Intro to Third Way Politics

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:

  • Supporting market solutions without falling prey to the false promise of “free-market” power.
  • Rejecting bureaucracy and paternalism in government services.
  • Being open to solutions for social problems coming from government, business, or citizen groups.
  • Recognizing and making use of the enormous untapped resources of poor people and disempowered communities rather than instructing social service professionals to simply “take care of” them.
  • Viewing social conditions as a whole rather than designing a separate program for every problem.
  • Seeking ways for ordinary people to participate fully in democratic life rather than depending upon elitist solutions from “the best and the brightest.”
  • Simultaneously embracing individualist self-expression, anti-authoritarianism, and community.

Third way thinking has been influenced by a lively assortment of activist groups that have rejected “top-down” approaches to social problems, concentrating instead on finding solutions by listening to the people involved.

A growing network of community organizations has pioneered new approaches to housing and neighborhood development, including incubating local small businesses and expanding home ownership among lower-income people. City Limits magazine in New York and the Woodstock Institute in Chicago, as well as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which works in many cities, are all hubs of information about how citizens can make a difference in their communities.

A number of environmental groups are looking beyond one-size-fits-all regulations to “stakeholder agreements” forged by committees of local residents, workers, and corporate managers who come together to hammer out solutions to vexing issues. Sanford Lewis of the Good Neighbor Project in Waverly, Massachusetts, has developed an impressive series of publications on the topic (check out their Web site:

Health care advocates–especially women’s groups–from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective to the National Black Women’s Health Project have nurtured an ethos of empowerment and self-care, changing relationships between doctors and patients.

This new spirit of politics is still fragmentary. Promising ideas abound here and there, system-challenging models emerge and disappear, a good program is implemented in one location but doesn’t spread to others. There has not yet been a sustained attempt to turn all this into a clear political philosophy.

Part of the problem is power. Even the best political model can’t be fully developed without opportunities to test ideas at the level of national or even state policy. There are few high-profile examples of third way policies that can be pointed to as clear-cut success stories in the United States.

Still, the potential for a new way of designing and delivering social services seems immense. Take welfare programs, which today are seen by the public as ineffective and even counterproductive. A third way approach would dignify recipients by establishing decent minimum payments for welfare and by making sure there are varied opportunities for job training and access to community resources. In turn, by raising incomes, this approach would create upward pressure on wages and jobs throughout the economy, benefiting a wider class of citizens.

Bringing third way politics into full flower would mean building (or rebuilding) a new political movement that would involve individuals with aspirations in the private sector as well as government and nonprofit groups, people with the entrepreneurial vision to create companies that can both earn a profit and maintain ethical social standards.

Some of this is already in place. Ellen Chesler of the Open Society Institute has pointed out that in virtually every community, there is an extensive infrastructure of citizen organizations that did not exist 30 years ago, everything from tenants’ unions and environmental watchdogs to nonprofit neighborhood development corporations. A tremendous wealth of experience and policy ideas exists within these organizations. But there are not enough people or institutions in the political arena whose job it is to synthesize the lessons learned, hone them in vigorous debate, and translate them into national policy proposals.

Nor is there an effective mechanism for developing and running third way candidates for office. Third way politics badly needs an electoral identity, and supporters should get serious either about a concerted effort to take over the Democratic Party (locally if not nationally) or about putting enough energy behind one of the existing third parties to allow it to develop third way ideas and present them on the national scene.

Third way politics has substantial organizational strengths and weaknesses. But it also has a tremendous historical opportunity. Liberalism and conservatism are limping into the 21st century with fewer and fewer constituents. A new wave of third way thinking could provide a fresh and coherent approach to politics that is sorely needed. It may be just what the American public, now so angry and apathetic, is desperately seeking.

From In These Times (Nov. 29, 1998). Subscriptions: $36.95/yr. (24 issues) from 308 Hitt St., Mt. Morris, IL 61054

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