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Bill Shireman

Bill Shireman

Posted April 5, 2009 | 10:13 PM (EST)

The Radical Middle Wins in Iowa -- Gay Marriage and the Power of Progressive Centrism


The power we birth, when we bring together the political masculine and feminine

The most inspiring and lasting social progress happens when a few left and right citizens stop battling each other over their mutual prejudices, and start listening, learning, and acting in alignment.

That's what happened Thursday in Iowa, when the power of the progressive middle triumphed in the landmark decision of the state Supreme Court that held the gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

Justice Mark S. Cady, appointed by a conservative Republican governor, wrote in the majority opinion that "the constitutional principle of equal protection" forbids the "exclusion of a class of Iowans from civil marriage."

The ruling "does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union," Cady wrote. But the majority must nonetheless provide equal protection under the law. "We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more."

That's an opinion I find inspiring. But more, it provides a lesson to progressives who often disregard the powerful role that conservatives and Republicans can play in advancing progressive causes.

I am a Progressive Centrist - some call us "post-partisans," "transpartisans," members of the "radical center" or the "radical middle." We embrace ideas from both the right and left, to advance progressive ends.

That doesn't mean we accept the caricatures that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have become. These terms have largely lost their historical meaning. Many who call themselves "conservatives" would find it hard to support a latter-day Lincoln who wanted to emancipate today's most repressed minorities, or a modern Teddy Roosevelt who wanted to tax carbon to protect the climate. Many who call themselves "liberal" believe big government will somehow put a halt to the power of corporations, and would place major sectors of the economy under government control.

Those aren't positions that appeal to me. As a transpartisan, I find myself uncontrollably attracted to, and repulsed by, both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Because my political heroes are Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, I am a registered Republican - a fact few understand, which I like. But the power of the ideas championed by these presidents, combined with their strategic use of political power at just the right moment, enabled them to break through longstanding barriers and decisively advance human liberty, build the conservation movement, and limit the undue concentration of power, whether held by government, business, or the military.

That I could be a pro-Obama Republican, a pro-business Progressive, and a free market environmentalist bends some people's minds. But I no longer find comfort in any single ideology. Nor do I demonize those with whom I disagree. In fact, I may be something of a sado-politicist: I am drawn to those who battle my ideas. I find that, once I understand them, I can work with them, often to advance mutual ends.

That is a source of power few progressives use. For example, many gay rights activists had written off Iowa, feeling they could never win in a corn belt state where many are confused by the whole idea of gay marriage. But the Iowa court's decision is likely to stand, in large part because it does not demand that people like or understand gay marriage. It simply says that the people cannot deny equal protection to any group just because they don't understand them or embrace their culture.

Remember that in California, new liberal voters drawn to the polls by Barack Obama provided the margin that defeated gay marriage. You can't always trust liberals to support freedom - nor conservatives to oppose it - for groups they don't understand.

The Iowa decision illustrates that progress is possible when principled people on the left and right set aside their cultural preferences, and examine their beliefs at a deeper level. When that happens, the left and right find wisdom in each other's core beliefs, and can come together.

As a Progressive, I want to educate children, improve health care, liberate the oppressed, grow green jobs, renew the economy, and save the planet from nuclear or climate disasters - preferably both. As a centrist, I know that we can't achieve any of those objectives - not a single one - if we limit ourselves to the tools of either the left or right. We need both. Finally, as a Republican in the Lincoln and Roosevelt tradition, I believe that among the essential tools of the progressive movement are individual liberty, limited government, and free markets - with environmental and social costs internalized when practical.

Essential? Yes. Radical centrists acknowledge that good ideas come from both the left and right. The most progress is possible, however, when left and right come together. Radical center policy ideas are hatched by thinkers like authors Michael Lind and Ted Halstead, journalist Mark Satin, and philosopher Ken Wilber. They are developed at think tanks like the Progressive Policy Institute and the New America Foundation, and applied to specific needs by groups like the U.S. Climate Task Force and magazines like The New Physician. People often stumble upon them at web-based newsletters like the Radical Middle, debate them in blogs like economist Robert Shapiro's, and advance them through political organizations like NDN, New Policy Institute and many more. (See especially Mark Satin's list of organizations that have advanced selected radical center ideas.)

The radical center brings together the feminine and masculine of American politics - the heart and the head, the purpose and the power, the meaning and the means. Liberal compassion is the heart of American politics - it tells us what we want to be. Conservative discipline, based on scientific rationalism, is the means of American politics - it tells us how to get there. When progressive centrists unite the "what" and the "how," they gain the power to birth new ideas, and grow them to fruition.

We can't achieve the liberal goal of health care for all, for example, if we don't apply the conservative principle of fiscal responsibility, and drive down today's costs. We can't create green jobs, without green profits to pay for them. We can't stop global warming, if we don't build an information based and clean tech economy to replace our consumptive industrial one.

Radicals of the far left and right tend to violate their own principles, to advance their cultural preferences. Many social conservatives want to expand the power of government, to watch and regulate our private acts in our bedrooms. Many neoconservatives lost all sense of fiscal responsibility in advancing off-the-books wars and supporting tax cuts while leaving spending untouched.

Instead of acknowledging they are violating their own deeper principles, these ideologues demonize those on the other extreme. Listen to right-wing talk radio, and you'll hear an endless stream of ratings-boosting insinuations that demonize the left as the source of all the nation's ills. Go to a left-wing political event, and you'll hear the same about the right. Try to get extremists to talk to one another, and they make excuses: There's no point. They'll never change. They're all too extreme. In reality, they're terrified that if they talk to people who challenge their assumptions, they might have to change their minds. They like living their simple, black-and-white, ineffective political lives. It enables them to be self-righteous, win the "friendship" of other martyrs, and go down to glorious political defeat, together, forever.

Instead of talking with their nemeses, liberal ideologues seem to think, if only those hard-headed Republicans could be completely vanquished, the people would finally triumph, teachers would be rich, students brilliant, health care free, and the environment saved. Conservative true-believers seem to believe, if only those soft-hearted Democrats were forever defeated, illegal immigrants would vanish, criminals would be jailed, and we'd have government spending under control.

The truth is, progressives need soft hearts to tell us what's wrong, and hard heads to tell us how to make it right. That is why progressive centrism is more than simply a way to defeat social conservatism. It is a way to understand social conservatism, and embrace its wisdom. The opponents of gay marriage, after all, have a point, and we need to honor it. They think every family needs both a masculine and a feminine influence.

They're right. Where they are wrong, however, is in thinking that requires a man and a woman. Every healthy couple I know - straight or gay - has both a masculine and feminine side. In my marriage, I play the masculine role 55% of the time, and my wife plays it 45% of the time. Or - hmm - it may be the other way around. Either way, our family could not function without both. Children thrive when they see, and learn to express, both their masculine and feminine qualities. They suffer when they are wholly controlled in a too-masculine family culture, or left to their whims by a too-deferential feminine one.

Die-hard liberals and conservatives are like a man who stands fixed on one foot, and steps only with the other. Turning only right, or only left, they are doomed to spend their political lives walking around in circles, blaming others when they get nowhere.

Progressive centrists follow a different path. They step with their left foot, and then their right, and move society forward.