I’ve been reading Michael Lind’s excellent Up From Conservatism. It was published in 1996, so it is quite out of date. But, of course, it isn’t. He describes the far right of that time in a way that explains the fundamental mystery of the Tea Party: why all the libertarian rhetoric, but social conservative action? That is to say, why do Tea Party politicians talk about freedom but legislate about abortion? And why is the Tea Party movement completely okay with that? The reason is that the libertarian wing of the Republican Party has almost no overlap with the social conservative wing. The Tea Party movement is a social conservative movement that the economic conservatives use to gain power. The Tea Party movement today is what the Christian Coalition was in the 1990s.
Lind sees the same problem that I do in American politics, even though it is almost 20 years later: economic liberalism is barely found in either the Democratic or Republican parties. Yet, economic liberalism is hugely popular. He sees it as a transfer from the political world of “machines” and unions to one of “overlords” of left, center, and right varieties. But being rich, they all agree on one thing: “economic policies that benefit the affluent.” And, of course, it is helped enormously by “the gentleman’s agreement within the political-journalistic elite that the difference between ‘left,’ ‘liberal,’ and ‘conservative’ will chiefly turn on matters of social and cultural policy, like abortion and arts funding, rather than bread-and-butter issues.”
He discusses how working class people have been effectively left out of politics that actually affect their lives. On the right, left, and center, there is the old New Deal coalition. These are the people who are socially moderate, but economically liberal. In other words, these are the very people that I am most interested in talking to on this blog. I talk about this all the time. Now, personally, I’m socially liberal too. But I absolutely believe that if we solve our economic problems (primarily inequality), the social problems will take care of themselves. Similarly, no amount of liberalism on social issues will help a great deal as long as we have these enormous economic problems.
Lind calls this group of economic liberals and social moderates the “radical center.” Unfortunately, since that time (including in his later book with Ted Halstead, The Radical Center), the definition has changed. Now what passes for the “radical center” is one of the things that Lind is attacking: the New Democratic movement. That is: conservative Democrats. In fact, it would seem that Thomas Friedman thinks he is a proponent of the “radical center.”
Let’s face it: it’s a terrible term. Wikipedia defines it as, “The ‘radical’ in the term refers to a willingness on the part of most radical centrists to call for fundamental reform of institutions. The ‘centrism’ refers to a belief that genuine solutions require realism and pragmatism, not just idealism and emotion.” That’s the kind of definition that could literally fit anyone. I definitely see myself as promoting radical changes to the system that are entirely based upon policy solutions that are known to work. So okay, include me with everyone else.
But there is a problem here. In Up From Conservatism, Lind talks about the “radical center” as being FDR people: economically liberal, socially moderate. Where is that now? It seems the term now is mostly used by people who think that Clinton was the greatest president ever. And he wasn’t. Not even close. He was rather lucky with a big assist from Alan Greenspan’s iconoclastic monetary ideas. (In general, I don’t like him; but he was right that 5% unemployment is not “full employment”; he kept the party going and he was right.) As I’m arguing in my latest book project, the way to push back against the radical right is not with some mushy centrism that concedes the most important policy issues. There is no radical left to speak of. And we don’t really need one. But we do need a real economic left to push back against the conservative economic juggernaut that that is American politics.
I don’t know what you call that, but it isn’t the “radical center.”