The Radical Middle

They’re pragmatic. They’re idealistic. And they’re reshaping the future of American politics.

| September-October 2004

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    Image by Flickr user: garryknight / Creative Commons

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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 The map made the point that the left-right spectrum we use to define people’s political views is out of date and incapable of describing today’s complex, nuanced political realities.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. 

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