The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics
By Ted Halstead and
Michael Lind. Doubleday, 272 pages, $24.95
The Next Agenda: Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement
Borosage and Roger Hickey. Westview, 386 pages, $18.00
How the Left Can Win Arguments and Influence People: A Tactical Manual for
By John K. Wilson. New York University Press, 252
A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies
Zachary Karabell. HarperCollins, 246 pages, $26.00
In the conventional wisdom, patriotism in American politics is thought to be a
conservative impulse while the desire for strong, activist government is
associated with liberals. But think of all those blue-collar heroes who responded
to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September: the
firefighters, police officers, and construction workers who led rescue and
recovery efforts. Where do they fit in politically?
Perhaps in what some are calling the "radical center." Beyond the familiar
categories of left and right, untold numbers of Americans are somewhere in the
middle. They are centrist in the sense that they represent a broad part of the
American mainstream. But some are radical, too, in that they are deeply
disapproving of the untrammeled privilege and unbalanced power that mars American
In fact, political scientists have been contending for more than three decades
now that there are two distinct political centers: a "moderate middle" that
consists of upscale, socially liberal, and fiscally conservative citizens and its
mirror opposite, a "radical center" made up of people who are downscale, socially
conservative, and economically populist. This latter group has fascinated some
progressives and repelled others ever since it became evident that the
constituency could swing wildly from supporting Robert Kennedy to backing George
Wallace in a period of months. The events of September 11 gave new
visibility--new symbolic strength--to the radical center in American politics,
and progressives ought to be thinking about how to respond to the concerns of
this important group.
Ted Halstead and Michael Lind have devoted their
think tank, the New America
Foundation, to the concerns of the radical center and now have a book out that
elaborates on the politics of "the alienated majority." In the authors' eyes, the
radical center is not the equivalent of the so-called Reagan Democrats of the
1980s; Halstead and Lind find radical centrists among all Americans who feel
disengaged from the Republican and Democratic Parties. As swing voters, this
group can be politically potent on election day, but they tend to be less
influential in affecting day-to-day public policy.
Halstead and Lind deride the "Squishy Center," which habitually splits the
difference on policy disputes. They advocate a set of policies that depart
sharply from the status quo. On affirmative action, for example, Halstead and
Lind support need-based rather than race-based preferences--an idea that, with
its whiff of class politics, is anathema to the political elite. Evidence from a
Washington Post poll this summer suggests that they may be onto something.
poll found that huge majorities of whites oppose racial preferences--not just
those who believe that racial discrimination is a thing of the past but also
those who think that discrimination has not been conquered. Americans do want to
take steps to address inequality of opportunity: There is consistent support for
providing a leg up to all economically disadvantaged students. But racial
preferences are unpopular.
And yet elected bodies are strongly supportive of traditional race-based
programs. Though some courts are skeptical, most elite opinion is steadfast.
Virtually all university presidents support racial preferences, and with the
backing of a coalition of civil-rights groups and big business, congressional
attempts to curtail preferences have been defeated in recent years. The Bush
administration has come out in support of a minority-contractors' set-aside
program that is being contested in the courts; and to speed privatization of
public services, it has proposed a new preference benefiting minority- and
female-owned firms that compete for federal contracts. Many recognized this
proposal as a clever way to create a split between unions and civil-rights
groups. But the great irony is that President Bush's decisions to support and
expand affirmative-action programs--and thus buck mainstream public opinion--is
taken by the media as a sign that he is a "compassionate conservative," a
"moderate," or a "centrist." (The Washington press corps is overwhelmingly
"moderate middle," according to polls.)
Other parts of the domestic agenda presented in The Radical Center are
equally provocative. On education, Halstead and Lind would provide for federal
equalization of education spending and allow students to use government money to
pay for public or private schools of their choice. Their tax-reform agenda
includes replacing state sales taxes with a progressive national consumption tax,
simplifying but retaining a progressive income tax, abolishing the
corporate-income tax, restoring the inheritance tax, and reforming the charitable
tax deduction to favor aid for the needy (soup kitchens) over cultural causes
important to the elite (opera).
Halstead and Lind decry the lack of universal health-care coverage and call
for a Swiss-style system of mandatory medical self-insurance (the way we now
require auto insurance for drivers) supplemented by a safety net for those who
need it. On pensions the authors favor abolishing the intergenerational system of
transfer payments under Social Security and replacing it with a system of
compulsory savings at a 7 percent rate, combined with a means-tested safety net.
This plan of "progressive privatization" would eliminate pension-tax breaks that
now benefit the well-off and would provide government matches of savings on a
To address wealth inequality, the authors support what they call a
twenty-first-century equivalent to the Homestead Act: They would endow every
child, at birth, with a $6,000 nest egg that could be used for education,
housing, health, business, or retirement. Their election-reform agenda emphasizes
a system of voting that allows rank-ordering of preferences--a scheme that would
move us beyond domination by two parties.
