Independent Nation: How Centrism Is Changing the Face of American Politics

Independent Nation: How Centrism Is Changing the Face of American Politics

by John Avlon

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Fifty percent of American voters define themselves as political moderates, two-thirds favor political solutions that come from the center of the political spectrum, and Independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each explicitly used Centrist strategies to win the White House--and twenty-first-century candidates will be


Fifty percent of American voters define themselves as political moderates, two-thirds favor political solutions that come from the center of the political spectrum, and Independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each explicitly used Centrist strategies to win the White House--and twenty-first-century candidates will be compelled to do the same.

Independent Nation documents the rich history of the defining political movement of our time. Organized as a series of short and colorful political biographies, it offers an insightful and engaging analysis of the successes and failures of key Centrist leaders throughout the twentieth century. In the process, it demonstrates that Centrism is not only a winning political strategy but an enlightened governing philosophy that best reflects the will of the people by putting patriotism ahead of partisanship and the national interest ahead of special interests.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Avlon, a columnist for the New York Sun, a staffer in Clinton's 1996 election campaign and former chief speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, argues that centrism, "the rising political force in modern American life," also offers the best chance for America to prosper. Part history, part political philosophy, part roadmap for centrists, this volume demonstrates Avlon's thesis by exploring political battlegrounds-from state primaries to presidential campaigns-in which a centrist message succeeded. To Avlon centrism is not a matter of compromise or reading polls; rather it's an antidote to the politics of divisiveness, providing principled opposition to political extremes. His description of Maine Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith's morally and politically courageous Senate speech rejecting McCarthyism four years before the Senate censured him embodies Avlon's view of centrism, and he uses that example to demonstrate the value of centrists like Smith to the body politic. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement he describes was that of Earl Warren, who in 1946 ran for governor of California in the Republican, Democratic and Progressive primaries-and won all three. Avlon's centrist tent is a large one: the political campaigns of presidents as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, JFK, Nixon and Clinton are chronicled to demonstrate the staying power and effectiveness of centrist politics. But his broad definition of centrism somewhat undercuts his thesis, and his failure to address the times when centrist politics may not have been appropriate-the New Deal era, for example-also leaves lingering questions. Still, Avlon's argument that centrism is good for America is appealing. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The title of this book suggests that it may be an analysis of how independent voters affect the political landscape. Instead, Avlon, a newspaper columnist and speechwriter for former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, offers a series of vignettes about political figures from presidents to governors whom he defines as centrists. While misleading titles are forgivable, the problem with this book is the misuse and misunderstanding of the meaning of centrist. Avlon implicitly defines centrism as the position held by the vast majority of Americans who fall between the extremists in the two major parties at any time in the history of the United States. By definition, the majority of Americans is the center, but the center isn't fixed; it shifts constantly but imperceptibly over time. He also assumes that centrism is always good, right, and even patriotic-a dangerous assumption when one considers that the majority of Americans in the 1850s tolerated slavery and in the 20th century demanded prohibition and accepted segregation, and that some of the greatest figures in American history weren't centrists but people who struggled against the establishment-people like Lincoln or FDR-to shape new centers. What the author thinks he's describing as centrism is actually moderation, compromise, and tolerance. For all its problems, the book is a good read that finds some commonality among an unusual collection of political personalities. Recommended only for larger public libraries with ample budgets.-Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes Univ., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A middling treatise on the virtues of centrism, "putting patriotism before partisanship and the national interest before special interests." Speechwriter Avlon, who worked on the 1996 Clinton reelection campaign and for New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, offers an unremarkable thesis: Americans prefer to blend idealism with realism, and in so doing tend to arrive at centrist solutions to political problems that do not wholly please purists on either side of the party divide. Avlon imagines that these purists represent the "far left" (though does anyone still believe that Adlai Stevenson was a Red?) and the "far right" (though how representative is his anticentrist exemplar David Duke?). If that is so, then it's small wonder that Americans honor the bell curve and cluster middleward. Upon this thesis, Avlon layers profiles of American leaders who supposedly represent centrist values-Richard Nixon, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and the like. In the discussion, Avlon acknowledges that the definition of "centrism" has to be bell-curve broad to accommodate most of these men (women scarcely figure here), but he sometimes misses the point. Nixon, for example, was a centrist less by disposition than self-interest, having been a keen reader of the political winds and knowing that his support lay with "the silent center." Wilson inclined to the hard right on labor and civil-rights issues. Theodore Roosevelt can rightly be called a centrist, but only if the center line is moved significantly to the left to fit the era of progressivism and trade-union socialism. And so on. Avlon's portrait of Jimmy Carter is right on the money, though, and the best part here: Carter, he writes, mayhave inclined to moderation, but "the ultimate absence of unifying leadership within the Carter administration descended directly from the absence of a unifying idea bigger than Jimmy Carter himself." A useful handbook, then, for those who run down the middle of the road. Agent: Jake Morrissey

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Read an Excerpt



"We Republicans [must] hold the just balance and set ourselves as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other."
-Theodore Roosevelt

The former president began to speak with a bullet lodged in his chest.

Less than five minutes before, a deranged gunman had shot Theodore Roosevelt at close range as he walked to give a speech on behalf of his bid to recapture the White House in 1912 as a Progressive. Aides insisted that Roosevelt head straight to the hospital, but flush with a sense of destiny, the old lion refused. He would not retreat; he would give this speech if it killed him. With the blood spreading against his white shirt, he began:

I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death. . . . I am ahead of the game anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led. . . .

