Response from Third Way
by Matt Stoller, Thu Jun 07, 2007 at 08:56:21 AM EDT
Matt Bennett of Third Way sent me an email following our discussion with the following response to our blogging on the subject of their name and influence. I'm gratified that Third Way would reach out and have this discussion, and hopefully we'll have more of these back-and-forth's. To briefly recap, Third Way is an insidery think tank that encourages Senate Democrats to push moderate policies with messaging, polling, and communications support.
Matt Stoller has reopened the examination of our name, finding our response to Chris Bowers' post"unsatisfying." We felt he raised some good questions, so we are grateful for the chance to take another crack at it.
We did not invent the term "Third Way" - we borrowed it, quite consciously - from Bill Clinton, whose philosophy of governance we share. We did so to avoid calling our organization something anodyne and anonymous. (Does Washington really need another Institute for the Study of Policy?)
But Clinton didn't invent the term either, and its meaning has evolved dramatically as it has moved through time and between countries:
- In Italy, Benito Mussolini (whose philosophy of governance we do NOT share), used it to mean his brand of fascism.
- In Britain, Tony Blair used the term to describe his own government, but it also describes a minor party that advocates Swiss-style direct democracy. And it's a magazine "for people who haven't lost faith in God or lost touch with the world."
- In Canada, it referred to a 2006 health care plan.
- In the Middle East, a small Palestinian party.
- In the Netherlands and parts of Africa, it's used by a group working on human rights in Ghana.
- In the US, we couldn't use the URL www.thirdway.com because it's owned by the Mennonites. (It apparently describes the Mennonite-Anabaptist theology.)
All of this is a bit confusing. But as Chris and Matt's posts show, the biggest difficulty we face with our name sprang from the addled brain of Dick Morris, who urged Clinton to "be more Republican than the Republicans." This led to the infamous "triangulation," which has, hopefully, ended up in history's dustbin.
We were left with a challenge. It cannot be denied that the salience of the term "third way" was damaged by Dick Morris. But as history and geography have proven, the term has had many meanings, and we believed it is still very relevant. So four years after Clinton's departure, we chose the name and undertook the task of continuing the evolution of the term.
That effort continued with our response to Chris. We call ourselves "Third Way" because our mission is to help bring progressive politics into the modern era: to move beyond the first way (Gilded Age reform and the beginnings of a post-colonial international system) and the 2nd way (the New Deal/Great Society safety net and America as a world leader), and toward a 3rd way (molding government to conform to the massive economic, security and cultural shifts facing us today). That is, we believe, what Clinton meant by his "bridge to the 21st century" - helping progressive ideas evolve to remain fresh and relevant.
But if we left any confusion with that explanation, let us be clear: we also chose the name because it sends a signal about where we are philosophically, and that is somewhere in that governing and political space known as moderation.
So label us what you will: "moderates,""centrists," whatever. But do not make the mistake of thinking such labels put us at the center point on an ideological continuum. None of our beliefs or work fall at some midpoint between Michael Moore and Ann Coulter on the wide spectrum of political thought. We are proud progressives, and we join with the entire progressive community in our revulsion at the damage done by six years of cravenness, incompetence and wrongheaded conservative governance.
What makes us moderates is the belief that while ideological movements have had some enormously positive and important impacts on America, we believe that there is also a critical role for what Arthur Schlesinger famously described as "the vital center" - a place that often seeks alternatives to more rigid ideological viewpoints and is grounded in a pragmatic spirit of problem-solving. Bill Clinton, one our most successful presidents, proved that to be true. And so did history's giants - from the Founders to Lincoln to FDR, America has moved forward by the combined efforts of passionate and boundary-stretching outside agitators and more practical inside advocates. And some of our nation's most significant policy gains have been made when our leaders have come together to find principled common ground.
Our current president, the worst in all of American history, has proven the converse by governing from the extreme.
What, then, is moderation? To us, it has at least three important meanings for our work:
First, moderation is often the art of the possible. For example, we support the Kennedy-Kyl compromise immigration bill, despite some flaws, because it is the best hope for this Congress to make some meaningful progress on this pressing national priority.
Second, moderation can mean a willingness to rethink old ideas in an effort to come to grips with the new governing problems this country faces in a post-industrial, globalized 21st century world. To that end, we have taken on some of the shibboleths in progressive politics. And we aim to do so not with rancor or name-calling, but with serious - sometimes heated - discussion and debate.
We believe that questioning progressive orthodoxy - whether it is focused on substance or messaging - absolutely does not mean abandoning progressive principles. Indeed, we believe that it is the only way, in the long run, to preserve and adapt those principles for a new era. A few examples:
- We are pro-choice, but we also believe that progressives must acknowledge the moral complexity of abortion;
- We are strong advocates of sensible gun safety laws and policies, but we also believe that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms (a right that, like all rights, come with restrictions and responsibilities);
- We abhor the Bush tax cuts and economic policy, but we also believe that progressives must respond to middle class anxiety by offering not just an expanded safety net, but a ladder of opportunity for success;
- We believe this country must forcefully combat global warming, but we also believe that nuclear energy must be an important part of that mix; and
- We have always strongly opposed the Iraq War (from our founding in 2005 and, as individuals, from before the war began), but we also believe that progressives must have national security strategy that seeks to put us back on the offense against our nation's real enemies: al Qaeda and its allies.
We will fight to preserve those parts of the progressive legacy that remain effective and fix those that need updating. But we believe progressives must not confuse programs with principles - changing welfare "as we [knew] it" was a good idea in the early 1990s, and there are many other areas where programs designed for the world of the 1930s or 1960s no longer make sense in the 21st century. There is always more than one way to advance a progressive goal - broadening middle class opportunity in an age of fierce global competition, defeating our enemies while protecting our liberties, providing a floor beneath which no one can fall while demanding personal responsibility. We simply reject the proposition that if you're not for the most sweeping proposal - such as government-run single-payer health care - you're not a progressive.
Finally, we believe that moderation recognizes the new political realities of the 21st century and helps build a sustainable progressive majority coalition based on those realities. In many states, the largest block of voters is those who self-identify as Independents and/or moderate. Whatever one's view of the labels "liberal" and "conservative," it is folly to think that most of those self-styled moderates draw their political worldview mainly from traditional progressive politics. To advance a long-term agenda, it is critical to have a robust, ongoing argument inside the progressive movement about how best to connect with those voters. We believe that we ignore or whitewash those differences at our political peril. And we do not subscribe to the notion that we can simply write-off vast regions of the country, like the South.
In short, we are looking for ways of modernizing progressive policy and politics and expanding the reach of our ideas to the vast middle of the American electorate who wants its leaders to solve problems, not score ideological points. And we respectfully disagree with Matt that a moderate, Third Way philosophy of governance and politics is a "dead brand." Quite to the contrary, we are convinced that in 2006, progressive leaders tapped into both that pragmatic vein and anger from the base and leveraged the bungling, corruption, and stunning conceptual failures of the conservative regime to drive them from power in Congress.
But the job is not yet done. While the neo- and paleo-conservatism that has dominated much of US politics since 1980 has been widely discredited as a governing philosophy and political strategy (even Newt Gingrich recently denounced the Bush-Rove base-driven approach), we do not believe that 20th century progressivism has yet been sufficiently re-thought and re-fashioned to be substantively or politically ready to replace it in a way that ensures that our shared principles are dominant in the 21st. We look forward to a vigorous debate about how we all can work to make that happen.