The Centrist Party
The Big Idea
On April 19th, W.W. Norton released The Centrist Manifesto, a book by Charles Wheelan calling for a new political party of the middle. The goal of the Centrist Party is to capitalize on the publication of the book to build momentum around a movement that will give voice and power to America’s largest, and most rational, voting bloc: the center.
Charles Wheelan is a former correspondent for The Economist who has taught public policy for many years at the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College. In 2009, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Chicago to replace Rahm Emanuel. His three earlier books, Naked Economics, Naked Statistics and 10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said have all captured national attention. The Centrist Manifesto is also likely to get a great deal of publicity when it is released in April.
The Centrist Manifesto explains what a Centrist Party would stand for—a set of beliefs around which pragmatic voters who are disenchanted with the status quo can coalesce and organize. More important, the book lays out an electoral strategy built around winning U.S. Senate seats that could empower America’s pragmatic moderates. Here is a quick summary:
Look around. Our country faces some serious policy challenges: chronic budget deficits, runaway entitlement costs, aging infrastructure, an inefficient tax system, complete inaction on climate change, and many others.
We are mired in serious policy challenges in large part because the political process has moved beyond gridlock to complete paralysis. Why are we paralyzed? Because our two political parties are increasingly dominated by their most vocal and extreme members, leaving little room for compromise. This would be a problem in any place at any time but it is particularly frustrating in the United States right now because most American voters are not that extreme.
The largest and fastest-growing bloc of American voters are “independent.” These are people without a party. Many were among the 41 percent of voters who described themselves as “moderate” in exit polls during the 2012 elections.
This is not to suggest that our most serious national challenges have simple and attractive solutions. They do not. But every major issue facing the United States can be reasonably confronted the way the rest of us approach challenges everywhere else in life: Identify the problem; recognize the legitimate differences of opinion; and then do something responsible. Our dysfunctional two-party has lost its ability to do that.
The answer is the Centrist Party—a third political party that empowers the middle. The sane, pragmatic majority in America must wrestle the steering wheel of the country away from the extremists on either side.
Both political parties are intellectually tired; in addition, the Republicans have a simmering civil war going on between the traditional small government conservatives and the Tea Party wing, who are arguably right-wing social activists. The major parties (the youngest of which was founded before the Civil War) have outlived their usefulness. Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford University, summed it up well in 2010: “We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country.”
A Centrist Party should not be a series of muddling compromises between the two parties; rather, it should take the best of both parties, cut loose the tails, and build something better.
After all, there is a lot to like about the Republicans: a belief in personal responsibility, a respect for markets and the forces of wealth creation, an understanding of the economic costs of taxation and regulation, and a healthy skepticism of what government can and cannot accomplish.
And there is a lot to like about the Democrats: a concern for working people, a commitment to a strong social safety net, an impressive record of social tolerance, a long-standing concern for the environment, and a recognition that government can play a crucial role in protecting us from the most egregious abuses of capitalism.
But neither party is putting its best foot forward right now.
The Republican Party has allowed its healthy skepticism of government to evolve into a hardened, oversimplified view that government is always bad and lower taxes are always good. The party has talked tough on spending while doing a tremendous amount of it.
The Republicans are in denial about climate change, which is particularly unfortunate because the party could play a constructive role in finding cost-effective and business-friendly environmental solutions. The party is at war with itself regarding the relationship between the individual and the state. The supposed party of small government is only too eager to intervene in personal reproductive decisions and private morality. Passing a law (or a constitutional amendment) to prevent two people of the same sex from getting married is not limited government.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are entirely unrealistic about the looming costs of America’s entitlement programs. Paradoxically, the party is putting important fixtures of the social safety net at risk by refusing to support the kinds of modifications that would make these programs fiscally viable in the long run (such as raising the retirement age for Social Security).
The Democrats are far too optimistic about what government can accomplish, meaning that good intentions often lead to lousy programs and regulations. Perhaps most important, the self-described party of the middle class needs to show more respect for the forces that create wealth for that middle class, such as international trade. The Democratic Party is abusive of the people who earn profits and grow businesses, as if they were the enemy of the working class rather than the ones signing their paychecks.
The Centrist Party will take the best from each party, discard the nonsense at the extremes, and offer a meaningful path forward. The United States does not need to abandon its neediest citizens in order to balance the books. We do not need to stop investing in things like basic research and transportation infrastructure in order to make the country more productive in the long run. We do not have to forego a sane environmental policy in order to enjoy significant economic growth.
We do need to curtail social benefits for citizens and corporations who are perfectly capable of getting by on their own. We do need to fix a ridiculously inefficient tax code. We do need to raise taxes on polluting activities, particularly the emission of carbon. We do need to implement changes that will make government more efficient and responsive.
In more normal times, these are the kinds of things that pragmatic Democrats and Republicans would agree to do together. Right now, they are not getting it done. In the words of New York Times columnist, it is time for “an insurgency of the rational.”
We will cut loose the ideological tails and combine the best of the Republicans and Democrats into a pragmatic party committed to solving America’s problems.
That is the Centrist Party.
The Centrist Party will change the American political system by becoming a power broker in the U.S. Senate.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the American political system is hostile to all third parties. That is wrong. The system is hostile to third parties emerging from the political fringe—the Green Party, for example. A Centrist Party is the opposite. Every Centrist candidate begins in the middle, which is where most of the votes are.
A Centrist candidate competes by appealing to the big, fat middle, which is where Republican and Democratic candidates rush to get votes after having pandered to the extremist elements in their parties during the primary. In the new scenario, a Centrist candidate will already own that political real estate.
A Centrist candidate will not win the presidency; the Electoral College makes it a near impossibility. Nor will Centrist candidates get meaningful traction in the House of Representatives; the Congressional districts are hopelessly gerrymandered and there is virtually no power associated with being a minority party in the House.
The place to begin is the U.S. Senate. Remember, one quirk of the American electoral system is that the winning candidate need only get the most votes, as little as 34 percent in a three-way race, rather than an outright majority. A Centrist candidate backed by a strong, well-financed national organization could get 34 percent of the vote in a lot of states: California, most of New England, most of the Midwest, Florida, Virginia.
Imagine a Senate that has 48 Democrats, 48 Republicans, and four Centrists.
The Centrist Party could use its fulcrum of power in the U.S. Senate to cajole Republicans and Democrats to come to sensible compromises on important issues.
Think of the Centrist senators as a perpetual Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, only with veto power over the rest of government if the traditional political establishment refuses to pay attention.
Is this fanciful? Of course it is. But why can’t we have some modest political innovation? The new Israeli centrist party Yesh Atid—which was founded just one year ago—recently capitalized on widespread political discontent to win 19 of 120 seats in the Knesset. They are the new Israeli power brokers.
Americans are brilliant innovators—in the private sector. We worship entrepreneurs. We are constantly looking for ways to do everything better. So why would we tolerate two broken political parties, decade after decade?
(Emphasis and links added)