24 March 2010

In Search of the "Radical Center"

Thomas Friedman wants his own tea party. Perhaps ignorant of the recent birth of the Coffee Party, the New York Times columnist calls for a "tea party of the radical center" in his latest opinion piece. He dreads the prospect of greater gridlock the might come with Republican gains in the upcoming congressional elections at a time when the U.S. needs more "nation building." But he holds both major parties guilty of getting in the way of necessary changes. Because the changes Friedman desires are blocked sometimes from the left and sometimes from the right, he deduces from his frustration and growing dissatisfaction with the the major parties the existence of a "center" that is radical, not moderate.

The radical center is “radical” in its desire for a radical departure from politics as usual. It advocates: raising taxes to close our budgetary shortfalls, but doing so with a spirit of equity and social justice; guaranteeing that every American is covered by health insurance, but with market reforms to really bring down costs; legally expanding immigration to attract more job-creators to America’s shores; increasing corporate tax credits for research and lowering corporate taxes if companies will move more manufacturing jobs back onshore; investing more in our public schools, while insisting on rising national education standards and greater accountability for teachers, principals and parents; massively investing in clean energy, including nuclear, while allowing more offshore drilling in the transition. You get the idea.

In Friedman's opinion, the two-party order has broken the American political system. The system is broken, he explains, when "Republicans will be voted out for doing the right thing (raising taxes when needed) and Democrats will be voted out for doing the right thing (cutting services when needed)." Interestingly, this can only mean that the party primary process is the heart of the problem, since that's where elected officials will be punished (if ever) for deviating from the orthodoxy of the ideological base. But Friedman concludes more broadly that the parties themselves, not just their primaries, are the main problem. He takes his cues from Larry Diamond, a political scientist who recommends as a model first step against Bipolarchy a California referendum that stripped legislators of the power to draw the borders of state legislative districts. Diamond and Friedman hope that this reform will end the process of partisan gerrymandering that guarantees both major parties safe seats and uncompetitive elections. How the borders will be drawn now is unclear from this brief reference, but an end to gerrymandering is only a first step, and nearly no step at all if more competitive elections remain two-party contests. This is where what Friedman calls "alternative voting" comes in. He could be describing instant runoff or score voting, but in either case he wants election law to encourage people to consider third parties as their first choices.

Friedman is a globalist above all, and some people who see themselves as either centrists or radicals might quarrel on principle with planks of his "radical center" platform. But I like the sound of the term, to be honest, because it makes the refusal to go "left" or "right" sound less wishy-washy. In any event, if his pursuit of his preferred ends leads him to publicize means that may benefit everyone, and not necessarily him the most, then this new commitment to third-partyism can only be a good thing.

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