The Radical Middle

They’re pragmatic. They’re idealistic. And they’re reshaping the future of American politics.
by Leif Utne
September-October 2004
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In November 1991, Utne ran a map of the American political landscape, in a section exploring why Americans hate politics. The map made the point that the left-right spectrum we use to define people’s political views is out of date and incapable of describing today’s complex, nuanced political realities. 

In addition to a liberal versus conservative axis, authors Eric Selbin and Ron Steiner added three other polarities—centralized versus decentralized, freedom versus order, liberty versus equality—and scattered the major movements, organizations, and political figures of the day throughout the matrix. For the first time, I had a framework for thinking beyond left and right. I saw that anarchists and Marxists are philosophically as different from each other as neoconservatives are from pacifist New Agers. It was a glorious mess. It was funny. And it blew my 19-year-old political-science-major mind. 

Yet something was missing. Selbin and Steiner highlighted the committed spokespeople for various points of view. But advocates for most of America—the vast, silent middle, who don’t identify with any particular ideology and approach politics, if at all, with a cautious pragmatism—were nowhere to be seen. There weren’t many articulate defenders of a pragmatic middle way. More than a decade later, that’s changing.—Leif Utne 

You’re hearing it everywhere these days. Political commentators across the board are saying that America is not as divided as we thought. Research has shown that on issues ranging from abortion to trade, gun control to the environment, Americans agree with each other more today than they did 20 years ago. It’s the politicians and special interests—and the media that egg them on—that are driving the polarization of political debate in this country. 

Thanks in large part to that polarization, our political system is sick, dysfunctional, and driving people away. Fully half the electorate doesn’t even bother to vote. Candidates for public office are even trained in techniques to suppress turnout among undecided voters—some obvious, like running negative attack ads; others beyond the pale, like dressing up volunteers as police officers and parking them outside polling places in poor neighborhoods to intimidate minority voters. Problems facing the country are mounting, from decaying schools to global terror, yet the warring camps in charge keep bickering over whose silent majority is bigger. It’s as if the parents are standing on the shore fighting over which way to row the boat while the kids are drowning in the middle of the lake. 

Yet there are real signs of hope. More and more people fed up with partisan gridlock are not responding with cynicism and inaction; rather, they’re rolling up their sleeves and coming together across ideological lines, building unlikely coalitions and moving toward solutions to seemingly intractable problems that don’t easily fit the tired old left-right paradigm—like the global AIDS crisis, energy independence, education, poverty, middle-class decline, campaign finance, globalization, the burgeoning prison population, and climate change. This “radical middle” is not about cynical, poll-driven attempts to find the mushy political center. It’s about people who have stepped outside old ideological boxes to fight boldly for the common good. 

Here is a look at a few of the remarkable thinkers and doers who are shaping this new radical-middle politics. Some of them focus on policy, proposing new solutions that a majority of Americans could get behind and advocating these measures in the marketplace of ideas via newsletters, reports, books and magazine articles, talk shows, and lobbying. Others focus on process, designing new ways of doing democracy that heal the wounds of political division in the body politic and tap into our collective wisdom by bringing many voices into dialogue. Still others are going outside the political process altogether, creating innovative projects that involve citizens directly in creating solutions. The common thread uniting all of these people is a belief that our political system is seriously flawed and that the answers lie beyond blind adherence to old orthodoxies. 

Mark Satin Creating a Pragmatic New Politics
The long and winding political career of Mark Satin has taken some odd turns. Starting as a ‘60s campus radical, he became the guru of a New Age politics based on personal transformation in the ‘80s and a corporate lawyer in the ‘90s. Satin now edits and publishes the Radical Middle Newsletter, dedicated to crafting a new political synthesis that listens to, and draws the best ideas from, both left and right. “The left has taught us to care for everyone, not just the middle and upper classes,” he says. “The right has taught us the value of personal achievement.” He has distilled his thinking down to four guiding principles: Maximize choices for all; give everyone a fair start; maximize human potential; help the developing world. 

In his new book, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (Westview, 2004), which provided the initial inspiration for this article, Satin fleshes out pragmatic new policy ideas that stem from those principles, like instituting universal health coverage that is private and preventive, endowing every newborn with a financial nest egg, and launching a massive new energy research program that gives equal weight to conservation, renewable energy sources, fossil fuels, hydrogen, nuclear power (yes, nuclear), biofuels, and lifestyle changes. He is quick to stress that he doesn’t necessarily have the right answers, and that his proposals are merely opening salvos in an ongoing debate over what constitutes radical-middle solutions. 

