John P. Avlon’s Independent Nation would be an interesting book under any circumstances. Avlon is a marvelously vivid writer, with a minute knowledge of U.S. political history. But since its author is also chief speechwriter to Rudy Giuliani, Independent Nation is also an important book.
Avlon, who worked for the Clinton reelection campaign in 1996, in between stints with Rudy the mayor and Rudy the presidential candidate, regards himself as a political moderate independent of both political parties. His book studies candidates who have attempted to appeal to voters like himself – and their successes and (more often) failures in elections since 1900.
Of course, “independence” and “moderation” are not the same thing: indeed, most “independent” candidacies and movements in US politics have been more radical than the existing parties: Free-Soilers, Greenbackers, Prohibitionists, Socialists, Greens, all moved outside the two-party structure precisely because the cautious hesitant parties refused to adopt their seemingly wild-eyed new ideas.
But Avlon is certainly right that our contemporary politics has alienated many millions of voters who see themselves as moderate, sensible, reasonable. This is both a matter of substance and of tone – and that’s where Independent Nation gets most interesting for people who want to understand where campaign 2008 may be going.
As a concept, “centrism” must be a very difficult thing about which to write history. The center is the space between the main ideological tendencies of the age, and since every age’s ideological tendencies differ from the predecessor age’s, so too must every age’s centrism. What really do Stephen A. Douglas and Dwight Eisenhower have to do with one another?
But centrism as a strategy and as a style are permanent features of American politics. The effort not to be entrapped by partisan or factional forces Ñ to remain in contact with the broad middle of American politics Ñ to avoid rancor and extremism: these problems do endure over time.
In this electoral cycle, you can see the Democratic candidates struggling with the problem. Confident of victory in 2008, the party base is pushing the candidates away from the center, both substantively and tonally. They imagine 2008 as a 1980 in reverse Ñ a year when the opposition party will be so strong that it can afford to indulge its principles a little.
Republicans too Ñ including Avlon’s principal Ñ have to think hard about the meaning of “centrism.” Fred Siegel has aptly termed Rudy Giuliani an “immoderate centrist”: a centrist in content but not in style. In this respect, he is the direct opposite of, say, Barack Obama: a centrist in style but not in content.
Identifying the center in today’s politics has become more difficult than ever. As American society becomes more unequal, the gap between elite and non-elite points of view widens. In the elite media, a “centrist” supports open immigration and same-sex marriage. In non-elite America, the center would oppose both.
Reconciling these two centers will challenge all the candidates in 2008, and Rudy Giuliani above all. Good to know that he has on hand somebody who has thought as deeply about these issues as John Avlon.