Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: The Centrist Manifesto

    There was a point where I jokingly called myself an arch-moderate.  I’m an extreme centrist.  I also, only somewhat jokingly said that if you believe strongly enough, one way or another, to declare yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re too crazy for me to take seriously.  But this was (is) mostly a manifestation of my growing frustration with the vocal elements of the dominant parties in American politics.  Both are wrong about a great many things; typically the things they’re most vocal in advocating.  And like a great many of my fellow Americans, the childish, short-sighted, and often malicious behavior of our elected officials has become so offensive that I feel like washing my hands of the whole thing.  I have often said that the bottom of each list of candidates should have a box labeled ‘No,’ and if it ‘wins’ the election, everyone on that list is off the ticket and a new group of people must be found.

    Try having a sane political discussion with a vocal party member (doesn’t matter which party) when you believe in the right of a law abiding citizen to own guns, to love whomsoever one might wish (stipulating consenting adults, obviously), that it isn’t the government’s place to decide which chemicals an informed citizen wishes to self-administer, that taxes are a perfectly acceptable part of living in a functioning civilization (and the wealthy should pay them, too), that while abortions are a sign of societal failure, banning them does nothing to address the root problem of unwanted pregnancies, or that while a safety net is financially and morally right, a taxpayer funded free ride for individuals or corporations is financially and morally wrong.  You can bet that by the end of five minutes, either that vocal party member will have branded you a communist (if said debater is a Republican) or a fascist (if that debater is a Democrat), or you will be so brain-hurt by irrationality that you need a stiff drink.  I experienced this very thing when switching jobs a decade ago.  I went from a place where my boss and many clients were very right of center to a place where my boss and co-workers were very left of center.  At both jobs, I was seen as a member of the extreme opposing side.  They were so far from the center that anyone not out there with them must be on the opposite end.  But no.  I was (and am) in the middle.  The place I think most of us live in.  And that’s where Charles Wheelan’s new book, The Centrist Manifesto comes in.  He proposes that the parties have become so extreme and partisan they no longer reflect or serve the nation as a whole.  Both parties have been consumed by their most extreme elements, and consequently turned their back on the things that make America great.  E Pluribus Unum.  A government of, by, and for the people.  A place where hard work gets you a piece of the pie.  A place of equal opportunities for all, if not guarantees.

    Wheelan proposes the formation of a third party (not the first time it’s been done), but unlike the passionate idiocy of the Tea Party or the dangerous naiveté of the Green Party, his proposal is a synthesis of the best elements of our two primaries, along with a heaping dose of good old American practicality, rationality, and compromise.  He identifies those things that are good at the core of the Republican party: their understanding of the market, trade-offs between taxation and regulation, skepticism of government involvement, and individual accountability.  And he identifies those things that are good at the core of the Democratic party: their compassion for the disadvantaged, their understanding that good government is a framework for the free market, not an obstacle, and their passion for the environment with an aim for leaving a better world to future generations.  These are not mutually exclusive ideas, in spite of party rhetoric.  And that’s the idea of the Centrist Party, a party that takes the best of each and creates a synthesis more in tune with the majority of Americans.  This will be a party of hard choices, but reasoned ones.  It will not be a party designed to stoke the ego of fringe elements of our culture, but to balance the wishes of the people with the realities of economics and nature.  Sometimes that will mean tax increases, sometimes it will mean entitlement cuts, often it will mean we gain something and pay something.  There is, as it were, no such thing as a free lunch.  And Americans, especially those on the fringe, seem to have forgotten this very basic fact.  You can’t do away with taxes and still protect the nation from terrorists.  You can’t pay for people who are unwilling to work and maintain a healthy economy.  You can’t dump massive amounts of money into a military-industrial complex then ignore the battered soldiers when they come home, banning things people want (books, guns, drugs, abortions, etc.) creates crime that is nearly impossible to fight.  There needs to be a system of tax funded public works and construction to facilitate a free and open market.  Government is needed to do things like help protect citizens (this must include environmental concerns…IT MUST), while it shouldn’t be involved in what we do in our homes.  It needs to build the infrastructure that allows the free market to do its job.  And the sad, but very true, fact is that the free market does need adult supervision (sensible regulation).  When left to its own devises, without checks and balances, it drives toward disaster rather quickly.

    The chapter Sex and Guns is a fantastic example of how to acknowledge differing, yet fully defensible positions on an issue, and still manage to find common ground and actionable solutions.  He correctly dismisses gay marriage as a non-issue that distracts from substantive discussion.  The desire to ban of same-sex marriage is an indefensible position.  Same-sex couples do no harm (and in fact, more of them being married could help society as a whole), thus the government should not block marriages.  This is another case of the supposedly ‘small government’ Tea Party trying to use government in a way that dramatically oversteps its bounds (something they seem very keen to do).  With that useless talking point out of the way, he takes on abortion and gun control, two topics with very understandable and justifiable points of view on both sides.  I’m not going to go into that in this review, but his very rational exploration of the two issues creates an excellent and palatable way of resolving things.  Sure, not everyone will be happy, but it’s not about everyone being happy, it’s about creating a tenable situation, which is something we do not have at this time.  Nobody (sane) wants guns in the hands of criminals and nobody (sane) thinks abortions are good.  But if the war on drugs has shown us anything, it’s that banning something does not solve a problem.  It actually creates a great deal of new and potentially more dangerous problems.

    The book is a call to action for the vast number of us who have become so fed up with the situation we’ve started to tune out.  That ever increasing number of Americans who do not align themselves with either traditional party.  That growing group of us who think of ourselves as ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal.’  Those people with libertarian leanings, who still believe a healthy environment is a necessary element in any plan for the future.  And those with liberal leanings, who still believe in personal freedom.  We are the sizable middle ground.  We are the average, the every-day.  Some of us are religious, some not.  Some of us like hunting, fishing, and Elvis; some of us like yogurt, poetry, and the Beatles (some of us like all of the above).  Some of us like apples and oranges.  And a lot of us really do care about America, the future, politics, economics, the environment, and all that.  We’ve simply been alienated by the loud, fractious, and divisive minority of the extreme Left and Right.  Wheelan makes a strong argument for the need to emotionally and intellectually reinvest in our country and for a means to do that.  I, for one, feel invigorated after reading this book.  Like a good political rally, the book sparked my interest and my hope for a brighter future.  So, if you’re one of us, left slack-jawed by the screaming histrionics of Glenn Beck or Michael Moore, left angry and confused by the pointless and self-destructive obstructionism consuming Congress, disillusioned by the ‘us or them,’ hate-thy-neighbor rhetoric of the extremists, or tired of voting for the ‘lesser evil,’ then check out this book.  For the first time in a long time, I feel like maybe I’ll want to vote for someone again, instead of against the other guy.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Gun licensing is not the first step in and Orwellian nightmare; gay marriage is not the fist step to sex with ducks, organic farming will not feed the world’s population, building and maintaining a fortune is not immoral, climate change is not a liberal conspiracy, and wanting to own a gun isn’t compensating for a small penis (all actual arguments I have heard).  If you’ve ever disagreed with people because they were a Republican or because they were a Democrat, and not because of what they said, you’re part of the problem and you need a dose of centrism.  Give this book a read, and welcome back to the world of the sane.

The Centrist Manifesto
Author: Charles Wheelan
Publisher: Norton
ISBN: 978-0-393-34687-9


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