Third Way Responds
by Chris Bowers, Fri May 25, 2007 at 10:40:57 AM EDT
Chris raises a series of fair questions about our name and our goals, and we appreciate the chance to answer them.Over at New Donkey, Ed Kilgore adds some more comments:
We named our organization Third Way because we believed that former President Bill Clinton, whose philosophy of governance he called a "third way," started a vital conversation about the future of the progressive movement that we wanted to help carry on.
The question, as Chris notes, is what is this "third way," and what does it mean today?
Well for starters, here's what it's not: for us - and for Clinton - the "third way" is not about "triangulation" between left and right, Democrats and Republicans. It's not a mushy center that merely splits the difference. There is no future in that kind of policy or politics, and the idea of "triangulation" was the spawn of one venal man - Dick Morris - who wasn't speaking for Clinton or his philosophical heirs.
While the meaning of the term "third way" has been used in many different contexts, in different eras and in different nations, here's what we mean: For us, the "first" and "second" ways we implicitly refer to in our name are not wings of the present-day progressive movement, but rather the historic approaches to progressivism. Thus, we are the "third way" in a series, not on a political spectrum.
As we see it, the "first way" of progressivism was reform, mostly through regulation. In response to a radically changing nation and the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism, Teddy Roosevelt and other reformers used government oversight to tame abuse and to turn America outward to face the world.
Next, in reaction to the Great Depression, dramatic waves of immigration and other demographic changes, FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson forged a "second way" for progressives - a basic social safety net, woven by the social programs of the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. These leaders also built and maintained American global leadership.
Those two movements were stunningly successful - they helped forge American greatness, and modern progressives stand on the shoulders of those giants. But today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we believe that the progressive movement must commit itself to the search for a third way - a way that recognizes and responds to the tectonic shifts we've undergone in the last two decades; shifts such as economic globalization, the end of the bipolar world, the rise of stateless terrorism, and the rapid advances in the flow of information that are transforming our economy and buffeting American families.
Such a "third way" must be grounded in core progressive values that balance freedom, opportunity and security. But whether we're designing big thematic ideas, specific policies, messaging or political strategy, we believe that such thinking must not be beholden to the orthodoxies of an earlier era. Indeed, we believe this kind of re-thinking is an imperative both to govern effectively and remain politically relevant.
<Br. This is in the long tradition of progressive thought. The first and second ways for progressives were not about the rigid application of an ideology. Rather, they were built in the spirit of experimentation, pragmatism and reform. We see this next era requiring that same spirit, and we welcome a serious and sustained dialogue with many other progressives about the future of this movement and the ideas that animate it.<Br>
Finally, Chris suggests that we do not share his values and that we "disagree on everything." We don't. In fact, if you read our work, we think you'll find that we actually agree on many things. We hope that readers will check it out and judge for themselves.
And double finally, we appreciate the comments from New Donkey on this issue. While that posting makes many of these points, we thought we should speak for ourselves.
First of all, the term "Third Way," used most often in the U.S. and in the U.K. to describe the New Democrat movement associated with Bill Clinton, and the New Labour movement associated with Tony Blair, referred not to some middle-point between Left and Right, but to a modernizing and self-consciously progressive effort to create a new Left capable of competing with the New Right of the U.S. conservative movement and of the British neo-liberal ascendancy of the early 1990s. In the U.S., the Third Way was aimed at transcending not the Left per se, but the paleo-liberals of the Democratic establishment of the 1970s and 1980s, who were temperamentally reactionary in that their sole purpose in political life seemed to be the preservation of every legislative and bureaucratic detail of the New Deal/Great Society accomplishment of the distant past, regardless of changing times or perverse outcomes.I find a couple of things interesting in these responses. First, the term is used in a historical context, not in an ideological spectrum context. I can accept that, and I like the corresponding rejection of "mushy middle" and "triangulation" politics it seems to imply. One serious question I have about that, however, is the use of the term and the meaning it carries in the vernacular. For example, feminism, which is also based on a series of historical progressions, refers to "waves" rather than "ways" in making this distinction clear in the vernacular. "Third wave feminism" seems to make the historical connection, and modern transformation, to past feminisms much more clear that "Third Way" does in its connection to past progressivism and claims of modern transformation. As an academic who moved into the political realm, I often found difficulty translating the way terms such as "materialism,""idealism," and "liberalism" were used in an academic setting and the way they were used in the common tongue of American political discourse (they tend to mean very, very different things). "Third Way" might want to consider how their name at least implies to most people that they are triangulating and targeting some sort of mushy middle, even if that isn't the meaning they intend when they use the term.
What really started the "Third Way" movement in the U.S., and led immediately to the creation of the DLC, was Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, which was a direct challenge to "the groups," the vast coalition of single-issue advocacy organizations united behind the candidacy of Walter Mondale. "The groups" were focused almost exclusively on taking the party and the country back to the pre-Reagan 1970s; the proto-Third Wayers thought that progressives needed to stand for something, well, progressive, even if the media insisted on calling any alternative to the prevailing Democratic orthodoxy "moderate" or "centrist" or "neoliberal" or even "conservative" (and yes, some advocates of the alternative went by each of these monnikers, along with just plain "liberal"). Mondale's disastrous general election defeat gave the new movement a lot of momentum.
In 1988, Dukakis basically straddled the lines of division in the Democratic Party, but did, it is sometimes forgotten, perform a lot better than Mondale. And in 1992, Clinton campaigned from beginning to end as a "different kind of Democrat," without notably sacrificing any basic progressive principles or for that matter, progressive support.