Satin draws inspiration from nonpolitical realms of society where people are blending what works from various orthodoxies. He points to developments like integrative medicine, in which techniques like homeopathy and acupuncture meet conventional Western medicine; socially responsible business, where ecology and social justice combine with economics; and judges’ increasing use of psychology, economics, and even literature in crafting legal opinions. “Politics,” he says ruefully, “is the last area of society where this kind of creative thinking is taking hold.” 

Laura Chasin Healing Through Conversation
One day in 1989, as Laura Chasin watched an abortion debate on Boston public television, it hit her that the debaters were acting like a dysfunctional family, demonizing each other and screaming as if the only way to win were to raise their voices louder and louder. “My family therapy head and my citizen head connected,” said Chasin, who studied political science before becoming a therapist. She realized that a family therapy approach might help to create respectful dialogue about contentious public issues. The Public Conversations Project was born. 

PCP’s first project brought together leaders from both sides of the abortion debate for a series of dialogues. One key, Chasin says, is not to strive for “common ground”; PCP focuses on getting participants to simply listen to each other and see each other as human beings. It may seem counterintuitive, “but after three hours of dialogue, at least the outline of what some would call common ground begins to emerge,” she says. 

Chasin was surprised by the success of those early dialogues and has seen similar results many times over in conversations on all sorts of issues. In northern New England, where industry and environmentalists were deadlocked in a debate over plans to protect the region’s pristine northern forest, PCP led a private dialogue process parallel to the public negotiations. “The people involved in the private process started behaving differently in the public process,” Chasin says. “Instead of attacking each other in the press, they would call each other on the phone.” Eventually, they succeeded in negotiating a plan all sides could agree to. But PCP’s dialogues are not intended to push public policy or move disputing parties toward collaboration. “The more you push for an agreement on outcomes, the less you tend to get it,” she says. “But if you shift the relationships, often they will move spontaneously toward collaboration on solutions.” 

Ted Halstead Writing A New Social Contract
“The polarization of the two-party cartel gives the broad public, in effect, no choice,” says Ted Halstead, co-author of The Radical Center (Doubleday, 2001). What voters are seeking instead, he argues, are new choices and new ways of doing democracy that give them a voice in the governing process. “The defining features of the information age,” he says, “are flexibility and choice” in most realms of life—travel, food, schools, consumer products—but not in politics. At the same time, increased choice for some is running up against the American tradition of fairness, resulting in greater poverty and inequality—that is, fewer choices for the poor. The political parties, he says, are fundamentally trapped in the either-or, us-versus-them thinking of the past. “We need a new social contract worthy of the 21st century that gives us both flexibility and fairness,” he says. 

 

Massive social changes and political realignments are needed, Halstead thinks, and they tend to happen under certain social and political conditions: rapid technological change, war, shifting demographics, economic inequality, and weakening and shifting allegiances to political parties. “All of these factors are aligning now,” observes the one-time environmental activist, who founded his first think tank, Redefining Progress, at age 24. “In the near future we’ll see a radical shift in American politics.” 

Halstead and his staff at the New America Foundation (www.newamerica.net), a Washington think tank for people he calls the “ideologically homeless,” search for innovative policy ideas that draw from a variety of political traditions—like portable health insurance that stays with individuals no matter where they work, or instant runoff voting, which gives voters more choices by letting them rank candidates in order of preference. “The radical center is about openness to rethinking basic principles,” he says. “What makes this radical is not that it’s extreme but that it goes to the ‘radix’ or the ‘root.’” 

Tom Atlee Designing a Wiser Democracy
Ayn Rand once wrote that “there is no such thing as a collective brain.” Go by images from popular culture—like the Borg Collective from Star Trek: The Next Generation, a race of parasites dependent on a totalitarian “group mind”—and that might strike you as a good thing. But, according to Tom Atlee, there is such a thing as co-intelligence—and, he says, it could revive our democracy. 

