Tuesday, November 13, 2001

For the last decade, American politics has been driven by a search for the “center,” the political holy ground between the traditional agendas of the Democratic left and Republican right. Bill Clinton epitomized this trend: He made “triangulation” famous and spent eight years talking about an agenda that represented a “vital center” or a “third way.” The Republicans also got into the act, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rhapsodized about “third wave” politics, and President George W. Bush rode into office last year on his largely centrist, “compassionate conservative” credentials.
Each of these efforts rests on the same assumptions: that people see the policies of both Democrats and Republicans as irrelevant to addressing 21st-century challenges, and that because Americans are tired of partisanship and the stale Washington debates between left and right, they are increasingly disenchanted with and disconnected from political life. Therefore, as an attempt to remain relevant, politicians have worked to hone their messages to appeal to the vast center.
But to Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, two scholars at one of Washington’s brighter think tanks, the New America Foundation, such efforts are too little too late. They agree on the problem but don’t buy into the past decade of centrist talk, arguing that it was more about politicians trying to save their hides than serious ideas about the future of government.
As they see it, what’s needed is nothing less than a fundamental, systemic transformation in the ways that we tax, spend and elect our leaders. The challenges brought by the information and technological revolutions, along with those stemming from new demographic trends, mean that Americans must move beyond centrist rhetoric and adopt a new way of thinking about government’s purpose and citizens’ role in society. Until this happens, political appeals to the center will be about as helpful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
In “The Radical Center,” Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind outline a program to save what they take to be the sinking ship. Theirs is a bold and refreshing perspective on the challenges ahead and how America’s political system must change if it is to face them successfully. Part history, part diagnosis, part road map, part manifesto, this book is sure to be discussed and dissected on Capitol Hill and in Washington think tanks but one hopes that it also becomes must-reading for common citizens interested in America’s future.
The authors explain that fundamental change is a vital part of the American experience if anything, America’s ability to adapt to new circumstances has been the defining feature of its greatness. As has happened throughout American history from the Revolutionary era to Reconstruction to the New Deal government must be reshaped to fit the realities of the new era. To do so today, they propose a “radical center” program rooted in the concepts at the heart of the technological revolution: choice, flexibility, portability and greater citizen responsibility.
An era of big citizenship would mean that benefits like health care and retirement savings would be linked to individuals, not the companies where they work. At a time where the average 30-year-old male changes jobs every three years, moving away from a system of employer-based benefits seems to make sense. To simplify the tax system, the “hidden welfare state” of deductions and credits would be eliminated. To help foster Internet commerce, the complicated network of state and local taxes would be replaced by a consumption tax (income minus savings and investment). Revenue from a consumption tax would be used to promote educational equality and greater school choice, funding students, not schools.
This is just a sampling of their ideas, and they raise as many questions as they answer. The authors don’t spend much time exploring the downsides to their proposals or explaining how they could be implemented or paid for (although they do admit that many of their proposals will be difficult to implement absent some major systemic shock like a depression or major war which we now seem to have). But in some ways that’s the point: The authors intend to spark discussion, not end it. This is a short, pithy book, but it packs a powerful intellectual punch. It is so full of creative ideas that it should be read carefully.
If we were to embrace radical centrism and implement all their proposals, America’s political system would be fundamentally different than the one we have today. Two-party domination would be over, the tax code would be irrelevant and programs like Social Security would be obsolete. Bold stuff, to be sure. By touching just about every conceivable third rail in politics, the author’s program will not make many interest groups or political partisans happy. But the fact that so many will scream about what’s wrong with such ideas means that some of them might be worth considering.

Derek Chollet is a visiting scholar at George Washington University.

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