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Book Excerpts
From the book Uniting America: Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy (Yale University Press, January 2006). Edited by Norton Garfinkle and Daniel Yankelovich

E.J. Dionne, Jr., has declared that there is a new “revolt of the middle” in American politics—a growing sense among the vast centrist, pragmatic majority of Americans that Washington’s ideologically driven “politics of polarization” is increasingly leaving them out. If there is such a quiet revolution afoot today among politically moderate Americans—citizens who do not feel at home with the more extreme positions taken by either side in Washington’s ongoing political debates—then such citizens should find Uniting America to be a breath of fresh air.

Uniting America is the first of a series of new books, articles, lectures, conferences, and public initiatives— all designed to recover the lost “vital center” in American politics and help Americans to build a shared, sensible, and hopeful vision of our democratic future.

Selected excerpts:

One of the striking developments of the post-September 11 era has been the disappearance of the center from politics in Washington. The U.S. Congress stands polarized as almost never before, with few moderates in either party attempting to bridge the rancorous divide between Republicans and Democrats. Backed by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the Bush administration has determinedly pushed U.S. foreign and domestic policy to the right, while various constituencies have simultaneously pulled the Democratic Party to the left. Both parties seek to claim the center for electoral purposes, but neither seems in a mood to build a genuine bipartisan consensus on crucial policy issues. Some analysts pronounce America a “50-50 nation,” divided culturally and politically between liberalism and conservatism, city and country, coast and heartland.

Foreign affairs are showing Americans how vulnerable we are to attitudes toward America that take shape in regions very distant from our shores. Voters were highly supportive of military action in response to terrorism, especially in Afghanistan and also in Iraq. But Americans have gradually come to realize that military action cannot by itself solve the problem. In particular, the American-led invasions of two Muslim nations carry substantial costs for the United States. Whatever advances democracy may have made in the Middle East, hostile attitudes toward the United States in that region have brutally intensified, and the United States has alienated many nations throughout the world.

Foreign policy is the issue that most sharply divides Republicans and Democrats today. Republicans put a greater emphasis on the use of force than on diplomacy; Democrats emphasize diplomacy more than the use of force. But clearly an effective foreign policy requires the right balance between the two. The United States cannot allow other nations to veto our legitimate efforts to ensure our own security. At the same time, meeting the global threat of terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation and fostering global economic development clearly requires close cooperation with other nations. The United States has a great deal of work to do to restore the good will it once enjoyed throughout the world and to recreate the conditions for other nations to accept American leadership.

The current divisive mood stands in sharp contrast to the powerful spirit of national unity that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It also contrasts with the spirit of bipartisanship that helped lead America’s democracy to victory in the Cold War.

In the second volume of his famous work Democracy in America (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “Without ideas in common, there is no common action, and without common action, there may still exist human beings but not a social entity. In order for society to exist and, even more to prosper, it is necessary that the spirits of all citizens be assembled and held together by certain leading ideas.”

Are Americans bound together today by such “ideas in common”? Or have we instead become a nation irreparably divided?

A more complete survey of contemporary American life—one that looks beyond the confines of elite perceptions reveals a very different picture from the vision of America as a hopelessly polarized nation. Polarization in Washington is largely the story of the changing nature of our political parties. In the culture at large there are important countervailing trends, powerful tendencies toward unity that provide hope that we can recover the “vital center” of American democracy.

Most Americans do not place themselves at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. In a January 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 45 percent of Americans rated themselves as moderate liberals or moderate conservatives in their approach to politics, while only 26 percent described their views as either extremely liberal or extremely conservative.

Daniel Yankelovich, in his chaper in this book, describes the emergence of a “new social morality,” a cluster of shared values around which strong majorities of Americans seem to be uniting. These values, as Yankelovich describes them, include patriotism, self-confidence, individualism, belief in productive hard work, religious beliefs, child-centeredness, support for community and charity, pragmatism and compromise, acceptance of diversity, desire for cooperation with other countries, and hunger for common ground. Together, Yankelovich argues, these themes provide a great deal of common ground and point to areas of everyday life unpoisoned by political controversy.

