Like the burghers of that Vermont town, we’d much rather stand in a room and yell than constructively work toward solutions. We enjoy scaring ourselves. Brinksmanship in the House is covered like tropical depressions on the Weather Channel. Are we caught in a Category Five hurricane? Or thrilling to a Six? Try watching CNBC’s market storm trackers without holding your breath and grabbing your wallet. Or Fox News without running for the fallout shelter. We’re addicted to every derivative of tsunami though most of us have never seen one. So we manufacture artificial amber alerts—stand-offs like “Debt Ceiling” fiascos thatallow politicians to posture and sound concerned. All this scaremongering does is obscure genuine problems, which for many of us is actually kind of nice. It’s how we prefer it. We have become a frozen tableau of contrasts. We are rich, with poverty rates at all-time highs. Homeownership is higher here than anywhere in the world, and our homelessness keeps breaking records. Almost 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of kids are obese, and more Americans will go without food today than at any time since the framers.
A recent Vermont town hall meeting began with a simple premise: a microphone stand in the front of the room, a gathering of townspeople, and no agenda. One by one, folks approached the open mike. Each began in measured, halting tones. Time and time again, as they warmed to their subject, their voices rose, veins bulged, until person after person wound up bellowing their belligerent position on subjects ranging from the price of cigarillos to global warming. Venting and spewing, they continued until theirenergy was spent. Then they wordlessly returned to their seats.
There are no foregone conclusions. Except one: If you ignore problems with all your might, you cannot make them evaporate. Instead problems blossom into full-blown crises. Perversely, we seem to crave them. The lives of most Americans must be lacking the excitement of the early days—that frisson of fear when our neighborhood had a cholera outbreak or when we played the roulette game of childbirth. We could breathe black air and in our wood-framed, gaslit cities, fret over constant threat of fire. We run the country as if we crave the calamity of yesteryear—constantly lurching to the brink. Sometimes we’re able to pull back from the maw, other times we let problems play out to the level of full-blown catastrophe.
We are frozen in other ways.
Some call our polarization and inability to unite against problems a crisis in governance. It’s no crisis. It’s a self-inflicted wound. The first part of this book delves into the real reasons we are glaciated like an almond in a piece of toffee. Things are different today. Our refrigeration is much more than a frosted duopoly. There is an infrastructure of divide which has been crafted over decades. And if you do not understand how it works, you can never thaw out. We’ve also become so anodyne to the real problems that we either falsify new ones or worse, we treat them like dry cleaning and have them done for us.
So if you are here to be diverted from the real issues, once again, wrong place. There are plenty of books that can serve you non-problems, false crises, and a pabulum diet of aren’t-you-terrific. Try one of them. This isn’t a book that will tell you that the left or the right has a monopoly on good ideas. Not a single poll was taken in writing it. It’s not a book about China exactly. It’s about how America got diverted and lost momentum, and a dragon leapt into the breach. It’s also about getting our mojo back. I don’t really care if you agree with me on everything. This isn’t that kind of book.
What I do care about is your willingness to face ten catastrophes we’ve allowed to go too far. Together we could come up with ten more, but these are ten biggies we need to address, right now. Actually, yesterday. As with any makeover, the first step is admitting we have a problem. If you deny these ten are major problems, then I ask you to consider something potentially painful—that you, my friend, are part of the problem. We need to get past the stage of denial. We’re here to get things done. It is time for you to take a new approach to your country and develop solutions yourself. That’s where we may differ. I say turn one way, you say another. We will and should debate the approach. But let’s at least agree to cease focusing on non-issues—those pointless diversions that we and the government waste endless time debating—and save our energies for the true challenges.
Meanwhile, our leaders have lost the ability to ask us to do something really basic, really American. They so rarely ask us to just pitch in and help. And that is precisely what I’m asking you to do. You don’t need to be a senator to make change in this country—quitethe opposite. What I love about the Tea Party movement is not its position on most issues, or even its grassroots beginnings. It’s that many of the members have never been political or social activists before now, until they heard the bell go off.
This book is your opening gong.
