John Buell

Finding, Creating, the Political Center

Conventional commentary holds that success lies in the center. When winning requires a mere plurality, voters worry that a third-party vote is wasted. In practice the two “major” parties often converge. Some Republicans fought a losing battle against the New Deal in the late 1940s, but by 1952 the Republicans’ candidate reassured Americans that he supported Social Security. More recently, Reagan conservatism became so dominant that Bill Clinton proclaimed the end of the era of big government. But if success sometimes lies in claiming the center, in times of turmoil it can depend on recognizing that politics is not always a linear enterprise. Agendas that seek simply to split the difference between current alternatives often fail to recognize latent trends and agendas. The most politically astute and effective leaders help find and articulate new centrist visions.

In the 1930s, the virtual collapse of capitalism and the vast inequalities that had preceded it did not eradicate classical conservatism. Andrew Mellon proclaimed the beneficence of depressions that teach the reckless a lesson. But the Depression also spawned hard-edged radicalisms. Communists sought state ownership of corporate enterprise. Populist radicals advocated total redistribution of wealth. New Deal centrism acknowledged the inequity in extreme divisions of wealth and the instability of markets. Modest progressive taxes, old-age pensions geared to the value of work, and periodic job creation reduced instability and inequalities while still allowing scope for material incentives and the magic of the market.

Though influenced by Communists and populists, the New Deal was hardly radical. It successfully guided American politics and economics for about a quarter century. But the very economic security it provided allowed other concerns to emerge. Both FDR and his Republican opponents had assumed that work and economic growth were the meaning of life. As long as workers received fair compensation for their production, owners had the right to control the workplace and set working hours. Both had also assumed the US was the world’s predominant power. These smooth assumptions were challenged as younger workers in relatively full employment sixties demanded more of work than a paycheck. Minorities and foreign nations bit back against a consensus that left them out.

The turmoil and stagflation of the late sixties and seventies brought Republicans a chance to successfully wed an older conservatism to nationalistic and implicitly racist themes. But Reagan conservatism encountered bumps even before George W. Bush. His father’s reign ended with a recession—and one that enabled a new centrism. Bill Clinton recognized that welfare for the disadvantaged would not play with a population scarred by racial division and memories of stagflation. To assure voters that he was wedded neither to market absolutism nor the welfare state, Clinton advocated high tech investment, “free trade,” expanded education and an end to “welfare as we know it” as a way to toughen workers for participation in an international knowledge economy.

Clinton’s political skills failed to yield a sustainable economic or social product. Our politics awaits a new centrism that avoids inflated promises about education or nostalgia for a welfare state that left many in dependence and excluded others.

This centrism would highlight inequality but not turn primarily to taxation (or education) as the principal mode of redressing it. Much of the new wealth is not created by individual initiative but by political favoritism to the wealthy. A new centrism would emphasize ending such favoritism.

It would also concur with conservatives that economic productivity and worker motivation are problems. Nonetheless, rather than feed ineffective tax incentives to the rich, such as lower capital gains taxes, to spur initiative, it would endorse laws and tax policies to encourage more cooperative enterprise, worker controlled businesses, and more free time. With liberals it would agree that unregulated workplaces are neither safe nor environmentally friendly. Nonetheless, it would also resist intrusive and detailed regulations. OSHA and EPA might become broad standard-setters and educators. Workers and activists would be given more access to vital information, legally protected means to stop dangerous practices, and better ways to cooperate on cross-border labor and environmental regulation.

Obama has been accused of moving to—or never leaving—the center. Obama probably can’t win and certainly can’t govern effectively without challenging both McCain’s market fundamentalism and the limited Clinton centrism. As in FDR’s time, his task—and ours—is to fashion a dynamic center.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2008

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