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Issue No. 110 (August 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Post-partisan!: The first uniquely American political ideology is being born
It is an extraordinary time to be a politically engaged American.
On the surface of things, Democrats and Republicans are continuing to trumpet their half-truths even as America loses its energy, its capacities, and its way.
But by now, many of us have figured out that -- if we want to save this country -- it will take everyone’s best ideas (even those of the folks on the far left and far right).
More and more of us are translating that “unsophisticated” kitchen-table wisdom into a new kind of politics, which some are now calling post-partisan politics.
A turning point may have come this year, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly embraced the post-partisan approach to governing -- most notably on June 18-19 at the “Ceasefire!: Bridging the Political Divide” conference in Los Angeles.
The conference was called by the prestigious Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California to “explore ways to improve political dialogue and decision making.”
Quite a few politicians and journalists who’ve been identified with radical-middle and post-partisan ideas took part in the proceedings -- among them Unity08 enthusiast Margaret Carlson and therapeutic-alienation critic Juan Williams. But Bloomberg’s and Schwarzenegger’s powerful featured speeches stole the show.
As anyone from New York or California can tell you, their deeds don’t always match their words. But that’s not the point. What they crucially did at the L.A. conference was legitimize post-partisan politics as a national political option.
It is now on the table for all to see, and many are looking. For example, a week after the L.A. conference, Time magazine ran a cover story on the new post-partisanship.
A new ideology?
If you read Bloomberg’s and Schwarzenegger’s speeches HERE and HERE (and supplement them with Schwarzenegger’s important Second Inaugural and National Press Club speeches, both from earlier this year), you’ll discover more than feel-good rhetoric.
You’ll discover the outlines of a powerful new political ideology, the first genuinely American political ideology we’ve had.
I broke it down into 10 key elements, as follows:
1. Relationships as important as convictions. At Los Angeles, Bloomberg waxed eloquent about “teamwork,” “reaching across the aisle,” etc. He went so far as to call for “a fundamentally different way of behaving -- one built on cooperation and collaboration.” And in his National Press Club speech, Schwarzenegger said, “[Politics] starts with something very basic -- establishing relationships. I read where the President asked a Senator about his son who is in Iraq. The Senator’s dismissive reply was not in the spirit of the question. How did that reply advance the public good?”
2. Criticism well balanced by self-criticism. Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger do not hesitate to criticize whatever earns their ire (e.g., Bloomberg: elected officials “become hooked on partisanship because it offers easy answers.”). But they also look coolly at themselves. For example, Bloomberg pointedly noted that it’s “a waste of time pointing fingers and blaming the politicians in Washington -- after all, we elected them.” And Schwarzenegger told the National Press Club, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t claim to be Gandhi. In 2005 I contributed to the polarization. I tried to push through some [California ballot] initiatives the wrong way -- us versus them.”
3. Overriding commitment to dialogue and deliberation. Ben Franklin used to convene feuding Constitutional Convention delegates under a gorgeous mulberry tree in his back yard (see “Origins of the Post-Partisan Perspective” below). Just so, Time magazine reports that Bloomberg “broke with 200 years of tradition by rearranging [New York’s formalistic] city hall into a bullpen modeled on a trading floor, with his desk in the middle of 50 aides.” And Schwarzenegger told the L.A. conference,
4. Overriding commitment to diversity of opinions and perspectives. Post-partisanship goes beyond just accommodating differences. Bloomberg put it nicely when he said, “Solutions will require a diversity of opinion” [emphasis ours - ed.]. And at the L.A. conference Schwarzenegger said, “If you stick to just one party’s proposal[s] you miss half of the good ideas.” (He also said, “My in-laws for the last 30 years, every time I go over there [they have] Democrats and Republicans over there!”)
5. Compromise not the only endgame. “From my experience,” said Bloomberg,
Schwarzenegger made the same crucial point when he said, at the National Press Club, “Politics is about compromise. . . . Post-partisanship, however, is not simply Republicans and Democrats each bringing proposals to the table and then working out differences. Post-partisanship is the new concept of Republicans and Democrats giving birth to new ideas together.”
6. Simultaneously creative and practical. Bloomberg is attracted to “creative” ideas, he said, not because of a taste for high theory but because he’s interested in “producing real results, solving tough problems.” In his Second Inaugural Address, Schwarzenegger called for “a new creative center . . . a dynamic center.” But his motives are as pragmatic as Bloomberg’s. He expects that the creative middle will generate neither haplessly visionary nor “warmed over” public policies, but “well-balanced and well-grounded” ones.
