks program for children in which the federal government gave the states more money to buy insurance for kids whose families neither had private health insurance nor qualified for Medicaid. Yes, it did increase the number of children with some kind of health insurance. A conceptual or programmatic breakthrough it was not, however. True to form, Bush is now shifting more of the Medicaid burden to the states, which will likely wipe out the past gains of SCHIP.
There is a famous economist joke in which a professor and his graduate student fall into a manhole, the student asks what to do and the economics professor replies, "Assume a ladder." By analogy, the post-ideologues are essentially saying, "Assume Elliot Richardson." The tacit political premise is that decent, moderate-to-liberal Brahmin Republicans such as Richard Nixon's late cabinet secretary are available and willing to broker honest, grand bargains that serve the public interest. In such a world, conservative means can often be used to achieve liberal ends, and honorable compromises can be brokered, as they in fact were in the Nixon era. But Karl Rove is no Elliot Richardson.
At the same time, one aspect of the radical-center view deserves to be taken very seriously. That is the expressly political critique that liberals and Democrats have failed to renew their historic bonds with voters. In this view, reform is blocked because traditional liberal appeals arouse neither swing voters (who often vote Republican) nor base voters (who often stay home), and politics itself becomes discredited. If so, a set of new ideas that breaks the mold is indeed the precondition of modern liberalism and effective social reform.
Of course, the divisive issue is which specific ideas have both substantive merit and political legs. A variation on that argument has raged for two decades between the DLC and the labor movement, between The Washington Monthly and The American Prospect, between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, between Bill Clinton and his uneasy supporters on the liberal left.
It is certainly true that the New Deal needs updating. But virtually everything in The Atlantic package -- portable pensions, expansive parental-leave subsidies, modernized release and parole policies, asset-development accounts and the rest, except for a couple of essentially conservative ideas such as universal school vouchers -- has been proposed by liberals and rejected by conservatives. The right simply isn't interested, except when the particulars (such as vouchers) serve as a stalking-horse to dismantle public institutions and social entitlements. Moreover, the trade-union movement -- poster child for the radical-center claim that liberals are hopelessly out-of-date -- has in fact made it a priority to organize new-economy service workers and immigrants, make work pay a living wage, create career ladders and collaborate innovatively with industry. But the main response of industry and its Republican allies is to annihilate the labor movement.
Substantively, the New America Foundation's proposed grand compromise is in many ways attractive: Let's make it easier for industry to thrive and for people to work, save and raise families by devising a portable and contributory set of entitlements that fits the economy of the 21st century. Leave out school vouchers and Democrats would take that deal in a heartbeat. But no such grand bargain appeals to the dominant Republican Party. To the right, this year's grand compromise is simply prologue to next year's juggernaut. Because of the right's political dominance, the admirable proposals in both the Demos report and the New America material are politically attainable only to the extent that the liberal left gets politically stronger and the radical right weaker.
President Clinton, let's recall, did endeavor to strike a big ideological deal when he tried to blend universal health coverage with delivery by private insurance companies, and when he pledged to end welfare as we know it. Far from reciprocating, the Republican right just redoubled its attacks. The welfare-reform bill that Clinton reluctantly signed in 1996 was very much in the spirit of the radical center, but its liberal aspects -- reward work, create career ladders, help children -- continue to be casualties of Republican fiscal policies and radically individualist view of family. And while there are candidates in the Democratic field to whom this worldview appeals, New Democrats such as Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) place far more faith in deficit reduction than in new programs, flexible or otherwise.
Deficit reduction is pure "radical center." The centrist elite has been promoting it since the early 1980s. Bill Clinton delivered it, but deficit reduction didn't win the Democrats many points among the electorate, nor did Republicans reciprocate. Almost immediately upon his election, Bush departed from the true path, but the voters just don't seem to care. Evidently you can build an energized politics around cutting taxes; alternatively, you can build an opposite politics around popular public outlay. But deficit reduction as an end in itself is politically sterile: It doesn't motivate voters, nor does its opposite seem to alienate them.
It is still conceivable, at least in theory, that proponents of a radical center could create their own political movement for their own brand of change. But that, of course, requires not just policy papers and magazine articles but the usual paraphernalia of politics, namely candidates and parties. There is little evidence of a popular movement clamoring for Empowerment Zones.
In the end, the radical center seems to be one part robustly liberal policies in new packaging (paid parental leave, redistributive universal accounts) that would require direct confrontation of Republican hegemony, one part utopian ideas of public improvement that stand no prayer of enactment (total federal assumption of education funding), one part worthy but difficult process reforms that most liberals support (new, enriched voting systems) and one part dubious ideas (solve the health-insurance crisis by making bare-bones private-insurance coverage mandatory and then having government subsidize it). One can argue the merits of these policy ideas endlessly. The trouble is, the package just doesn't add up to a winning politics. That's because it isn't serious about politics at all.
One further element is missing from this recurring brand of high-minded reformism: To use a very unfashionable term, what's missing is struggle. Included in The Atlantic Monthly/New America Foundation collection is a very insightful piece by Gregory Rodriguez archly titled "Mongrel America." Rodriguez's point is that intermarriage is becoming increasingly accepted in the United States; ultimately, mixed race or multi-race identity, much as nativists have long feared, will likely be the most enduring form of American integration. Rodriguez accurately notes the contribution to this trend of Hispanic immigration from countries that have long had a more fluid concept of race. What he doesn't note is that today's greater casual tolerance of race mixing is also the fruit of profound political struggle.
Looking back on the Strom Thurmond-Trent Lott affair, Nicholas Lemann wrote an essay for The New Yorker that was ostensibly a review of a new volume of primary reports from the mid-century civil-rights movement. In attempting to put a lid on the Lott brouhaha, Republicans had airbrushed a very ugly history. Everyone today is supposedly a happy integrationist, even Thurmond. But what struck Lemann, in reviewing contemporary press accounts from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, was how radical an idea racial integration was at the time. In that era segregation was pervasive, and the sanctions for resisting it were brutal. Tolerance didn't just happen. It required immense personal risk, messy social movement, remarkable political victory, the power of reversed government policy and recurring battles over enforcement.
At a moment when the radical right is crushing moderates as well as liberals, a high-minded radical center is a false remedy for what ails the polity. What American liberalism needs is energy, passion and a straightforward program that appeals to alienated voters. This is, above all, a political enterprise, one that requires confronting conservative dominance. Yes, the power of ideas matters immensely. But so does the idea of power.