Further, leaving specific policies aside for a moment, I think it is fairly safe to say that no matter what the more academic purveyors of terms like "New Democrats" and "Third Way" have intended, those terms have frequently been used as a means to self-identify as moderate. When one considers, for example, the list of Democrats in the Congressional Progressive Caucus versus the list of Democrats in the House New Democratic Coalition, the latter list clearly has many more self-proclaimed "moderates" and "conservatives" than the former. Considering that these two caucuses basically don't do much of anything, and are primarily a means of self-identification for the members who join them, it seems hard to avoid the implication that terms like "New Democrat" and "Third Way" are in fact being used as a means to identify someone as centrist.
Yet further, when one considers that the voting gap between the Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, has, in recent years, been virtually identical to the gap between the New Democrats and the Progressives, it kind of does seem like a "third way" that threads the needle between two ideological ends in the Democratic Party. The established media often reports on New Democrats in precisely this fashion, and are spurred on by quotes from New Democrats like:
"As a group, they are moderate in temperament and reformers in spirit," Emanuel said.And, in the same article:
"I think there's tremendous agreement and awareness that getting the majority and running over the left cliff is what our Republican opponents would dearly love," Tauscher said, "And that is a compunction that we've got to fight.". I applaud the rejection of triangulation and the mushy-middle in Third Way's response, as well as their clarification that they use the term in a historic context rather than in terms of a contemporary ideological spectrum. However, at the same time, it seems irrefutable to me that terms like "Third Way" and "New Democrat" have been regularly and repeatedly used both by many Democrats as a means of self-identifying as moderate / differentiating from the party's left-wing, and also by the many in the established media as a means to triangulate against anything left-wing in America. It is in this sense that I don't think the name change I suggested above is in anyway a small point. The common, vernacular, usage of terms such as "New Democrat" and "Third Way" in American political discourse has a history of being extremely damaging to, and thus toxic within, American progressive / liberal / left circles.
Second, I think there are issues to be raised as to what degree the so-called "Third Way" was, in fact, an attempt to thread a moderate needle between various incarnations of right-wing and left-wing ideologies. Certainly, in his first two years of office, President Clinton enacted generally progressive tax legislation, and also attempted to pass universal health care in America. Those two initiatives are probably two of the most progressive things attempted by a President in decades. However, he also forced through NAFTA, which I don't think can be considered generally "progressive" in outlook. NAFTA was, after all, negotiated by Bush the First, and from the get-go was extremely lassiez-faire, pro-corporation in its economic implications.
Perhaps the issue I am trying to express here is better formulated as a question. Over the last two years, to what extent has the closer alignment between the policy proposals of groups like Third Way with what would be vernacularly understood to be American progressivism the result of current, extreme unpopularity of conservative policy? Those in Third Way now identify opposition to the Iraq War as a key to Democratic victory in 2006, for example. However, four years ago, many of those same people were castigating the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for its opposition to the war. To what extent is this policy and messaging shift simply because the national mood has changed, and does it represent something, well, rather "mushy" about Third Way and New Democrats? Is their definition of a new, third way of progressivism based more on whichever way the wind is blowing more than anything else, including "core progressive values?" Looking at the governing values set forth during a major roundtable discussion on "Third Way" progressivism back in 1999, they seem vague enough for this to be a distinct possibility:
"On Sunday, April 25, 1999, the President Clinton and the DLC hosted a historic roundtable discussion, The Third Way: Progressive Governance for the 21st Century, with five world leaders including British PM Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Dutch PM Wim Kok, and Italian PM Massimo D'Alema, the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and DLC President Al From. That seems to border on astrological forecast vagueness to me. It seems like it could change in an instant, just as more and more Democrats are suddenly against deals like NAFTA after the economic boom of the 1990's faded. Whereas Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA through despite majority Democratic opposition, in the Senate his wife now votes against deals like CAFTA. To what extent is this change the result simply of changing public attitude on trade?
"The Third Way philosophy seeks to adapt enduring progressive values to the new challenges of he information age. It rests on three cornerstones: 
"The Third Way approach to economic opportunity and security stresses technological innovation, competitive enterprise, and education rather than top- down redistribution or laissez faire. On questions of values, it embraces 'tolerant traditionalism,' honoring traditional moral and family values while resisting attempts to impose them on others. It favors an enabling rather than a bureaucratic government, expanding choices for citizens, using market means to achieve public ends and encouraging civic and community institutions to play a larger role in public life. The Third Way works to build inclusive, multiethnic societies based on common allegiance to democratic values.
- the idea that government should promote equal opportunity for all while granting special privilege for none;
- an ethic of mutual responsibility that equally rejects the politics of entitlement and the politics of social abandonment; and,
- a new approach to governing that empowers citizens to act for themselves.
This post is already fairly long, so I will simply conclude by saying that while I am heartened by the comments I received from Third Way and New Donkey, there are still reasons to think that terms like "Third Way" and "New Democrat" are both a type of "mushy middle" and a means of differentiating oneself along the contemporary American ideological spectrum. If we can agree, at least in an academic sense, on the need to reject triangulation and meaningless equidistance between conservatives and progressives, then at least that is a start. Further, if we agree on the need for things like universal health care, and a need to oppose the war in Iraq, then we certainly have uses for each other besides simply being allies in an electoral coalition. However, my skepticism is not going to go away in a matter of months, or even a few years. I grew into political maturity watching New Democrats take over the party, and listening to comments from the leadership that often seemed to come at the expense of left-wing progressives such as myself. In just the last three weeks, I have seen Democrats waver on lobbying reform, conduct secret trade negotiations, and temporarily capitulate on Iraq. What I saw during the 1990's, what I saw during the drumbeat to war in Iraq, and what I saw over the last two weeks all seem inextricably connected to me, and one of the ways in which they are connected is through terms like "Third Way" and "New Democrats." Perhaps there will come a time when my inherent lack of trust and skepticism are lessened, but that won't be tomorrow, and it won't be before 2008.