Polarization is an inherent flaw in our current system of representative government, says Atlee, president of the Co-Intelligence Institute (www.co-intelligence.org). “Majority rule forces us to be adversarial. It doesn’t matter if you’re recommending clean air, you’re a special interest.” Debate is the standard model we use for political discussion, with an implied winner and loser. The deliberative processes he advocates, on the other hand, help participants to step into a different mind-set in which they tap into a cooperative sense of “we the people” and pool their individual smarts to produce collective insights. “This is what the framers of the Constitution intended Congress to be,” Atlee says. 

In his recent book The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All (Writer’s Collective, 2003), Atlee breathlessly chronicles the explosion of new experiments in deliberative democracy taking place around the globe—from citizen wisdom councils to consensus conferences to citizen juries to large-scale electronic town meetings—all of which apply innovative techniques to achieve consensus through dialogue, not debate. “Sometimes quite ordinary people come up with brilliant solutions when they work together well,” he says. 

Virginia Sloan Defending the Constitution 

In the early ‘90s, Ginny Sloan, then a Democratic staffer for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, was growing nervous about the future of habeas corpus, the constitutional right of people accused of crimes to due process. Members of Congress were proposing new laws to limit that right. So Sloan formed the bipartisan Emergency Committee to Save Habeas Corpus, including dozens of prominent constitutional scholars, members of Congress, and activists from many political viewpoints. The group succeeded in staving off further attacks on habeas corpus for at least three more years, until the right turn under Newt Gingrich—and the Oklahoma City bombings—put more stress on the principle. When the House leadership changed hands in 1994, Sloan left Capitol Hill and in 1997 formed the Constitution Project (www.constitutionproject.org), an organization that uses the same model to deal with all sorts of sticky constitutional issues and advocates caution in amending the Constitution. On questions like the death penalty, war powers, defendants’ right to counsel, and the proper balance of liberty and security post-9/11, the project has convened blue-ribbon panels of experts of all political stripes who work together to devise consensus recommendations to help break the partisan logjams in Congress and our state houses. There’s a place for people to advocate on the extremes on any issue—such as abolition of the death penalty—and with my other hats I do that,” says Sloan, a devout civil libertarian. “But there’s also a place for people to work on reform. Otherwise, we never get anything done.” 

Lawry Chickering Empowering Women by Educating Girls
“What can you say about a society that can’t do things everybody agrees about?” asks Lawry Chickering. In 1993 the one-time assistant to conservative icon William F. Buckley wrote Beyond Left and Right: Breaking the Political Stalemate (ICS Press), in which he argues for a shift in focus from the national level to local and regional institutions that can involve people directly in the decisions that affect their lives. Now, he says, “I describe myself as not on the political spectrum.” 

Five years ago, Chickering decided to dedicate himself to something everyone can agree on: educating girls in the developing world. His organization, Educate Girls Globally, is working very much at the local level, in 300 village schools in the northern Indian state of Uttaranchal, encouraging parents to be more invested in their daughters’ education by involving them in the governance of their schools. “The most important factor in educating girls is parental ‘ownership’ of the schools,” he says. “And when you educate girls, you empower women.” Within three years, he hopes to expand the program to some 15,000 schools in India. Meanwhile, he is working with colleagues to bring a similar model into the San Francisco public schools. 

Joel Kramer Pushing for Economic Growth and Justice
“What if I could prove to you somehow that school vouchers were the best approach to giving every kid in Minnesota a quality education? Would you still oppose them?” That’s the question Joel Kramer posed at a recent breakfast meeting of Minnesota Democratic activists. The former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper, a self-described liberal, says he doesn’t necessarily believe vouchers are the answer to our education woes, but he revels in asking questions that challenge a group’s orthodox beliefs. And he’s not afraid to ask similarly challenging questions among conservatives. “Nobody has a monopoly on the truth,” he says. 

In late 2002 Kramer founded a group called Growth and Justice (www.growthandjustice.org)--p art of a wave of new local and regional progressive think tanks across the United States—dedicated to the idea that Minnesota can have an economy that is prosperous, fair, and ecologically sustainable. But this is no ordinary think tank. Rather than starting with an economic theory, writing a report, and walking the halls of the state legislature, Kramer hit the road, convening roundtable discussions with locals in cities and towns across the state, including public employees, academics, politicians, and business leaders. He asked them one question: “What can we do to ensure that working people in Minnesota can provide for themselves and their families?” After nine months and hundreds of conversations with people from across the political spectrum, Kramer and his team published a report that proposed a bold legislative program for improving workforce education and skills training. 