Whatever the viability and advisability of these reforms individually, their
strength lies in the authors' abiding concern about equity. They want to expose
and root out the often hidden subsidies for the wealthy. Will the wealthy ever
give up these advantages? Halstead and Lind take the long view: "Our goal is not
to predict the policies of the next administration but to propose the policies of
the next generation." And they point to history to show the possibility of
change. They remind us, for example, that while a national consumption tax might
seem unlikely today, an income tax probably did too in the days when the bulk of
federal revenues derived from tariffs on imports. All in all, Halstead and Lind
have done a superb job of outlining a provocative starting point for the radical
The three other books under review here provide a more traditional and
predictably liberal set of policies, but each offers important amendments to
Halstead and Lind's programs--especially when it comes to campaign finance,
organized labor, and the role of markets in American life.
Halstead and Lind largely dismiss the importance of campaign finance reform
and spend little time on the topic other than to endorse, in passing, free media
time for candidates. This seems odd, since our current system of financing
campaigns goes a long way toward explaining why the political preferences of the
radical center are not translated into public policy--why, for instance, Congress
picks eliminating the inheritance tax, not expanding health coverage, as its
According to Ellen S. Miller and Micah L. Sifry's excellent chapter in The
Next Agenda: Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement (edited by Robert L.
Borosage and Roger Hickey), 81 percent of campaign contributions come from the
top 6 percent of Americans ranked by income. Surveys of donors find that they are
the opposite of the radical center--more socially liberal and economically
conservative than the American public. Miller and Sifry note that "no other
single factor explains as well the upward redistribution of wealth engineered by
both parties in the past twenty years."
Campaign finance, says John Wilson, author of How the Left Can Win
Arguments and Influence People, explains the central paradox of American
politics: As voters have become more progressive--on civil rights, the
environment, gender equality, and a host of other issues--both the Republican and
Democratic Parties have shifted to the right. Wilson observes wryly that "America
is a capitalist country, and nothing is more capitalist than its elections."
Campaign finance reform, he persuasively argues, "isn't just another important
issue; it's the foundation for changing how every progressive issue gets heard in
Washington and around the country." According to Wilson, the problem is not
merely that Republicans outraise Democrats, for even when Democrats keep pace
with Republicans in raising money, the cost of doing so is enormous: "While most
Republicans are simply getting paid to vote their consciences, many Democrats are
actively selling out in order to get the money they need for reelection."
The Radical Center is also curiously silent about the importance of organized
labor in the fight for a fairer society. Halstead and Lind do identify the
decline in union influence as one of the sources of growing wealth and income
inequality; but they outline no program for strengthening the labor movement and
normally speak of labor as just another special interest.
But if there is a radical center in America, organized labor is at its
center. Writing in The Next Agenda, David Moberg explains that unions are
crucial to making democracy work well in at least two respects: (1) they help to
address wage distribution and ameliorate the large economic chasms that can eat
away at democracy, and (2) they provide the main counterweight to large corporate
interests in the political process.
Moberg notes that organized labor's decline--to its lowest share of the
workforce since the early 1930s (just 13.9 percent in 1999)--cannot be explained
by worker indifference alone. Surveys find that at least one-third of nonunion
workers would like to join unions. The central problem is that current penalties
for firing workers who try to create a union are so weak that companies routinely
flout the law in order to kill organizing efforts. According to a National Labor
Relations Board study, between 1992 and 1997, employers fired or punished 125,000
American workers for supporting a union.
Moberg notes the irony that although important advances have been made to
outlaw discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual
orientation, "at the same time it has become easier and less costly for employers
to discriminate against workers for acting collectively and forming a union."
Illegal firings by private companies help to explain why the private sector is
about four times less likely to be unionized than the public sector is (9.4
percent in the private sector as opposed to 37.3 percent in the public sector,
where employers abide by the law).
Halstead and Lind are ardent fans of market mechanisms; they say that the one
design criterion that guides their proposals above all else is choice. But as
Zachary Karabell notes in A Visionary Nation, markets have their
limitations as well as their strengths. Karabell argues that each era in American
history has been guided by a reigning theory (from the Puritan vision of a "City
upon the Hill" to the New Deal and the Great Society) and that today's dominant
idea is the preeminence of the market. During the 2000 election, Karabell notes,
"dips in the stock market were the focus of more cultural concern than who would
be the next president of the United States." The GTE Airfone embedded on the back
of airline seats displays the latest Dow figure, while the billboard screen at
baseball games flashes the Nasdaq report between innings.
Halstead and Lind's devotion to markets leads them to support school vouchers
and Social Security privatization. To their credit, both proposals try to address
issues of equity often ignored by conservative proponents of these types of
market-based reforms. But the authors ultimately collide with the problem that
markets are built to promote inequality. On school vouchers, for example, while
Halstead and Lind are right to say that the current system of schooling is unfair
because it gives choice only to those who can afford certain neighborhoods or
private-school tuition, there's a good deal of evidence to suggest that vouchers
would make things worse, not better. School-voucher plans provide choice not to
parents but to schools. Schools generally take those children who are easiest to
educate--disproportionately, those who are wealthy and white. The lesson of
choice plans in Chile, Sweden, and New Zealand is that unregulated choice
promotes greater segregation and deprives low-income children of a vital
educational resource: well-motivated peers and their parents. Greater choice
within the public sphere can be helpful in cutting the cord between residential
segregation and student assignment that underlies much public-school inequality.
