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[Reviewed in THE FUTURIST, January-February 2005]

Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now by Mark Satin. Westview Press. 2004. 220 pages. Check price/buy book.

The Rise of "Radical Middle" Politics

A "radical" movement seeking to combine the best ideas of the left and the right may be replacing political polarization among Americans.

Book Review by Robert Olson

Almost everyone assumes that the political views of the American public are increasingly polarized and that over the generation ahead U.S. politics will either continue to move toward the right or swing back more toward the left.

But that's wrong, claims Mark Satin in his new book, Radical Middle. What’s emerging, if we drop our preconceptions and allow ourselves to see it, is a third alternative--that is, radical-middle politics.

Satin argues that if you tune out the activists and politicians who seem increasingly drawn to wildly partisan half-truths, and simply talk with ordinary people, you’ll see that Americans are not really so politically polarized. Most people are not very ideological at all. In fact, they are increasingly bothered by the strident partisanship they see in the media and they hunger for "a new kind of politics . . . that can take us beyond the usual venomous blame game in Washington."

A large body of social-science research does support Satin’s view that the American public is not as polarized as the media often make it seem. Sociologist Paul DiMaggio and his colleagues at Princeton University recently looked at how attitudes have evolved over the past three decades on issues like race, crime, the welfare state, and the role of women. They analyzed a wide range of survey data by race, age, sex, region, and religious denomination and found that most divisions in attitudes between groups have shrunk and the rest have remained constant.

Political scientist Alan Wolfe of Boston College reached the same conclusion in his 1998 book, One Nation, After All. He argues that disagreements among Americans today are not really that deep, especially compared with those in the past, such as during the Civil War, the 1930s, and the 1960s.

In a new book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (Longman, 2004), Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution, Samuel Abrams of Harvard University, and Jeremy Pope of Stanford University dismiss political polarization as a myth based on a fundamental misunderstanding. They make a crucial distinction between the positions Americans hold and the choices available to them.

There is little evidence that Americans’ ideological or policy positions are more polarized than they were two or three decades ago, although their choices often seem to be. The explanation is that the political figures Americans evaluate are more polarized. A polarized political class makes the citizenry appear polarized, but it is only that--an appearance.

Why have politicians, activists, and the most highly engaged voters become more polarized than the population as a whole? Part of the answer involves large-scale political dynamics. For example:

Other drivers of polarization affect nearly everyone to some extent, but political elites most of all. For instance, political elites tend to be affluent and mobile and more likely than most people to move into communities where others have similar lifestyles and political inclinations, cutting themselves off from people with different views. They are also more likely to use talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet to customize their information sources in a way that reinforces their existing views and prejudices.

As a result, political elites are moving further apart ideologically, and political parties are becoming more "ideologically pure" than at any time in living memory, even though, just as Satin argues, most of the citizenry remains moderate and centrist.

Is "Radical Middle" an Oxymoron?

Satin argues that a new political orientation, a "radical middle," is emerging as an alternative to moving left or right on the political spectrum. Since most people do think of themselves as somewhere in the middle, this is a potentially appealing concept.

But in what sense can there be a radical middle? The term seems like an oxymoron. People on both the left and right of the political spectrum view the middle as the opposite of radical. The middle is bland, conventional, compromised, lacking in principle and direction.

What Satin means by a politics of the "middle" is fairly straightforward. He says we need a politics committed to working through and improving our basic institutions of representative democracy and corporate capitalism. It should connect to the real needs and aspirations of ordinary people and propose practical solutions for the real problems facing citizens, government, and business.

What Satin means by "radical" is more out of the ordinary. It involves far-reaching departures from politics-as-usual, but it has nothing to do with being far to the left or the right.

As Satin sees it, the emerging politics of the radical middle is more future-oriented than conventional politics. This new politics "says we live in a new era dominated by high technology and ‘knowledge work’ and disappearing borders, and we need a politics that’s appropriate for our time." Satin argues that corporations as well as governments need to take the long view, and he suggests changes in laws and regulations to "induce every corporate pacesetter--executives, directors, accountants and investors--to move from a short-term culture to a long-term culture."

Radical middle politics is also characterized by "idealism without illusions," according to Satin. It is more visionary and imaginative than politics-as-usual, but it "faces the hard facts on the ground." It is willing to "address fundamental policy issues" and to stop ducking big challenges like climate change, soaring health-care costs, and overdependence on oil imports from the volatile Middle East.