You can do it too. I’ve chosen to be an agent of change. I’m a naturally impatient man and I like to get things done. I’ve deliberately stayed out of the political arena, in large part because I want results. I confess, I thought hard about a career in politics. But instead I’m running towards problems, not running for office. (That’s a Chris Christie no.) I’ve been able to make things happen in any number of areas that mean a lot to me: charter schools, hunger, homelessness, disability and paralysis, stem cells, health-care reform, and more, because I have framed the terms of my own debate. So can you. For better or worse, I have shown up, staked my ground, pissed some people off, and gotten things done. Children got educated, the hungry fed, the sick cared for, the poor housed, and every once in a while, I got to experience the unremitting joy of watching a paralyzed kid get up from a wheelchair and walk.
You can do that too.
I am also a card-carrying member of a discredited class, with a couple of dozen years plus on Wall Street. We made a hell of a mess, for sure. But we had plenty of collaborators, and I see the end of their fingers pointing at us. So be it. We owe the world—including some of the pointers—a collective apology. But we can only rehabilitate if we’re allowed to use our talents for good. That’s the best way we can say “I’m sorry.” Class-war slurs on Wall Streeters must feel pretty terrific. But the time has come to focus specifically on the few bad guys and let the rest of business get back to doing its job.
I must admit, business has a broken brand. Pretty shabby considering we are branding experts. One way we can get our groove back is by taking the right kind of businesslike approach to solving the nation’s problems. I think doing that is the key to a business rebirth in America. As a nation of activists and societal participants, we all need to redefine the traditional affiliation we have with our government. That metamorphosis starts with changing our relationship with our politicians, which has devolved to they act, we react. Or worse, they fail to act until it is almost or actually too late, then we suffer the consequences. If you want to return America to its former greatness, essentially you have three choices—two political and one social—none of them easy. The two political choices are that you can work to reform and build a voice with your politicians and your party, or you can try to form an alternative party.It’s the classic choice of the lady or the tiger. The third choice is to actually do something to help people in need beyond just writing a check.
The task facing anyone creating a new third party in U.S. politics is Sisyphean. You push your platform almost to the top of the hill only to have it tumble back on you. Most politicians who step completely outside the tent are decried as traitors and ruthlessly dealt with. One look at how popular Governor Charlie Crist fared as an Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida should give you a clue. He was gone in a flash. Sure, there have been a few Independent governors and 20 Independent victories in Congress over the last half century. But Independents don’t have real staying power because if the parties don’t crush you, then they stealyour ideas. When George Wallace brought some disaffected Democrats to his Independent bandwagon, Richard Nixon countered with his unctuous Southern Strategy to woo Mason-Dixon Democrats who had tired of LBJ’s civil rights rhetoric. And when Ross Perot’s charts and graphs started making too much sense to Independent voters in 1992, he found himself with 19 percent of the vote. The following election cycle, both parties stole from his playbook, and Perot sank in the early going.
It may take a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg to create an Independent party, but mere mortals created the Tea Party. The American people deserve better than a slip and slide from the duopoly parties—because two sizes don’t fit all.
The political parties have been operating essentially the same way since the Lincoln presidency. We need office holders who are not solely dependent on the patronage or the ideology of the Republicans or Democrats. We need fresh thinkers.
And they are you.
Which leads to the most annoying question anyone can ask: “So what are you?” “Hey, what is this guy, a libertarian, a socialist, a Republican, a moderate . . a what?” I say, when it’s smart to be conservative, I pick a conservative solution. And when the intelligent outcome requires a liberal interpretation, then that’s what I am.
In short, I am a common-sense American. And if I have to be pinned down like a butterfly on wax then call me a Radical Centrist.
So what does that mean? It means that polarized purists who push the spectrum even farther out rarely have a solution that consistently works, even as they demand consistent orthodoxy from their followers. It means that living between the extremes is where most Americans reside. That’s our home. It also means something pretty obvious:
Ideology is not always helpful in solving problems in the real world.
We’re electing people who are so driven by ideology they sign mandates or pledges (like promising not to raise taxes) before they reach office and fatally compromise their ability to solve problems.
So resist anyone who says, “You’re not Republican enough.” And, “You’re not with the party line.” In fact, take them as compliments. The party line is never the solution because it’s more about the party than the solution. Today’s politicians have become ingenious at long division. When you divide a two-year term into a twenty-year problem, the answer is . . . you are off the hook—so vexing quandaries go unresolved. I say be radical in your interventions and thoughtful in parsing through problems. And the more emotional the subject, the more likely an ideologue has hijacked reason from the argument. That’s where you need the courage of a radical. It used to be the extremes were hard to maintain. Today balance is the challenge. Being a uniter is the home of the brave.
