April 24, 2010


The Radical Center: The History of an Idea (SAM TANENHAUS, 4/25/10, NY Times Book Review)

[H]alstead and Lind drew explicitly on “The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation,” a sociological study published in 1976. Its author, Donald I. Warren, had supervised nearly 2,000 interviews with a cross-section of citizens, almost all of them white, in an effort to isolate the attitudes of “middle American radicals,” whose anger at political and social institutions had erupted in the early and mid-1970s. Some of their protests were culturally driven: uprisings against court-ordered busing in Boston and the “maggots of the media” who supported it, and against the school board in Charleston, W.Va., that had added left-wing authors to grade-school curriculums. Others were reactions to the decade’s raging inflation: a truckers’ protest against rising diesel prices, a consumers’ meat boycott.

Opposing these radicals, Warren reported, was another group, “average middles,” who had more faith in established institutions and the stability they offered. Middle America was thus split into two competing sectors. As many as 43 percent of the “radicals” — but only 26 percent of the “other whites” in the survey — agreed, for instance, that “the true American way of life is disappearing so fast that we need to use force to save it”; and 41 percent of the “radicals” approved of activists who “go to the state capitol and stop legislative sessions,” while only 22 percent of “average middles” favored such actions.

These conflicting outlooks often reflected differences in education, ethnicity and religion. Put roughly, “radicals” were blue-collar Catholics, and “average middles” were white-collar Protestants.

The novelty of Halstead and Lind’s book lay in its suggestion that subsequent changes in demographics and party affiliation had collapsed the two warring factions into one. Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of college graduates in the population at large had more than doubled, from one in 10 to one in four. Evangelicals had joined Catholics among the ranks of social conservatives. The working-class “flight” from the Democratic Party was all but completed in the 1980s and ’90s even as moderate Republicans began to vote for Democrats.

The question Halstead and Lind tried to answer, whether this fusion of the two “middles” might form a new consensus, is again the most pressing issue of the day, with conflicting answers supplied by left and right, and with the outcome fluctuating from moment to moment, possibly confirming the authors’ guess that “the future of American politics may well belong to the major party that is first to renounce its more extreme positions.” This is why “The Radical Center” remains valuable even as the political realities that seemed to discredit its argument a decade ago have themselves proved fleeting.

The cyclical nature of these spasms of rage and the way they evaporate once the economy kicks into gear suggests their mindlessness. But the fusion point has been made apparent in politics across the Anglosphere, not least in W's winning two elections on personal accounts for SS, which Mr. Tanenhaus mistakenly says were unpopular with the public, when, in fact, they were unpopular with Congress. Even the UR's much reviled health care reform is premised on the private provider/government mandate that's been at the core of Republican thought for thirty years. Just add an HSA default for the insurance--with tax payers footing the bill only for HSAs for the poor--and you've got the sort of Third Way reform that, along with personal SS, represents the future.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 24, 2010 6:45 AM
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