7. A penchant for big ideas. Partisan politicians “see the same problems we do,” said Bloomberg. “But instead of working to address their causes, and provide real, lasting solutions, they tinker around the edges, offering band-aids. . . . We’re not going to solve [our challenges] with small ideas.” In his L.A. speech Schwarzenegger proudly claimed, “Last year California passed the world’s most comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gases.”
8. A bias for action. Michael Grunwald, who wrote Time magazine’s aforementioned cover story on Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger, put his finger on a key part of the post-partisan dynamic when he said, “Love of action is the real link between Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg.” He quoted Schwarzenegger saying, “We don’t need another meeting on global warming. We need action.” And he observed that the real source of Bloomberg’s appeal is his image as “a businessman who can work across party lines to get things done” [emphasis ours - ed.].
9. A concern with values and principles. Pragmatism and compromise are parts of the post-partisan arsenal. But a deeper part is values and principles that can ensure integrity. At the L.A. conference, Bloomberg devoted a good part of his speech to describing his six key personal and process values: independence, honesty, innovation, courage, teamwork, and accountability. In his National Press Club speech, Schwarzenegger memorably declared, “The left and the right don’t have a monopoly on conscience! We should not let them get away with that! . . . You can seek a consensus and retain your principles. What is more principled than giving up some part of your position to advance the greater good of the people? That is how we arrived at a constitution in this country.”
10. A long-term vision. Bloomberg envisioned such far-seeing policy solutions as a preventive-care-oriented health care system and an anti-poverty program that offers cash to poor people for maintaining high rates of school attendance, participating in job training programs, etc. (“This approach has worked well in Mexico, but it’s never been tried in the U.S.,” Bloomberg said -- thereby boldly and even bravely exemplifying his insistence on taking good ideas from everywhere.) In his Second Inaugural Address, Schwarzenegger offered a vision of California 20 years hence:
Origins of the post-partisan perspective
Modern liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are all 19th century European ideologies (see RE:SOURCES section below). Post-partisanship would be the first genuinely American political ideology.
You can trace it all the way back to Ben Franklin. It was Franklin, as noted above, who often brought feuding Constitutional Convention delegates to his back yard, where he had them sit under a big mulberry tree and hash out their differences (the tree is immortalized on a mural in the U.S. Capitol building, with Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and James Wilson all under it in animated states).
According to Walter Isaacson, author of the widely praised biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), Franklin’s mediating role was no accident. In his political philosophy Franklin had always been “non-ideological, indeed allergic to anything smacking of dogma. Instead, he was . . . interested in finding out what worked.”
For many years Franklin had been developing a “mixture of liberal, populist, and conservative ideas. . . . He exalted hard work, individual enterprise, frugality, and self-reliance. On the other hand, he also pushed for civic cooperation [and] social compassion.” After the Constitutional Convention he became a leader in the fight against slavery.
His vision was of a nation where anyone -- ANYONE -- could rise “based on their willingness to be industrious and cultivate their virtues. In this regard, his ideal was more egalitarian and democratic than even Thomas Jefferson’s view of a ‘natural aristocracy.’” His political program, to the extent that he had one, was “a kindly humanism that emphasized the somewhat sentimental (but still quite real) earthly goal of ‘doing good’ for his fellow man.”
You’d think Franklin’s views would have been quickly converted into an ideology comparable to that of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism. But it never happened. It seems we all got so caught up in the glamour of the traditional European us-against-them ideologies that we never bothered to develop the uniquely inclusive and deliberative (and therefore, arguably, uniquely American) vision that the amiable Franklin meant to pass down to us.
The post-partisan impulse didn’t come back again in a major way until quite recently.
And it didn’t start with politics. It started -- as so many things in America do -- with business. Beginning in the 1980s, businesses were told to humbly listen to and learn from their customers and workers (see Tom Peters’s In Search of Excellence, 1982). Management theory stopped extolling coercive leadership and began extolling consultative leadership (see John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, 1982). Alternative dispute resolution -- mediation and the like -- found its first home not in the political arena but among businesses and in the legal system (see Linda Singer’s Settling Disputes, 2nd ed. 1994).
