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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 Seattle Times and is reprinted with permission.

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Andrew Sullivan, a Brit, argues that Boris Johnson, of all people, really grasps the one-nation formula for politics discussed above. Here’s his argument:

    “Johnson will have to work superhard on this if he is to re-create not the Thatcher coalition but the Disraeli nation. That’s what he means when he talks about “One Nation Conservatism.” That was Disraeli’s reformist conservatism of the 19th century, a somewhat protectionist, supremely patriotic alliance between the conservative elites and the ordinary man and woman. It will take a huge amount of charm and policy persistence to cement that coalition if it is to last more than one election. But if Boris pulls that off, he will have found a new formula designed to kill off far-right populism, while forcing the left to regroup.”

    The story is found here: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/12/andrew-sullivan-boris-johnsons-winning-formula.html

  2. Here’s a reminder from The Atlantic of the scale of the challenge: one consequence of the UK election was the scouring out of anything approaching moderates in Parliament:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/12/moderates-parliament-britain-election/603604/

    A more general thought in response to your well-written article, Chris: it’s pretty clear that the “outs” are at the moment feeling pretty done with the idea that the meritocratic elites who have more-or-less been running the first world since the end of WWII should be trusted to continue running things the same way. Although these elites have done a lot of good in the world (certainly more than earlier hereditary or conquest elites), there has still been ample time for a lot of genteel self-dealing to develop, to the point where the world feels rigged unless you’re inside the rig-o-sphere. This can’t simply be addressed by appeals to the constitution and the virtues of democratic process–even those are now suspect to the outs. There needs to be a reckoning that not only re-opens opportunity, but recognizes that, in the face of technology-driven economic transformation, just creating more-nearly-fair opportunity is probably going to leave a large disadvantaged underclass which is never going to learn to code in Javascript, and perhaps an economy which simply doesn’t need as much human labor, ever again.

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