I am one of the scores of Americans left politically homeless. For 37 years I worked to build the Republican Party in Washington state. The election of President Donald Trump and the ascendancy of the alt-right Pat Buchanan wing of the GOP caused me to leave. Since then, like many others, I have written about polarization and the collapse of the center, and I have been part of various efforts to try and create a centrist alternative to our current two-party system.
To date, however, those efforts have not made much progress.
Critics have made the case that the term “centrist” is mushy and undefined, that the political center doesn’t even exist. And they have a point. Politics is ultimately about ideology and specific policy proposals. If centrism is to emerge as a competitor to nationalist populism on the right, and democratic socialism on the left, it needs to be named and defined.
Actually, a coherent centrist philosophy has existed for decades, but beyond using the term “moderate,” it has never been clearly defined in America. In Britain, however, this philosophy is well known as one nationism.
Writing about the changes to British society brought on by the industrial revolution, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1845 said, “We have become two nations — the rich and the poor — between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Disraeli’s answer was to promote programs to suppress class differences and create one nation. Many British observers argue that under Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party has moved away from one nationism, but the point is, in the United Kingdom centrism has a real identity.
The core tenet of this philosophy is the belief that reform, not socialism, laissez-faire libertarianism or alt-right populism, is the right path to create a healthy society. One nationism has been the mostly unspoken underlying ideology of both our political parties for most of the last 120 years. But today we are moving away from that consensus.
Today, the information revolution, and a new era of global economic competition, is once again creating two societies. On one side stands the well educated and well off, prospering in this new economy. On the other stands the working class, often struggling against the effects of automation and the loss of traditional high-wage manufacturing jobs. We are becoming two nations, divided by economics, values and culture.
To bring America back together, we must be a free, open society in which everyone can go as far as their efforts and talents will take them, while maintaining a robust safety net for those who need assistance. We should embrace capitalism, free enterprise and economic growth, and, at the same time, enact programs to protect less fortunate Americans. And we must remain committed to robust American leadership around the world to protect democracy and human rights.
If this sounds familiar it’s because it reflects the common sense, reformist, globalist policies that once guided both Republicans and Democrats, and built the greatest nation in the history of the world.
But today the GOP has been completely taken over by Trump’s isolationist, protectionist, nativist populism. The battle for the soul of the Republican Party has been lost. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is in the midst of a struggle between establishment one-nation centrists and self-described democratic socialists.
If the Democrats join the Republicans in abandoning one-nation centrism, a new party will need to emerge. So, what exactly would a one-nation movement stand for?
• Maintenance of employer-provided health care with a new public option for those still without health insurance.
• A balanced debt-reduction plan that includes both revenue enhancements and entitlement reform.
• Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs amply funded and available to Americans who need help.
• A return to negotiating free-trade agreements that lower tariffs, open markets and create jobs.
• Immigration reform that includes greater border security, compassion for those seeking asylum, and a path to legality for those who have put down roots here.
• Robust support for the global structures that have kept the peace since World War II.
• A technology-driven innovation agenda to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change.
• Respect for America’s growing diversity, and protection of the rights of all Americans to live their lives as they choose.
• And reforms to make our democracy more democratic.
For decades both parties roughly followed this path. Republicans and Democrats were never that far apart. But now, one of our parties — the one that controls the White House — has veered sharply away from the traditional unspoken centrist consensus. The other is in danger or doing the same, but in the opposite direction.
If we are going to protect traditional American policies, those of us who call ourselves centrists need to get busy explaining what it is we support, either as Democrats, or, if necessary, as members of a new one-nation party.