Okay, so once you’ve managed to think like a Radical Centrist, what’s next?
First and foremost, use your voting franchise to elect better candidates. Let’s face it. Most of the folks who represent you, particularly at state and local levels, are not people you would ever hire into your company. Nor would you delegate running your household to them. Can you imagine working for them? So why would you ever consider voting for them? Second, stand by your candidates when they do something brave. It stands to reason that not every issue will fall neatly along party lines. A congresswoman in Seattle may have different priorities from a congressman in Arkansas, whatever the party.
If they cross party lines it is certain the Speaker or the minority leader will rain down on the treasonous member. Will you protect them? Third, don’t vote like an invertebrate—have the backbone and fervor for change. Charter schools bubbled up from individuals and educators dissatisfied with what school boards were offering. After local groups showed that charter schools could work, then government created the construct. Local power brought us community banks and credit unions. Local organizations are the main infrastructure in feeding the homeless. Nobody national tucks in their blanket.
Fourth, for God’s sake, take some responsibility and push for regional authority. Some believe all politics is local. Well, schooling, hunger, homelessness, and quite a bit of health-care delivery are as local as a home team. So how does our irresponsibility manifest itself? We wait for the government, often the federal government, to act on everything and to cater to all our needs.
It’s also time to insist your fellow Americans take more personal responsibility. I think we are far better at guarding our rights than at living up to responsibilities. As a nation we have become expert at delineating: “Here is how I just got screwed.” Here’s a news flash—nobody really cares. They think they just got screwed too. Instead of tabulating our tragedies , why don’t we stop a few things? Regulations never die—especially the really dumb ones. Get moving on them.
Stop feeding the media machine that has helped support the polarization we all find abhorrent. If “talking” heads are instead screaming, change the channel. Find some real reporting and real dialogue. Vote with your eyeballs.
Responsibility will eliminate some of the most corrosive entitlements. If you are indigent, we need to find a way to help you. But if you lived well but saved nothing for health care because it is a God-given right, you missed a generation. Perhaps once upon a time it was such a right. After World War II, there were forty workers for each retiree on Social Security. By 2030, each retiree will theoretically be supported by two workers. That’s like every working family getting a new grandma. The age wave is washing over us, and we don’t have water wings.
Most of the rest of the world has figured out what is just dawning on us today. The government can’t take care of everything unless tax rates are absurdly high and everyone is hard at work. This is the new reality. Get used to it. Finally, get in global gear. China and India know a lot more about us than we know about them. And they like it that way. Do you have any idea where presidential or national candidates stand on the emerging economic powers? Let’s be sure Obama is the last president elected where we have noidea where the candidate stands on China.
Our nation was once filled with uniters. The key to forming a pluralist democracy was not intolerance or unremitting belligerence.As a nation, in the end we somehow found the humility to allow people of different faiths and backgrounds to be equal participants in finding a common solution, especially during partisan times. Looking back, don’t you agree that on people matters sooner or later America always got it right? What’s missing now?
As Ben Franklin purportedly said, “Compromisers don’t make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.” Policy arguments have been hijacked by the outlying voices of the far right and liberal left. Ossification and inefficiency of decision making at all levels of government and society are the result. Real and positive change, often change that the majority of Americans want, is difficult at best, and impossible in any sensible time frame. The debate freezes us like a specimen in the ice. Paralysis leads to bad law. And civil rights are trampled in the process. In the first part of this book, we look at the forces that sustain and preserve paralysis; then we look at ten catastrophes we can avoid if we act soon enough. It’s essential to understand that none of these bad outcomes is afait accompli. Again, the only foregone conclusions are the ones we fail to address.
Nothing less than a revolution will lead this nation back to the center. Oldsmobile moderates will never break the logjam. Tip O’Neill once said, “Moderates, they are always around when you don’t need them.” We don’t need them now. We need immoderates.
We need a Che, a Martin, a Reagan, a John, a Rush for the Center. Otherwise we will never get back there. But we need more than a voice or a solitary leader. We need a movement. And like any movement, it must be driven by the people. To make this trip you will have to embrace that central independent streak that led your ancestors here. For we are all immigrants.
And we are about to take a trip.
It is an Odyssey of courage, a journey to the American soul.
Please come with me. Read this book and join the provocation.
I dare you.