But public-school choice must be regulated or it will further stratify schools
and leave the poor worse off than ever.
In the post-September 11 world, these four books,
taken as a group, can help
define a new progressivism that is tougher and more credible than orthodox
liberalism yet rejects the business-based centrism of such groups as the
Democratic Leadership Council. This progressivism would nurture the best elements
of radical centrism, which is likely to constitute a growing force in the new
world that we find ourselves in. Drawing on a synthesis of views not really
championed since the death of Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers' union
leader, this new progressivism would emphasize democratic values more than market
values and would seek to reach working-class people of all racial and ethnic
backgrounds about concerns that for too long have been ignored by both major
Moberg's argument on behalf of organized labor looks good these days.
Americans were exposed to a different view of unions in the hours and days
following the attacks. Organized labor's stereotype as selfish, overpaid, and
unwilling to do dangerous but necessary work as a violation of "union rules" was
upended not only by the police and other rescue officials who gave their lives
but also the unionized hard-hat construction workers--electricians and carpenters
and ironworkers--who lined up to volunteer under hazardous conditions.
The special appeal to "solidarity" that unions made in the wake of the
terrorist attacks had less resonance with nonunion workers. The language about
needing to help because their "brothers and sisters" were trapped in the
buildings may have sounded odd to many Americans, but it is central to the
identity of union members. The ability of union officials to rally and organize
members on short notice was a reminder that unions are more than economic
cartels: They are vital civic associations. That these workers quickly fell into
an orderly process for searching, clearing, and removing debris, bucket by
bucket, is also no accident: This was organized labor. Just as America
welcomed home veterans after World War II with a GI Bill to show appreciation for
their sacrifice, so Americans might want to give something to police,
firefighters, construction workers, and their unions beyond tribute ceremonies
and public accolades. Maybe steps will be taken to improve the wages of average
workers, who now make 531 times less than what the average CEO makes.
Karabell's critique of a culture that worships individualism, the market, and
CEOs also looks good now that solidarity, volunteerism, and blue-collar workers
are back in favor. Markets can't fight the war on terrorism or provide security
for airlines. School-voucher plans that divide us now look dangerous as we're
reminded that schools are not just instruments of academic achievement but also
play a crucial role in binding the nation together.
Halstead and Lind's unfashionable commitment to colorblind policies holds up
well, too. The New York Times noted after the September 11 attacks on the
World Trade Center that many people of color in New York have started thinking of
themselves as just plain American. And the general tolerance of Americans toward
Arab citizens marks a stark contrast to the response after the Pearl Harbor
attack. Even as the nation is gripped by a war mentality, a southern Republican
president has taken laudable steps to denounce prejudice toward Islamic
Americans. He has done so not just for obvious geopolitical reasons but because
fighting discrimination is now part of America's mainstream credo.
None of these books says much about foreign policy, but it is here--and on the
issue of affirmative action--that progressives may mistakenly spurn the radical
center. As Michael Kazin has pointed out, recent years have seen a coming
together of labor (plus other elements of the radical center) and students (plus
other elements of the activist left) on issues like fair trade and the living
wage. But the current debate about war and patriotism after September 11 may
spell the end of that collaboration as some on the left search for reasons why so
many people hate America. Efforts to understand legitimate grievances about U.S.
policies are wholly appropriate. But progressives will lose the radical center,
perhaps for years to come, unless they acknowledge that the war on terrorism is
fundamentally just--or at least avoid a retreat into a reflexive position that
America is somehow to blame for everything that goes wrong in the world.
At the end of the day, concerns about democracy are what binds together the
disparate planks of the radical center's domestic agenda: a strong labor
movement, a commitment to public education, a defense of the universal
antidiscrimination principle. The promotion of human rights and democracy abroad
will displease the right when it threatens access to markets in China and the
left when it means imposing an "ethnocentric" set of values in the third world.
But it is a powerful and important principle that the radical center takes
seriously--as does much of the left.
While the three planes that slammed into the Pentagon and the twin towers of
the World Trade Center wreaked havoc on those symbols of our military might and
our powerful capitalist economy, there was perhaps even more poignant symbolism
in the failure of the fourth plane to reach its target, which was believed to be
one of the icons of our democracy in Washington, D.C. That plane appears to have
been thwarted by the collective action of ordinary American citizens, who,
according to news reports, actually voted on their plan to subdue the hijackers
before they executed it in flight over Pennsylvania.
A progressive appeal to the radical center that is based on something as
radical and centrist as implementing democracy will mix up traditional political
alliances but honor enduring values. A tough liberalism aimed at the radical
center beats compassionate conservatism directed at the moderate middle. And it