The Centrist Manifesto
By Charles Wheelan
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages
“Something has to change.” Thus begins the economist Charles Wheelan’s latest book, The Centrist Manifesto. Past manifestos had their calls to arms as well, but they tended to be of the more ambitious variety: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor”; “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”; or “Workers of the world unite.” Like Jefferson, Rousseau, and Marx and Engels, Wheelan is impatient with the way his world is working. But his impatience is steeped in exactly the kind of ambivalence that stops warriors in their tracks.
The Centrist Manifesto belongs to a booming genre of complaint: Washington is gridlocked, the gridlock is due to extremism (especially on the right), and so “something has to change.” The argument has been made by beltway boys ranging from the likes of Norman Ornstein to conventional-wisdom mongers in prominent op-ed pages to former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman’s social-media team.
The genre generally disparages partisanship as the byproduct of ignorance or corruption. Hence the common accusation that hot-headed talk-radio hosts or the Koch brothers are manipulating disaffected and ignorant white men for the sake of their own profit margins. Like others before him, Wheelan wants to create a Centrist Party for the silent majority (he includes links to a website, Facebook page, and Twitter handle in the book’s final chapter). Democrats are “soft” and Republicans are “hard,” in Wheelan’s estimation, and he, like Goldilocks, would rather have something just right. He likes Democratic softheartedness toward the poor and marginalized but is turned off by softheaded economic populism. He likes the hardheaded Republican embrace of free markets and personal responsibility but finds the GOP sometimes too hardheaded (that is, thick) in its refusal to deal with climate change and compromise on taxes.
The Centrist Party’s platform mimics the policymaking often taught in introductory economics—uncoerced trade between individuals leaves both better off, which then makes free trade and free markets engines of prosperity. There are, however, market failures, and the government’s job is to help prevent or stave off such market failures when it can. Much of Wheelan’s platform either frees up markets (school choice, drug legalization) or rises to the challenge of market failures (investments in “human capital” or physical infrastructure, a carbon tax). But what Wheelan doesn’t talk about is more telling. He has no answer for the single greatest public-policy predicament of our time—the skyrocketing cost of medical care—other than to say centrist voices should be part of the conversation.
On the divisive social issues of the day, Wheelan looks to “finesse our deep ideological disagreements…by keeping government out of our private lives.” This places him left of center, but not on the activist left. For example, he seems broadly to agree with the Clintonian “third way” on abortion—“safe, legal, and rare”—but unlike some Democrats who might invoke the “third way,” Wheelan actually has thought about policies (such as waiting periods) that would pursue the “rare” part of the triad. On guns, his Centrist Party would respect a right to bear arms for self-defense but would develop a “gun fingerprint” system to track guns used in crime back to their owners.
While there isn’t a sitting politician in the United States who would benefit from reading this collection of clichés, many readers might at least find themselves nodding along. The Centrist Party Wheelan envisions does have a natural constituency that everyone can recognize: the type of high-status American who owes his affluence to the vitality of markets and his sentiments to the prevailing hipster chic. He believes in expertise and know-how and thinks the modern economy can handle more energetic regulators and appropriators. He is, however, wary of more redistribution and additional concessions to narrow political grievances. Broadly unchurched, he thinks little of the moral status of the fetus and his coupled gay friends have bonds that look like marriages to him. He never worries about geopolitical chaos and carnage—after all, he doesn’t summer in countries with those problems. He likes Jon Stewart and Downton Abbey, Thomas Friedman’s columns and Ezra Klein’s charts. His dispassionate political soul has found its mate in Michael Bloomberg, and he wishes the mayor would run for president. Pew aptly calls the Centrist Party’s natural constituency “the Postmoderns.” But the Postmoderns make up all of 14 percent of registered voters. Good luck to Wheelan.
Perhaps because he overestimates the size of his constituency, Wheelan describes a grand plan in which Centrists win several Senate seats and then, because a small bloc is especially empowered by the Senate rules, push through their “sane, pragmatic” agenda. This might be where Wheelan is most implausible. Given the way our system is structured, even if the Postmoderns could elect a handful of (northeastern) senators, they couldn’t push through an agenda of their own. They could only block provisions championed by the House, the president, or other senators. Big reforms in America require big majorities.
The Centrist Manifesto evinces a way of thinking about politics that is of a piece with the times and may soon become more prevalent. At its core is the belief that ideological opinions can best be understood as expressions of psychic wants and needs—hard, soft, pragmatic.
To think all politics, all policymaking, all human affairs are just the working out of psychological predilections misses the very reality of our moral experience of the world. It is on this plane that politics truly happens. Markets do not pop up like mushrooms, needing only the government to correct their failures; they are cultivated by political decisions that recognize the virtues and vices of a modern economy and take steps to secure the virtues and counteract the vices. We protect property rights, contracts, and privacy for a reason. We balance the market with more ancient institutions—nation, community, religion—for a reason as well. Wheelan thinks economic man comes before political and moral man; he has this backwards. And like everyone to have come before him with the fantasy that people without strong convictions will overwhelm those with them because they are greater in number, Wheelan will discover that there is no future in writing a manifesto that argues for nothing.