Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now
The term "radical middle" debuted on the national stage in a 1995 Newsweek cover story by Joe Klein, who used it to describe a groundswell of popular disgust with partisan politics as usual. What characterized radical middlers, Klein wrote, was a sort of sanitized anger: respectable, gentrified--but still mad as a wet hen and squawking for reform. This was supposed to be the emergence of a centrist "guerrilla force" of voters, one that a levelheaded moderate like Gen. Colin Powell could use to conquer the White House. Right. Almost a decade later, the electorate is more polarized than ever, and the partisan gulf, like the Persian one, is comfortably ruled by demagogues with oil-slick tongues.
Not so, according to New Age activist-cum-sensible centrist, Mark Satin, whose new book Radical Middle announces the arrival of a kinder, gentler radical middle. Think of it as a "compassionate conservatism" for the center-left. Following Klein, Satin has identified an emergent political class, one that eschews ideology for pragmatism, and that has the potential, so he says, to coalesce into a politically powerful grass-roots network. Satin wants his book to be the movement's manifesto. Like the political newsletters he's been issuing since 1999 at RadicalMiddle.com, Satin's rhetoric employs New Age emotionalism in the service of mostly hard-nosed, rational solutions to a broad spectrum of social and political problems.
True to claim, the policy proposals cataloged here don't fit neatly into the standard left/right model. Some, like the suggestion that the federal government revive the national draft--with voluntary military, homeland security, and community service components--have a neo-populist bent that might appeal to civic-minded people on both sides of the aisle. The most provocative ideas combine a leftist concern for the commonwealth with a conservative instinct for individual responsibility and self-reliance. For example, Satin would guarantee universal health insurance coverage by passing a federal law mandating every individual purchase at least minimal coverage, much like current auto insurance laws. (Poor people would receive government subsidies.) The proposal is a truly radical departure from our current employer-based system, but it might be more consonant with an economy whose workers are increasingly mobile free agents. Another good idea is to fix schools by paying teachers more, but decreasing the power of their unions; teacher pay, according to Satin, should be a function of one's success, not one's seniority.
Some of the proposals seem a little hokey, like the one that would leave all Americans "feeling like they had a stake in society" by doling out individual trust-fund accounts of several thousand dollars at birth. Likewise, the plan to eliminate joblessness by hiring the unemployed to public-sector positions appears as impractical as it is expensive. Satin's reasoning assumes the present rate of unemployment, but if cushy government jobs were guaranteed to all, why would anyone opt to work at McDonald's or Wal-Mart? Arguably, such a proposal would actually encourage unemployment to skyrocket--and with it, the cost of hiring the unemployed.
Despite the occasional lapse, this book is moderate in tone and intelligently reasoned--shockingly so. Reason enough to hope the radical middle doesn't take another 10 years to get it together.