Coupled with these current values are a set of inherited values, some dating from the origins of the American nation in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and others developed in the course of our shared history. Often unstated but widely assumed, these include the belief that America should provide its citizens with the opportunity for success through hard work, together with the opportunity for individual self-fulfillment, and that we should conduct our affairs on principles of fairness, justice, and compassion. Included is the essential idea that the rights of citizens must be accompanied by an assumption of a certain shared responsibility for building a good society -- creating, in John Winthrop’s famous phrase, a shining “city on a hill.”

The question is whether the cultural soil—old and new—provides support for the rebirth of a spirit of unity and compromise in our larger democracy, and the answer seems to be that it may do so.

Amid all the chatter about polarization, evidence suggests that the American public’s underlying hunger for political compromise remains strong. In June 2004, a CBS News poll asked Americans whether the major political parties should “stick to their principles” or “compromise” to get things done. An overwhelming majority—83 percent—thought they should compromise. Only 12 percent said the parties should stick to their guns. To be sure, the hard-fought 2004 election wore away some of the support for compromise. Still, in the wake of the election early in 2005, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of those surveyed in a Public Agenda study said they favored compromise on the part of our political leaders.

Among the trends that will eventually compel our political leaders to soften their partisan stance and cooperate to shape a more pragmatic middle course, perhaps the most important is the aging of the population. Demographic shifts of the magnitude of the Baby Boom’s retirement are the political equivalent of climate change: it is we who must adjust to them, rather than vice versa. Neither major party at present has a formula capable of coping with a change of this magnitude. The dream of a laissez-faire society, with minimal government, where every individual is expected to accept his or her economic fate will prove unacceptable to an aging and increasingly medically dependent population that relies heavily on government help for both retirement income and medical care.

At the same time, the position that the New Deal or Great Society programs must not be altered will prove unsustainable in the face of these programs’ eventual overwhelming costs. Attempts to preserve Social Security and Medicare in their present form without tax increases are un-realistic. Yet the scale and scope of the new taxes required to preserve Medicare alone will likely choke the U.S. economy. We must therefore expect both tax increases and benefit adjustments, along with new approaches to make these programs more cost-effective. A key question is how this burden of tax increases and benefit cuts will be distributed; it is unlikely that the middle class will tolerate both higher taxes and benefit cuts while taxes are being reduced or held to a minimum for the highest-income Americans.

A new solution will also have to be found for the U.S. health care system as a whole. More than a decade ago, Republicans resisted Democratic plans for health care reform at least partly on the grounds that there was no health care “crisis.” Now most experts agree the crisis is upon us. Whether the Democratic plans of the 1990s would have proved successful is for the history books to decide. But one thing is clear: as employers find medical insurance increasingly unaffordable—and more and more middle-class families are forced off the insurance rolls—politicians will be under pressure to revisit our methods of paying for and delivering health care.

All these issues will require better balancing between the needs of

  • aging Americans versus younger workers,
  • high-income Americans versus those with middle and lower incomes,
  • the rights of individuals versus the common good of society.
The future of American democracy hinges on achieving these balances with fairness and transparency.

We believe that a vast body of citizens will appreciate the approach to public policy suggested by the contributors to this book. On a range of public policy issues, domestic and foreign, authors here generally try to chart a middle course between conservative and liberal extremes. The chapters provide the beginnings of a blueprint for a new centrist politics, aimed not at serving partisan passions but at finding sensible solutions that serve the common good. These centrist solutions, rooted in core American democratic values, are a first step toward the restoration of the vital center as the compass for American democracy.

We may be at an important turning point in our history. In many ways, the paradigms that our two major parties currently bring to policymaking are inadequate to address these new challenges. In domestic policy, we are re-fighting the battles of the New Deal and Great Society. In foreign policy, we are re-fighting the battles of Vietnam and the Cold War. The force of public opinion may give rise to a new centrism that will recognize that it is time to lay these old weapons and old arguments aside and find pragmatic new tools and ideas to meet our new challenges.

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