Commentary Magazine


The Radical Center by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind

The Radical Center: The Politics of the Alienated Majority
by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind
Doubleday. 272 pp. $24.95

One unmistakable result of last year’s deadlocked election, in which the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader appears to have determined the outcome, has been to enshrine the notion that American politics is desperately in need of reform. The old paradigm of Republicans versus Democrats, we are told endlessly, is no longer relevant. Independent voters are the new majority. John McCain’s powerful cross-party appeal in his primary challenge to George W. Bush was a harbinger of things to come, as politics adapts to shifting demographics and economics.

The Radical Center is the first post-election book to seize on this presumed widespread dissatisfaction with two-party politics. Its authors are affiliated with the New America Foundation, a recently established Washington think tank devoted to generating “policy ideas that transcend the conventional political spectrum.” Ted Halstead serves as the foundation’s president, while Michael Lind, who is the author of a half-dozen or so books and has already made several migrations up, down, and across the political spectrum, occupies a fellowship there.

The Radical Center sets forth both a new philosophy for American political life and specific, far-reaching proposals for changing the role and shape of government. Its basic contention is that the institutions and practices that emerged from the New Deal and took root following World War II no longer make sense for a technologically savvy, mobile population with a highly flexible business sector. Halstead and Lind are not interested in “tinkering at the margins” of this old system; instead, they favor a “wholesale revamping” that will bring about its “institutional and ideological metamorphosis.”

Part Newt Gingrich, part Jerry Brown, and filled with the high-tech patois of Silicon Valley, the authors’ vision is expansive in scope, touching on subjects ranging from gene therapy to local zoning laws. It is also particular. They want to scrap the current federal tax code, and replace it with a national consumption tax. In health care, they recommend eliminating employer-based insurance and adopting a mandatory system of private individual insurance buttressed by a safety net for the poor. In Social Security, they favor creating a two-tiered system: a means-tested program for the poor and private savings accounts for everyone else. In education, they would abandon local financial control in favor of a federal funding mechanism that will send dollars directly to students, enabling them to choose public, private, or charter schools. They would also do away with racial preferences and give more favorable tax treatment to charitable contributions that help the poor.

When they turn to the electoral system, Halstead and Lind’s chief complaint is that our democracy fails to give voters an adequate range of choices. In support of this view, they rehearse frequently cited polling figures showing that today more than a third of Americans identify themselves as independents and even more as “moderates.” They also point to low voter turnout These are all indicators, they write, of increasing voter alienation.

Their antidote to this alienation is to allow for an “instant runoff” in presidential elections as well as in contests at lower levels of government. In this system, voters would no longer mark their ballots for a single candidate but would rank all candidates in order of preference. In a multi-candidate race in which no contender received an absolute majority, the “second choice” votes (and, if necessary, the third, fourth, or fifth choices) would be automatically distributed to the leader until one person emerged with more than 50 percent of the votes.

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In essence, and despite its self-proclaimed radicalism, this book offers less a critique of American society and politics than a detailed agenda for public-policy reform. Most of its various prescriptions are sensible enough, if also open to debate and refinement. Taken as a package, they would almost certainly bring far more flexibility and freedom to American life.

The exception to the general reasonableness can be found in the authors’ scheme for reconfiguring the mechanics of elections. Even if we leave aside the question of whether the same voters who found it impossible to operate a punch-card ballot would embrace a system of grading numerous candidates, we must still wonder about the intentional and unintentional effects of such an overhaul.

One likely effect would be to invite many more candidates to put their names on the ballot. Halstead and Lind would no doubt view this as a salutary outcome, in that it would increase the range of choices before voters; but would it really be all to the good? Most of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-party candidates who would crop up would have no realistic expectation of winning. But some of them could make themselves highly influential nonetheless, holding out promises of support for major-party candidates in exchange for concessions in policy and politics.

The results are not difficult to predict. Suddenly, the smoke-filled room and sleazy deal-making of yesteryear would reappear. Had Ralph Nader been credibly able to threaten that his hard-core supporters would not vote for Al Gore as their second choice, his power over the Democratic nominee would have been enormous, perhaps enough to have earned him a major commitment of resources or a guaranteed appointment to a cabinet-level office.

Halstead and Lind do not consider such possibilities; instead, they repeatedly complain that the Republican and Democratic parties are held hostage by their “extreme” wings. But under their alternative arrangements, the large parties would become even more susceptible of manipulation by extremists. The genius of the two-party system that they would jettison is that it diminishes the role of fringe and single-issue parties and forces the leading candidates to forge broad coalitions. This surely makes for duller politics, which is exactly why our system remains so stable.

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Halstead and Lind’s far-fetched electoral proposal does have one advantage—for them. In brief, it enables them to strike an independent pose, and thus to camouflage an otherwise not terribly-well-hidden fact about their platform. This is that their ideas, with only a few exceptions, are far more likely to be embraced by (some) Republicans than by (any) Democrats. To most of the latter, indeed, those ideas are anathema.

Breaking up the public-school monopoly, establishing private individual accounts for retirement, moving health care away from the employer-based system, simplifying the tax code, ending race-based preferences, expanding the role of charities to help the poor—all of these proposals advocated in The Radical Center have been part of the intra-Republican debate for nearly two decades. Even the authors’ position on gene therapy—permit it only in research for the most serious diseases and birth defects and ban its use for any form of cloning or human enhancement—is remarkably in tune with the tack taken by the Bush administration in approaching stem-cell research.

True, the GOP, with its manifold divisions, has not reached a consensus on all these matters. The establishment of a consumption tax, in particular, is unlikely to become GOP dogma any time soon. But as a matter of political principle and ideology, it is conservatives and Republicans who find these ideas congenial, while the Democratic leadership, most prominently during the last presidential campaign, has vociferously opposed almost everything on the Halstead-Lind agenda. Repositioning and relabeling that agenda by pretending it represents some mythical “radical center” will do nothing to change this overriding reality of our politics.

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About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.