The most important departure from politics as usual that Satin ascribes to the radical middle is a commitment to finding a higher common ground that integrates best insights from both the left and the right. The radical middle is willing to borrow from neoliberals, neoconservatives, neopopulists, transformationalists, and anyone else with useful ideas--and blend the ideas together in an inclusive process of creative problem solving.

An approach like this certainly is a dramatic contrast to today’s partisan political culture, where saying to someone on the "other side" that "I like your idea" would be like stepping aside to let the opposing team score a goal.

Satin argues, however, that integrating the best ideas from different political positions has always been the real genius of American political culture. He points to Benjamin Franklin as the Founding Father who epitomizes this approach. Better than anyone else at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin "was able to get the warring factions and wounded egos to transcend their differences and come up with a Constitution for the ages." He "wanted us to invent a uniquely American politics that served ordinary people by creatively borrowing from all points of view."

So "radical middle" is not an oxymoron. A politics characterized by long-term thinking, a combination of idealism and pragmatism, and a commitment to finding a higher common ground may be difficult to achieve, but it is arguably a worthy objective.

Key Values: A Basis for Policy?

Satin claims that, when you look at what people who might be called "radical middle" actually say and do, it’s clear that they share what Satin calls the four key positions or goals:

  1. Maximizing choices for every American (and for the U.S. as a whole) as much a possible.
  2. Guaranteeing a fair start in life to every American.
  3. Maximizing every American’s human potential as much as possible.
  4. Being of genuine help to everyone in the developing world.

Satin sees these key goals as updated aspects of the eighteenth-century values that animated the American Revolution: liberty (maximize choices), equality (a fair start), happiness (human potential) and fraternity (help the developing world).

He argues that the growth of these values is part of the transition to a postindustrial era. People are better educated and more expressive and individualistic, so they want policies that provide more options and choices in life, not one-size-fits-all government programs. The poverty, crime, and lack of workforce skills that result from failing to give everyone a fair start are highly dysfunctional for any society striving to be competitive in the postindustrial era. As people become more affluent, they are increasingly concerned with meaningful work, lifelong learning, healthy aging, and other aspects of fulfilling their potential. And in a world united by media, travel, and commerce, our own future success in increasingly tied up with the success of developing nations.

The bulk of the book is devoted to applying these four Key Values to different areas of public policy. Satin tackles health care, legal reform, energy policy, education, affirmative action, employment, biotechnology, national service, globalization, humanitarian military intervention, and terrorism, drawing on ideas from the left, the right, and off-the-spectrum.

There is no way to do justice here to Satin’s outpouring of specific policy proposals. No one will agree with all of them. But there is a good deal of fresh thinking here, and some of the policy ideas Satin presents may turn out to be very important.

Is a New Politics Really Emerging?

The most troubling aspect of Radical Middle is Satin’s tendency to exaggerate how far along this approach to politics really is. The radical middle is presented as something that is already the political outlook of a near majority of Americans. And it is presented as already having most of the answers to the problems before us. Even on topics that few people have thought about at all, such as germline therapy for genetic enhancement of future generations, Satin confidently pronounces that "at the radical middle, we see germline differently," and launches into a set of proposals on the topic.

Satin’s tendency to set out his own favorite policy ideas as if they are the official position of the radical middle, for which he is serving as spokesman, is problematic. It risks turning the radical middle into a new ideology with a detailed political platform. But as Satin himself acknowledges, the radical middle is more an attitude, an approach, a way of thinking than an ideology.

Satin does, however, present a reasonable case that a radical middle is actually emerging. Other recent books, such as The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind (Doubleday, 2001), explicitly set out the concept. The first radical middle think tank, the New America Foundation, has recently been organized. A number of prominent commentators, such as James Fallows and Fareed Zakaria, have begun to associate themselves with this perspective. Satin identifies more than 50 organizations that promote the kind of long-range and higher common ground thinking he advocates.

The radical middle deserves to be recognized an important emerging political development that could reshape the way we think about public policy. If you believe we are more likely to be successful in meeting the future’s challenges if we take the long view, clarify our values and aspirations, combine idealism with realism, and integrate the best ideas from different positions into a higher common ground, you may already be a part of this emerging development.

About the Reviewer
Robert L. Olson
is a senior fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures, 100 North Pitt Street, Suite 235, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Telephone 703-684-5880; e-mail bolson@altfutures.com; Web site altfutures.com. His last article for THE FUTURIST was "The Promise and Pitfalls Of Hydrogen Energy," July-August 2003.

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