October 27, 2017

THE RADICAL CENTER | In Search of a New Politics

Print More

We live in an age of angst. America’s fractious body politic tears at itself, leaving bitter tribalism in its wake. Partisans chuck live grenades into the national conversation and then flee to the safety of political shelter, seeking the validation of shared anger. Politics in our great nation is less a marketplace of competing ideas and more a bog of mutual incomprehension and ear-plugging.

The culprits are deep and many. A Balkanized, sensationalist news-media landscape pollutes discourse with speculation, tiresome quarreling, and paid political hacks posing as “analysts.” Fox News deserves particularly harsh criticism for its conspiracy-mongering and dishonest commentary. Newspaper opinion sections too often feature articles with factual distortions front and center. Case in point: the Wall Street Journal’s climate obfuscation, or the New York Times editorial board’s massive factual blunder.

Politicians are similarly blameworthy. Brinksmanship and hyper-partisanship have eroded the center. And while bland proclamations of “all politicians are bad” are silly, suffice it to say no politician on left or right is faultless. Former Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both voided long-held Senate rules to fulfill short-sighted political goals. In a surreal display, Barack Obama and John Boehner gambled against one another over government spending, resulting in punitive, across-the-board budget cuts loathed by all. Ted Cruz would have brought America to default to flaunt his conservative bona fides.

But the ultimate blame lies with us, the people. Swelling political polarization in America is well-documented. Outgrowths of political parties now define them: the Tea Party discredits the right and “The Resistance” undermines the left’s message of pluralism and tolerance. Flanked by loud-mouthed and intransigent activists, no wonder why politicians stonewall and obstruct. We all but expect them to. The left would rather maintain ideological purity than win elections. Democratic heavyweight Nancy Pelosi faced protests for having the nerve to compromise with Donald Trump over immigration. The right, emerging from eight long years of unmoving opposition, is internally incoherent, as Steve Bannon’s “war” against establishment Republicans shows. America is a politically paralyzed nation.

But our political dysfunction is not inevitable. Those clamoring to tear the whole system down are wrong. America’s ills can be fixed. To do so, tribal loyalties must first be cast aside. Bold, thoughtful reform must be embraced once again. Openness to the world—globalism, as some might call it—must become a virtue, not a vice. These are the tenets of radical centrism.

It is not a new idea. The Economist magazine has long declared itself of neither left nor right, but of the radical center. Coming off his 2008 campaign, many of Mr. Obama’s advisors believed him the champion of an ascendant radical centrist movement. Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s 2001 book “The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics” envisioned a new coalition of the American middle, built on the promise of ambitious reform.

Radical centrism seeks the best ideas from left and right, recognizing that insight knows no party. The left is correct to point to inequality as one of the defining challenges of our times. The right is correct to say America is over-regulated, strangled by centuries of dusty red tape. A radical centrist, therefore, might suggest an agenda of antitrust enforcement and responsible deregulation (i.e., not the Scott Pruitt sort) to spur competition, boosting wages for workers and unleashing the innovative power of enterprise.

Radical centrism offers a path out of our national stasis. It is also the perspective from which I will write. With this column, I seek to inform and persuade, to explain and convince. I am not a contrarian, nor an alarmist. Rather, I am a hopeful American and curious Cornellian who believes that the best remedy for our age of angst is the might of a persuasive argument.