Intro to Third Way Politics

Beyond capitalism and communism lies promising, but uncharted, territory

| March-April 1999

Last October, President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair met at New York University to talk about the politics of a “third way.” Few journalists covered this unusual occasion, and those who did mostly feigned incomprehension. Was there anything here other than muddy centrism?

As a matter of fact, yes. But asking Clinton and Blair to define the new politics is like asking surfers to explain why the ocean swells. They're not the major thinkers behind the movement—they're just along for the ride.

The third way is a political philosophy that poses an alternative to both capitalism and communism. In recent years, it also has come to mean a politics beyond the narrow confines of liberalism and conservatism. Clinton and Blair are right to say we need to abandon our two-dimensional view of the political spectrum. But they're wrong when they imply that the third way is just “postideological” problem solving.

A genuine third way draws from far wider traditions than the current liberal-vs.-conservative dichotomy. While liberals stress the role of government (weakly echoing communism's vision of a state-dominated society) and conservatives stress the role of “free” markets (loudly trumpeting capitalism's vision of a market-dominated society), the third way seeks to find a favorable social balance between the public sector, the private sector, and a well-developed civil society. Instead of saying we must choose between the political preeminence of “the state” or of “the individual,” the third way values both of these realms and adds another important dimension: the community.

The idea is not altogether new. Successive waves of optimism about a third way have landed on American shores throughout this century. The '20s saw smart socialists oppose communist ideals of state centralization. The '60s New Left favored questioning government and “empowering” other sectors of society, ideas that were co-opted by the '80s New Right. In Germany, the Green Party's rise to power was launched with the slogan “Neither left nor right but forward.” And Scandinavian social democracy, in which private enterprise flourishes but government remains a powerful force in pursuing social goals, might be the closest thing to an actually existing model for third way politics.

While it's not yet a household term, third way thinking can be found in the writings of a number of political commentators, including Joel Rogers (see Utne Reader, Sept.-Oct. 1996) and Sam Smith (see Utne Reader, Sept.-Oct. 1997) in the United States, and Hillary Wainwright (editor of Red Pepper) and Stuart Hall (editor of Soundings) in the UK, as well as numerous national and local alternative publications. In a nutshell, third way politics stands for the following:

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