Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What is a 21st Centrist?

Well, me for starters...

But it could be you too, if you are fed up with left/right extremism, if you think both liberty and humanity should inform 21st Century governance, not just one or the other.  Generally, we're shooting for something a bit more interesting here than just some blowhard holding opinions ranging from middle of the road to undecided. No, that won't do. Rather let's define a 21st Centrist as anyone who seeks to heal the most basic rift of our time, the left-right divide... largely by crafting new solutions, through balance and understanding, that blend the concerns and core principles of both right and left.

Sounds like a tough job? There is hope. For originally, those concerns were joined. Once, long ago, Liberalism, Libertarianism and Conservatism emerged as offspring of a single grand movement: 19th Century Liberalism, the great consensus opposing the twin tyrannies of monarchy and slavery, and as a result responsible for the founding of most modern constitutional democracies. Proof of the shared roots of left and right is found in shared heroes: our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Lincoln, the early abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass, and so on. Heroes of both right and left, all.

But 19th C. Liberalism broke apart even as it triumphed, with right and left preferring respectively either the principle of liberty or that of social justice. Many now consider that division immutable, eternal... the lopsided pendulum swings of unbalanced governance so part of our landscape that it is beyond our power to change. But really, this epic donnybrook is only a blip in human history, as liable to mutate, vanish or evolve as anything else. Left and right may fight like cats and dogs now, and we think of them as poles apart, but in fact they are intellectual cousins, mere inches apart in the wider scale of human politics. This rift can and should be healed by balancing and rejoining these two key principles, liberty and social justice, now unbalanced and separated by 20th Century ideologies.

The Centrist Tradition

Centrism is sometimes given a bad name by folks who call themselves centrists, but either are really only interested in gains won through politics, or are undecided, or perhaps have no guiding principles at all.

But principled centrism – grounded in a common sense appreciation of balance, moderation and the middle way – is itself a conservative, compassionate tradition with a long lineage stretching back to the balance of the Tao, to the middle way of Buddha and Aristotle, to the moderation of Confucius, Jesus Christ, the Stoics and more recent conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke. It is the core strategic principle of sophisticated martial arts such as Tai Chi or Aikido, which emphasize the power of moving from ones center, of instinctually perceiving and controlling the center of any system of flowing forces. It is the principle that allows surfers to surf, to balance and ride upon complex forces much bigger than themselves (with zero government assistance or intervention, I might add).

Lastly, it is the principle behind most successful conflict resolution, where a skilled mediator will help the warring parties work things out through a process rooted in balance, moderation and the quest for a middle way.

A Matter of Principle

That last example comes to mind, because, as a trained mediator, I have had the opportunity to resolved a few conflicts. At some point, in nearly every mediation, at least one of the parties will push back from the table and declare, "No, I'm not budging. It is a matter of principle!" Well, one thing you learn when you mediate conflicts is that everyone has a principle. And often, both parties are right, and their principles are equally valid. Sadly, good, just and right principles can often conflict. But it is not right that one valid principle should necessarily run rough shod over another valid principle. Finding a balanced middle way that preserves both principles is the best outcome, but incredibly tricky, and more of an art than a science.

This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with left and right in America. Like stubborn parties to a mediation, both sides have their principles, and they are sticking to them, by gum! Yes, both have good, virtuous principles. But each proposes solutions that really only satisfies their own concerns. And both are running out of ideas.

Right now, there is no center to American politics. There is only an increasingly polarized right and left, with a void in between. But that is the way it usually is at the start of any mediation. Mediators know the void is good. It creates a vacuum pressure, drawing the parties in. It creates a space that allows room to maneuver and find new solutions. The void and the current stagnation are a signal that a new consensus is possible, that better solutions may be found by incorporating the concerns and principles of all sides.

On a practical level, that means that right and left will need to agree on NEW solutions that take each other's concerns seriously. But why should they do that? Because whomever advances this first – Libertarians, Conservatives or Liberals – will take control of the center of American political thought, and lead the nation and possibly the world into a new era of consensus. Doing so will also lead to a renaissance of new policy ideas, as wonks stretch their minds to incorporate the other side's point of view. That will mean more grants, more media attention, a broader political base – all good things. So what is the alternative? Stagnation, intellectual bankruptcy, irrelevance.

Where Are The New Ideas?

Actually, the dearth of new ideas on right or left (with a few notable exceptions) is rather shocking. The left peaked in mid-century, with Keynes, FDR's New Deal, the Great Society, and the civil rights and anti-war movements, but seemed exhausted thereafter. During the 1970's and '80's, free market thinkers fueled the Reagan revolution with bold new ideas and approaches at an astonishing clip: these included neo-conservatism, two major schools of economics (monetarist and supply side), school choice, "broken windows" policing strategy, SDI, new strategies of superpower confrontation and engagement, the economic empowerment ideas of Hernando de Soto, the think tank and student journalism movements, and so on. But now, I am hard pressed to name a single new idea of equal stature from right or left in the last fifteen years.

Perhaps the greatest movement in recent years has been the advent of infotainment and the rise of political clowns on both sides: Coulter, Franken, Limbaugh, Moore, Stewart, Maher, Colbert, Jib-Jab, etc. That, it seems to me, is a sure sign of intellectual stagnation and exhaustion... however witty they may be.

So, when you read this blog, expect unexpected new ideas and heretical-but-delicious left-right blender-thinks. For instance, why not use supply side tax cuts to reduce global warming and produce abundant clean energy? Why not provide reliable free health care for the poor, without big government programs or new cost to the taxpayer, by repairing and supercharging the old pro bono system with fair value tax deductions for service? These are the kind of new ideas we need. Ideas that incorporate both liberty AND justice.

For all.

Do you have a 21st Centrist proposal? Let me know through the comments feature, and if it fits, I will post it.

BTW, 21st Centrist is an evolution of my old blog, The Green Energy Tax Cuts Betablog, where you can find information about the application of supply side economics to environmentalism.

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