Newsweek gives historian Kevin Baker space this week to scoff at Thomas Friedman's call for a new party of the "radical center" to challenge the increasingly polarized two-party system. Baker dismisses similar advocacy from David Brooks as well, arguing that insurgency in American political history always comes from the fringes, never from the middle -- or what Baker sneeringly calls the "Terribly Sensible Party." Baker makes the common claim that third parties have been useful only insofar as they force major parties to address the concerns of newly articulate and organized outsiders. Outsiders, by Baker's implicit definition, can't be centrists. They make demands that are always seen as extreme by the establishment, whether the outsiders stake their positions on the "left" or the "right."
Moderation or centrism implies a principled willingness to compromise that Baker deems alien to American political experience. Compromise, he claims, comes only when one side is exhausted or intimidated into backing down from its extreme demands. " Change in America is all about large, often primal forces smashing into each other, until somebody gives ground or a ramshackle compromise is finally hammered out," he writes, "That's democratic politics in all its awful splendor, and it's especially true when times are bad and radical solutions are seen as necessary."
Baker sees less willingness to compromise than ever on the contemporary political landscape. He takes the ideological bipolarization of the majority of the electorate for granted. "Where are the voters for the would-be sensible third party?" he asks, "Liberals think we can have big public projects and pay generous wages and benefits to public employees, too. Conservatives aren't clamoring to slash these same wages and benefits so they can make judicious new public investments. Instead, they want to shrink government, privatize it as much as possible, and turn the savings into tax cuts. The differences on any number of other issues are just as deep and unbridgeable."
Today's mood is especially uncompromising, Baker claims, because the nation is torn between two simultaneous insurgencies. "Over the last two election cycles, both the right-wing, libertarian Tea Party and a rather inchoate, more or less liberal movement centered around Barack Obama have sprung up. They are likely to battle it out for some time to come. The argument they are having may often be ugly, but there is no common ground between them, sensible or otherwise." Despite all his wishy-washy qualifiers, Baker wants us to think of Obama's constituency as an insurgency, and by his own implicit definition extremist. Whether Obama-ism (for want of any other label) or Tea Partyism really represent any kind of uprising of the excluded, or anything new under the political sun, is highly debatable.
Thomas Friedman holds out hope for a now mostly silent but subterraneously simmering radical center. By his definition, it would not surprise Friedman if Baker can't see the radical center on the field right now. Friedman's salvation might seem too technocratic for some people's taste, and the columnist has been accused for some time now of a longing for authoritarian rule. But the concept of the radical center remains promising despite its oxymoronic sound. How can a center be radical? How about when it's the "center" only in the imagination of the "left" and "right," each of whom see the center only as a realm of compromise and weak will? Draw two halves of a circle to enclose a space on the page. The enclosed space is of the same substance as the space outside the circle. The center is the same as the outside. Left and right tell us that our options are constrained by the barriers they draw to contain us. Under such conditions, it may well be radical, if not extreme, to observe that the circle does not contain everything, and is arbitrarily drawn. For all I know, Baker may think of himself as a moderate trapped in the center of the eternal circle of ideological bipolarchy. From what I can tell, he thinks that right and left are intractable facts and permanent organizing principles of the political cosmos. How much more radical can you get than to say that he is wrong?