The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics , by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. Doubleday, 272 pages, $24.95.
This is a slim book with big ambitions. Ted Halstead and Michael Lind aim to cut out the rot from America’s public life, to cleanse it with a sweeping program they claim transcends political assumptions unchallenged since the days of the New Deal. Part historical tract, part policy agenda, part visionary manifesto, The Radical Center is, if nothing else, a bracing alternative to the poll-obsessed, cliché-ridden volumes that roll out of Washington think tanks and get distilled in the speeches of the pols they serve.
Messrs. Halstead and Lind are themselves pillars of the New America Foundation, a miniature Washington-based think tank, home to a small band of smart, under-40 journalists who aspire to shake up “our nation’s public discourse” with ideas that fit the brave new age of multiracial cybercapitalism. Mr. Halstead, who created and runs the place, brings in a stream of high-tech entrepreneurs to gab with his future-happy writers. Mr. Lind is a dazzling polymath who publishes fiction, poetry and political theory; he irritates liberals by defending the Vietnam War and opposing affirmative action, and riles conservatives by praising the Great Society and condemning the paranoid style of the Christian Right.
The premise of The Radical Center is that neither major party has a clue how to govern effectively in “the digital era,” when technology expands individual choices for workers as well as consumers. The new order, the authors argue, ought to encourage a search for personal solutions to old problems, economic security foremost among them. But Republicans seem content to abandon the millions of Americans who lack health insurance and are victimized by a tax system that benefits the rich. Democrats are unwilling to take on the unions and bureaucrats who have ruined urban schools, or to consider changes in Social Security that would enable people to get higher returns on their payroll taxes.
The urgent need, claim Messrs. Halstead and Lind, is for a “new social contract” that, as in the quarter-century following World War II, would enable workers to feel reasonably secure and capitalists to get more than reasonably wealthy. “The most successful societies in the Information Age,” they write, “will be those that combine a Darwinian marketplace with a non-Darwinian social safety net.”
To accomplish this, they propose converting the federal government into a firm but loving father who would require every citizen to do what’s good for his or her own future. Under their plan, every citizen would have to buy basic health insurance and build up a tax-free savings account for retirement-with generous subsidies provided for the poor. In return, the state would give every American $6,000 at birth “as a down payment on a productive life.” Financing it all would be a streamlined federal tax system: Every form of income would be treated the same, thus eliminating all exemptions and loopholes (save the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers). They’d also do away with corporate taxes, since businesses just pass them along to consumers.
They don’t stop there. The authors propose a mandate of equal funding for every schoolchild in the nation, smashing, at one stroke, the keystone of local control of education. Towards the end, they squeeze in a passionate argument for making the fruits of genetic engineering available “to all citizens on the basis of need rather than wealth.” A bevy of political reforms-from instant runoff voting on Election Day to transparent “by-laws” for Congress-would supposedly curb the power of major-party elites.
It’s a bold attempt to cut through the reigning politics of florid rhetoric and special-interest glad-handing. But apart from their overture about “broadening individual choice,” the authors don’t make clear how the dawning of the Age of Information either shapes their rather lumpy agenda or makes it compelling. Requiring individuals to buy health-care insurance is less voluntary than the current system, woeful as it is. Most high-tech executives, at least before the current slump, were quite vocal about their Ayn Rand–ish repugnance for a strong federal state with redistributionist intentions. Why would they-as opposed to their increasingly anxious employees-embrace a rigidly progressive tax structure or a ban on the private use of stem-cell replacement?
In truth, Ted Halstead and Michael Lind are operating under a false label. Their oxymoronic title is an attempt to evoke the insurgent sentiments that swirled last year around John McCain (who graced The Radical Center with a blurb); they hope to conjure the spirit of Ross Perot during his first bout of political icon-smashing. Yet what these New American intellectuals have
really produced is another attempt to reinvent modern liberalism. It’s Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s “third way,” only with a more daring program and feistier prose.
Behind the main proposals in The Radical Center is a laudable desire to narrow the wide class gap in income and social services that accompanied the boom of the mid-1980′s and 1990′s. As the authors put it, “for the majority of Americans, who live from paycheck to paycheck, the face of the new economy that they perceive has a scowl.” What is new in their prescriptions is a requirement that the majority pay upfront for their retirement and health-care insurance. But the idea that the feds should enforce a truly progressive tax system and egalitarian school funding-and drop a nice lump of cash into every crib-merely extends the aims and methods of both the New Deal and the Great Society. It only sounds “radical” because the political center is far to the right of where it was in the heyday of L.B.J.
Even when the authors actually challenge current liberal orthodoxy, they do so in a way no authentic conservative would welcome. They despise race-based preferences and call for “an ever more integrated nation” based on “common citizenship and common democratic values.” However, their path to a new melting pot is frankly social-democratic. The authors praise abortive efforts made in the mid-1960′s by Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin to define “disadvantage” by class instead of race; they cheer the growing rate of intermarriage as the ultimate solution to the divisiveness of racial sorting; and they support a broadening of the Civil Rights Act to include gays and lesbians. All in all, they propose a cultural agenda that would cause traditionalists of every faith to keep a firm grip on their prayer books.
It may be true that increasing numbers of people hold libertarian views, but it’s not at all clear that a fascination with cyberspace entails a hunger for sweeping political change. Messrs. Halstead and Lind assume that Americans long for an aggressive government filled with idealists waving the banners of “universal capitalism” and “big citizenship.” But the general alienation from politics that has plagued the nation for three decades may have left us unwilling to welcome a new New Deal, even one attractively wrapped as centrist and in tune with our digital times. Even popular issues like universal health care and an end to big-money campaigns fail to generate much grassroots anger or mobilization.
As the authors recognize, the success of reformers in prior eras depended upon a shared sense of crisis-about corporate malfeasance before World War I, mass joblessness during the 1930′s, battles against fascism and then communism in the 40′s and early 50′s, racial turmoil and a disastrous war in the 1960′s. The onslaught of Sept. 11 may pose perils and challenges on such a scale. But a crucial element of those earlier periods is likely to be absent this time: Large and creative social movements defined the last century’s crises and made it impossible for politicians to look the other way. Where is the groundswell for change from “the radical center” today? Unless and until one is located, social-policy mavens in their think tanks will continue to talk almost exclusively to their clients and themselves.
Michael Kazin is the co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press). He teaches history at Georgetown University .