Growth and Justice has received praise from nearly every quarter. But, ironically, as in many states, partisan bickering over gay marriage and other issues brought this year’s Minnesota legislative session to a standstill, effectively killing nearly all new proposals, Kramer’s included. 

Shirley Wilcher Celebrating Diversity
If we don’t counteract the polarization we see in America today, warns Shirley Wilcher, “my fear is that we could end up with a South Africa kind of scenario, where only a small minority leads, and they’re mostly from one race.” A corporate diversity consultant, former Labor Department official under the Clinton administration, and founding member of the National Congress of Black Women, Wilcher is a tireless advocate for affirmative action. Yet she rejects being characterized as a liberal. “I think personal responsibility and government intervention can both be appropriate” responses to racial disparity, she says. “My eye remains on 25 years from now when the Supreme Court says affirmative action should no longer be necessary, and I will sit down today with whomever to find solutions.” In her many op-ed pieces and letters to editors, Wilcher attempts to shift the focus of the affirmative action debate from racial quotas to the need to fix inequities in the K-12 education system, problems that, she says, create the need for affirmative action later on in colleges and workplaces. The daughter of jazz musicians, Wilcher sees the mixing of cultures and traditions in popular music as a sign that Americans can overcome our differences. “If there’s one sign that we in America will be one America, it’s in our music. Today you see white kids doing hip-hop. Fifty years ago, you didn’t see that kind of blending.” 

Joseph McCormick Retracing de Tocqueville’s steps
Joseph McCormick ran for Congress “as a hard-right Christian” in Jimmy Carter’s old district in Plains, Georgia, in 1998. He had been a Republican activist for a decade, but during that campaign, he saw a side of national politics, and himself, that he didn’t like. He found himself raising money from anyone who would give it and felt beholden to a range of interest groups he didn’t really agree with. After losing the race, McCormick retreated, spending a year in a cabin on a mountainside in southwestern Virginia questioning the status of American democracy. 

He read the works of political thinkers throughout American history, from Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to Noam Chomsky, and he found himself falling in love again with the dream that the founding documents of this country brought into being. Inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, he and partner Pat Spino founded the Democracy in America Project, dedicated to building bridges across the political divisions that polarize and separate Americans, and seeking out models for doing democracy better. They traveled the country throughout 2003, filming interviews with more than 30 modern political philosophers and activists, including Ross Perot, Tom Atlee, Ralph Nader, and David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, for use in a future documentary. 

Now McCormick and Spino are the driving force behind the upcoming We the People national convention in Springfield, Illinois, which will bring together hundreds of people for a cross-spectrum dialogue about national priorities in late September. 

Carl Fillichio Seeing Homeland Security from the Citizen’s Perspective
The polarization of political debate is largely the media’s fault, says Carl Fillichio, vice president for innovation and public engagement at the Council for Excellence in Government (www.excelgov.org). According to a 2003 CEG study, media portrayals of government are not biased to the left or right, but to the negative, since the press thrives on controversy. “Because television, particularly cable, is point-counterpoint, it facilitates screaming,” Fillichio says. “It doesn’t make good TV if we agree.” The study showed that the “news hole”—the time left in a half-hour broadcast after you subtract the ads—has shrunk dramatically. In 1981 the average was 22 minutes and 22 seconds; in 2001 it was 18 minutes and 37 seconds. “That puts tremendous pressure on producers to define arguments quickly—“the left thinks this and the right thinks that”—because the nuance of middle ground is too complicated.” 

A former Labor Department spokesman who helped shut down Kathie Lee Gifford’s Asian sweatshops in the mid-‘90s, Fillichio put his media savvy to good use in his latest project, a set of 50 recommendations for improving homeland security, compiled through an innovative public dialogue process. CEG staged seven town-hall meetings from Miami to San Diego, inviting thousands of citizens to speak directly with federal, state, and local officials about their ideas for making the country safer. “In St. Louis, we had the Democratic mayor and [Republican] homeland security secretary Tom Ridge on the panel together, not disagreeing with each other, not speechifying, but listening to the citizens of the city.” And, Fillichio says, it actually made good television “because real people were involved.” Two local stations bumped their daytime soap operas and covered the forum live, gavel to gavel.  


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