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Authors Describe the 'Future of American Politics' - 2001-12-05

Two writers say they hope to reinvigorate centrist politics through their book The Radical Center. The authors say the new Information Age calls for a new kind of politics that the major U.S. parties are not providing.

The book has been praised by Senator John McCain, a Republican who struck a responsive chord with many disaffected voters in last year's presidential election when he called for sweeping campaign finance reform.

The book is also being praised by Democrats. Some, like Mr. McCain, see parts of their own agenda in the authors' suggestions.

But Ted Halstead, the founder and director of the New America Foundation, says the two leading political parties in the United States have not kept pace with changes in society.

Mr. Halstead and coauthor Michael Lind, a senior fellow with the foundation, addressed the organization Town Hall Los Angeles. Mr. Halstead said, "Although the country has entered the Information age, we remain stuck in Industrial Age ideologies, institutions, and political parties. And neither party has really succeeded in providing a compelling new program for 21st century America. What's new about 21st century America is dramatic technological and demographic changes, changes in the nature of work, but also we have now a far more sophisticated citizenry that is capable of handling far more choices and responsibilities."

Mr. Halstead says the two major political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, have encountered the social changes brought on by globalization and the Information Age and have tried in a halting way to adapt to them. The approaches include the "Third Way" shared by former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the "compassionate conservatism" of President George W. Bush.

The author notes among the changes that modern political parties must cope with workers today moving from job-to-job more often than in the past and many are independent contractors, so benefits tied to their place of employment are less relevant. While recognizing such changes, Mr. Halstead says the major political parties are afraid of offending their ideological factions - that is, the liberals among Democrats and conservatives in the Republican Party.

Mr. Halstead continued, "When you get down to what they're advocating, neither one is really getting out of the boxes of 1960s liberalism or 1980s conservatism. Whether you think about the future of health care, the future of education, the future of our electoral system, what they're arguing is really for tinkering at the margins of our existing problems. For example, when it comes to health care, neither party is advocating what is really needed, which is completely severing the link between employers and the provision of benefits."

The writers argue for a mandatory government-supervised system of private health care that ensures the poorest are covered. Such proposals anger conservatives, who are deeply suspicious of government-run social programs. On the other side of the spectrum, the two authors also argue for a "progressive privatization" of social security pensions. Such proposals anger traditional liberals.

In some areas, the two writers want more choices for individual Americans, and in some cases more power for the federal government. They want to abolish corporate income taxes and adopt a simplified national income tax and a national consumption or sales tax. They want uniform funding and standards for U.S. schools, defying a long tradition of local control. They point out that the current educational system results in wide disparities, for example, providing $4,000 a year for the average student in Mississippi and $12,000 a year in New Jersey.

In politics, the two analysts hope for fundamental changes, including restricting campaign contributions from business or interest groups, a key proposal of Senator John McCain.

Mr. Lind said, "We're in favor of campaign finance reform, but that by itself will not alter the two-party duopoly. A system called "instant runoff voting" would permit you to rate candidates in order of preference, where there are three or more candidates. This would permit third-party candidates to run without wrecking the chances of the party they would like most to see in office."

Too often, says Mr. Lind, votes for so-called third party candidates, end up costing the votes of major-party candidates who hold similar beliefs.

The political analyst notes that voters in San Francisco are considering a system of "instant runoff voting" in their local elections, allowing voters to mark their ballots with their first, second, and third choices. Officials would recount the votes if no one wins a majority on the first count.

Mr. Lind says that system will open up the process to small parties. He said, "It would also permit popular Republicans and Democrats who are denied the nomination by extreme elements in their own party during the nominating process to run in the general election."

Political columnist Arianna Huffington is a vocal critic of the current U.S. political system, with its structure that favors the two major parties. She believes there is growing disaffection among young people and others who call themselves independent voters. "What Michael Lind and Ted Halstead are arguing," she said, "is that every few decades, American politics should be reinvented, and what matters should be reevaluated. And basically they are saying that we need to re-engage young people in our politics, we need to look at our education system and our health care system in more radical ways, and instead of staying in our little boxes on the right or the left, to really think outside the box."

One of many critics who has responded to the authors says that some of their ideas are good, but implementing those ideas is difficult. The critic jokes that The Radical Center is "the point on the ideological spectrum where good intention meets fat chance."

But writer Ted Halstead responds that political pressure for change is mounting. He says changes may be prompted by the failure of the U.S. social security pension system, which most analysts agree must be reformed before it goes bankrupt. He adds that changes in the workplace will bring pressure to alter a system of benefits based on the fading tradition of long-term employment with a single company.

The book The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind is published by Doubleday.