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The Radical Middle: They’re prgamatic. They’re idealistic.

Date Published: 05/01/2009

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The Radical Middle: They're prgamatic. They're idealistic.

Utne Magazine | September/October 2004
By Leif Utne

You're hearing it everywhere these days. Political commentators across the board are saying that America is not as divided as we thought. Research has shown that on issues ranging from abortion to trade, gun control to the environment, Americans agree with each other more today than they did 20 years ago. It's the politicians and special interests -- and the media that egg them on -- that are driving the polarization of political debate in this country.

Thanks in large part to that polarization, our political system is sick, dysfunctional, and driving people away. Fully half the electorate doesn't even bother to vote. Candidates for public office are even trained in techniques to suppress turnout among undecided voters -- some obvious, like running negative attack ads; others beyond the pale, like dressing up volunteers as police officers and parking them outside polling places in poor neighborhoods to intimidate minority voters. Problems facing the country are mounting, from decaying schools to global terror, yet the warring camps in charge keep bickering over whose silent majority is bigger. It's as if the parents are standing on the shore fighting over which way to row the boat while the kids are drowning in the middle of the lake.

Yet there are real signs of hope. More and more people fed up with partisan gridlock are not responding with cynicism and inaction; rather, they're rolling up their sleeves and coming together across ideological lines, building unlikely coalitions and moving toward solutions to seemingly intractable problems that don't easily fit the tired old left-right paradigm -- like the global AIDS crisis, energy independence, education, poverty, middle-class decline, campaign finance, globalization, the burgeoning prison population, and climate change. This "radical middle" is not about cynical, poll-driven attempts to find the mushy political center. It's about people who have stepped outside old ideological boxes to fight boldly for the common good.

Here is a look at a few of the remarkable thinkers and doers who are shaping this new radical-middle politics. Some of them focus on policy, proposing new solutions that a majority of Americans could get behind and advocating these measures in the marketplace of ideas via newsletters, reports, books and magazine articles, talk shows, and lobbying. Others focus on process, designing new ways of doing democracy that heal the wounds of political division in the body politic and tap into our collective wisdom by bringing many voices into dialogue. Still others are going outside the political process altogether, creating innovative projects that involve citizens directly in creating solutions. The common thread uniting all of these people is a belief that our political system is seriously flawed and that the answers lie beyond blind adherence to old orthodoxies.

Joel Kramer Pushing for Economic Growth and Justice

"What if I could prove to you somehow that school vouchers were the best approach to giving every kid in Minnesota a quality education? Would you still oppose them?" That's the question Joel Kramer posed at a recent breakfast meeting of Minnesota Democratic activists. The former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper, a self-described liberal, says he doesn't necessarily believe vouchers are the answer to our education woes, but he revels in asking questions that challenge a group's orthodox beliefs. And he's not afraid to ask similarly challenging questions among conservatives. "Nobody has a monopoly on the truth," he says.

In late 2002 Kramer founded a group called Growth and Justice (www.growthandjustice.org) -- part of a wave of new local and regional progressive think tanks across the United States -- dedicated to the idea that Minnesota can have an economy that is prosperous, fair, and ecologically sustainable. But this is no ordinary think tank. Rather than starting with an economic theory, writing a report, and walking the halls of the state legislature, Kramer hit the road, convening roundtable discussions with locals in cities and towns across the state, including public employees, academics, politicians, and business leaders. He asked them one question: "What can we do to ensure that working people in Minnesota can provide for themselves and their families?" After nine months and hundreds of conversations with people from across the political spectrum, Kramer and his team published a report that proposed a bold legislative program for improving workforce education and skills training.

Growth and Justice has received praise from nearly every quarter. But, ironically, as in many states, partisan bickering over gay marriage and other issues brought this year's Minnesota legislative session to a standstill, effectively killing nearly all new proposals, Kramer's included.

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