Respond to this Article June 2004

Good Government

Time to stop bashing the two-party system.

By Ed Kilgore

Journalist and activist Mark Satin is a man of causes. In the 1960s, he was part of the New Left, a war protester who moved to Canada to avoid the draft and rubbed elbows there with the Weathermen. In the 1970s, he became a New Age guru. These days, Satin is championing a new vision: solutions for America's problems that transcend the tired orthodoxies of the political left and right. Satin's book is written with an air of na´ve discovery, as if this idea had just been invented. I can only welcome him to the cause.

Like many observers before him, Satin is fascinated by the paradox that underlies contemporary politics. America has become a "moderate nation" over the last two decades, with an electorate that is increasingly pragmatic, independent, and suspicious of the conventional pieties of the big-government and anti-globalist left and the anti-government and free-market right. Yet emergence of this moderate majority has been chronically frustrated by partisan polarization, the power of liberal and conservative interest groups in the two major parties, and a media establishment rarely capable of any political analysis that rises above the combat model of "Crossfire."

Radical Middle
by Mark Satin
Westview Press, $19.95

This paradox has produced a variety of responses from political observers. Many powerful forces in the Democratic and Republican parties continue to believe that "moderate" or independent impulses in the electorate reflect an ambivalence--or even cognitive dissonance--that will be dispelled when liberals or conservatives, as the case may be, powerfully make their ideological case and break the partisan gridlock of recent years. In general, however, Democrats have absorbed much of this moderate agenda: Their presumptive presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, though often seen as a Massachusetts liberal, has supported welfare reform, tough deficit-reduction measures, rigorous teacher screening, and the robust use of American military force. On the other hand, moderates in the GOP are an endangered species in a party increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives.

But these distinctions between the two parties are of little interest to Satin. Having spent his entire political life outside conventional politics, Satin firmly believes that the current system can't lead to the moderate majority he wants. The most "radical" thing about Mark Satin's Radical Middle is the extraordinary depth of the author's belief that identifying solutions to America's problems depends on spurning conventional party politics.

This is a curious charge, given that the bulk of the "radical middle" ideas he champions are, in fact, policies that New Democrat thinkers and politicians (and their center-left counterparts in Europe and elsewhere) have been pushing for years: universal access to private health insurance, a universal system of national service, merit pay to attract and reward good teachers, stakeholder grants to expand the "ownership class," affirmative-action efforts focused on economic disadvantage, not race, a military strategy that allows for humanitarian interventions, a pro-trade agenda for combating the causes of terrorism in the developing world, aggressive but regulated support for biotechnological research, and political reforms like non-partisan redistricting, among other standards. Satin does a good job in laying out these "third way" policies concisely, and his advocacy is more than welcome. But his insistence that these policies cannot be implemented by the conventional parties is just plain bizarre. Many of these same ideas can be found in Sen. Kerry's platform.

Satin is hardly alone in his anti-political politics. From the endnotes in each chapter, it's clear that Satin has dog-eared his copy of Ted Halstead and Michael Lind's The Radical Center, which supplied a more sophisticated take on the premise that a majority of Americans might embrace a policy agenda outside the normal frameworks of the two parties. Halstead and Lind did a vastly better job than Satin does at explaining the structural barriers the two parties face to embracing truly innovative policies. But in the end, they, like Satin, could not really outline a practical path forward for the pragmatic agenda, other than vague but alluring hope for a new third party or a transformation of one of the two major parties.

In the "political" chapters of Radical Middle, Satin does encourage his readers to get involved in grassroots efforts to change civic and political life. And there's a lot of talk about the new perspectives that new upscale "wired" professionals can bring to political discourse, an observation that was common in New Democrat circles during the 1990s.

But even though Satin continually inveighs against the kind of "impractical idealism" that (by his own admission) much of his own career exemplifies, his book ultimately places him in the sturdy tradition of "idealistic" American reformers who think smart and principled people unencumbered by political constraints can change everything. For all the stylistic differences, Radical Middle echoes the message of Ross Perot's 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, which placed unlimited cash at the disposal of the proposition that a (nominally) uncorrupt and nonpartisan candidate could simply "open up the hood" of American government and fix things.

In truth, politics and policy both matter, and good politics and good policy cannot be divorced or pursued independently of one another. Yes, the job of getting political parties to embrace new ideas and reach out to new voters is tough, as the back-and-forth experience we at the Democratic Leadership Council have had with Democrats over the last two decades has shown. And certainly, at some point, if both parties continue to ignore the "moderate majority" and the realities of the Information Age, some new force will emerge.

But to repeat an old Southern saying, "You can't take the politics out of politics." Mark Satin's Radical Middle tries to do just that, even as its author calls for a "new politics" based on advocating "third way" policies as though nobody has thought of them before. I invite him to join those of us engaged in the epic battle between moderation and ideological extremism--even if he won't join a political party.

Ed Kilgore, is policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council.


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