One of the first political expressions of the new post-partisanship was the newsletter New Options (1983-92), which I built into the second largest independent political newsletter in the U.S. With the help of marketing consultant Roger Craver, now one of the eminences behind Unity08, New Options produced a brochure proudly proclaiming itself “post-liberal, post-conservative, post-socialist,” which it distributed to over half a million addresses beginning in December 1983. The phrase occurred repeatedly in New Options throughout its existence.
In the mid-1990s, the term post-partisan was concocted by John F. Kennedy, Jr. for his magazine George. Although sophisticated pundits made light of the term, Richard Blow in his fine biography of Kennedy (American Son, 2002) argues that Kennedy meant it seriously as a sort of rallying-cry for those of us who refused to buy into the E-Z answers that sophisticated partisans were offering us; the term was therefore “profoundly democratic.”
Lydia Quarles of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government in Mississippi makes a related point when she says, “John-John’s critics suggested that George was contemptuous of partisanship because it was contemptuous of politics, while John-John argued that his aim was to make politics accessible” (“America as Post-Partisan,” Stennis Political Brief, March 2007).
Today many innovative thinkers and groups that label themselves with terms like “radical center,” “radical middle,” “third way,” “creative center,” etc., have begun using the post-partisan moniker. Most notably, the Washington DC-based New America Foundation -- the think tank that helped give the term “radical center” to the American political debate -- now describes itself as “a nonprofit, post-partisan think tank.” Its subtitle now reads, “New Voices, Innovative Ideas, Post-Partisan Policy.”
Even more significantly, the media has begun picking up on the term -- for example, NPR’s Ron Elving recently called Bloomberg “Post-Partisan Mike.” Respected political bloggers like Bill Bradley and Scott Olin Schmidt have begun using it (see New West Notes, June 20, 2007, and Spot On, May 23, 2007, respectively). As noted above, Time magazine recently did a whole cover story on Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger, favorably contrasting their perspective to today’s “partisanship-on-crack.”
Can’t have an ideology without a program
If “post-partisanship” is to be more than a passing phrase, it needs a coherent policy program to accompany it. A program that could appeal to Americans across traditional ideological lines.
That program is being hammered out even as I write. At least six explicitly or implicitly post-partisan agendas, in various stages of completeness, have recently been offered to thoughtful Americans:
-- Bloomberg’s Los Angeles speech contained an admirable amount of policy detail. Among his suggestions (all of which he claims to have already begun implementing):
-- Joe Klein, author of Politics Lost (which we reviewed HERE) as well as the first major national news story on “radical middle” politics (see HERE), had a piece called “The Courage Primary” in the June 25 Time magazine that was even longer than the cover story on Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger in that same issue! It consisted largely of his “dream agenda,” and included such proposals as:
-- A variety of imaginative conservative thinkers, among them David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Brink Lindsey, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Reihan Salam, have begun suggesting what they call “progressive conservative” or “Sam’s Club” or “fusionist” policy proposals (see our summary article HERE). Some typical proposals:
-- John Vasconcellos used to be chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee of the California State Assembly, but is probably best known for promoting self-esteem-oriented legislation in California and elsewhere over the years. Now supposedly retired, he and his associates are touting what they call an “Expanding Human Agenda.” Among its components:
-- Last February the New America Foundation, Washington DC’s most influential cutting-edge think tank, issued a detailed report, Ten Big Ideas for a New America. Its on-line description has been changed to read, “This major new report outlines 10 post-partisan policy proposals that could radically change our nation for the better” [emphasis ours - ed.]. Among them:
-- In September 2005, this newsletter proposed a “Twelve Point Creative-Centrist Agenda.” Many of those points are duplicated above. Among the others:
Ready for prime time?
As a child of the 1960s, I was taught never to look to the mainstream for good ideas.
But now it appears that two quintessentially mainstream politicians -- the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of California -- are translating my beloved radical-middle political perspective into a viable “post-partisan” political ideology.
And it further appears that that ideology is being given programmatic teeth by -- among others -- the Mayor and Governor themselves, Joe Klein of Time magazine, a gaggle of prominent conservative thinkers, a former leader of the California legislature, and the hottest think tank in Washington DC.
The post-partisan ideology is ready for prime time. My only question is, Are all of its supporters ready for prime time? (And that’s no idle question. We are all needed!)
All references for this article have been named or linked-to in the text above.
For modern conservatism and liberalism as 19th century European ideologies, see Jerry Bentley & Herbert Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters (2nd ed. 2003), p. 825. For modern socialism as a 19th century European ideology, see Michael Newman, Socialism (2005), p. 6.
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