This effort to assassinate me emphasizes to a peculiar degree the need for the Progressive movement . . . every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the "Have-nots" arraigned against the creed of the "Haves" . . .

My appeal for organized labor is two-fold; to the outsider and the capitalist I make my appeal to treat the laborer fairly . . . That is one-half appeal that I make. Now, the other half is to the labor man himself. My appeal to him is to remember that as he wants justice, so he must do justice.

TheodoreRoosevelt was publicly issuing his political last will and testament, standing his ground on the idea that societal division between special interests could mean suicide for the American experiment.

As president, TR had used the full weight of the White House to reign in the power of big business while also instituting reasonable reforms on behalf of organized labor. It was his belief that "constructive change offers the best method of avoiding destructive change . . . reform is the antidote to revolution."

Extremists on either end of the spectrum detested him, but TR's studied independence-especially his defiance of the Wall Street robber barons who considered themselves the backbone of his Republican Party-led directly to his landslide victory of 1904 and made him one of the most popular presidents in American history.

Roosevelt was a man of action who preached the virtue of "the strenuous life"-"I believe in men who take the next step, not those who theorize about the two-hundredth step," he said-and his politics defied easy categorization. He sometimes described himself a "conservative radical," who was devoted to keeping "the left of center together."6 As one contemporary explained, "Neither reformers nor bosses were satisfied . . . but this fact only confirmed him in the notion that he was steering a course equally safe from the mercenary rocks on the one side and the doctrinaire shallows on the other."

In happy times, Roosevelt found the fervor of his critics on the left and the right amusing. Energetically dismissing them, he coined the term "lunatic fringe." Even after the presidency, Roosevelt joked that opponents regarded him as "a kind of modified anarchist . . . hesitating only whether to denounce my speeches as containing only platitudes, or being incitements to revolution. . . . They may fall into either category but they can't fall into both."

In both his private and public lives, Theodore Roosevelt transcended all labels. His friend, the nature writer John Burroughs, said that "Roosevelt was a many-sided man and every side was like an electric battery." TR was a Harvard-educated son of the aristocracy, but his character was forged by tragedy and the Badlands of North Dakota. Omnivorously intelligent, he was the first true Renaissance man in the White House since Thomas Jefferson: soldier, statesman, scholar, politician, police commissioner, preservationist, and prolific author of over thirty books. He made himself president by the age of forty-two.

His best-known personal motto-the West African proverb "Speak softly and carry a big stick"-reflected TR's belief in balancing the idealism of peaceful diplomacy with the realism of overwhelming military strength. He remains beloved by modern conservatives for his strong advocacy of American military expansion. Yet he did more than any previous president to implement a progressive domestic agenda. He was a devout believer in military might who won the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud hunter of wild game who helped found the modern conservation movement, a reformer among politicians, and a politician among reformers.

What his critics never understood is that those contradictory qualities-along with his exuberant personality-were the key to his love affair with the American public and the reason why he remains so admired on both sides of the political aisle today.

Before there was a name for it, Centrism was the source of his popular support and political strength. In the words of historian John Morton Blum, "Roosevelt defined for himself an imprecise line between the 'lunatic fringe' he detested and the 'selfish rich' he despised. Equally to each of these extremes he was anathema. To many of the wholly sane but more impatient reformers

he seemed insincere. To the inert he seemed mad. Most of early-century America, however, agreed with or at least voted for his Square Deal." As his biographer Edmund Morris stated, "In situations involving extremes, Roosevelt's instinct was to seek out the center."

Theodore Roosevelt began life as a sickly boy born into privilege three years before the Civil War, son of a southern mother and a northern father. His father, Theodore Sr., taught him that to overcome the considerable challenges of ill health and chronic asthma, he would have to "get action" and embark upon a relentless process of self-improvement. Through sheer force of will, monotonous exercises dutifully performed over a period of months and years, Roosevelt slowly gained physical strength. He extended that spirit of self-improvement to every aspect of his life. TR later wrote, "There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gun-fighters, but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."

The roots of TR's rugged brand of independent reform politics are apparent in his early life. Roosevelt idolized his father, and when his father was passed over for a prominent appointed post, Roosevelt Sr. wrote in a letter to his son, "The 'Machine politicians' have shown their colors. . . . I feel sorry for the country . . . as it shows the power of partisan politicians who think nothing higher than their own self-interests." This contempt for party bosses would be handed down from father to son.

Beyond his father, the man Roosevelt most admired was Abraham Lincoln, who was president during his childhood. TR's later assessment of Lincoln provides a similar window to the political instincts that would define his career. "Lincoln," Roosevelt wrote, "was a great radical, but a wise and cautious radical. From all his record it is safe to say that if Lincoln had lived to deal with our complicated social and industrial problems, he would have furnished wisely conservative leadership; but he would have led in the radical direction." As president and after, TR would attempt to be the restrained agent of the radical changes in society that he believed were inevitable.

After attending Harvard, sustaining the crushing blow of his father's death but falling in love with a beautiful Boston girl named Alice Hathaway Lee, Theodore decided to embark upon a career in politics. At the time, many of his classmates viewed politics with distaste, as a lowly career for ambitious saloon keepers. But Roosevelt thought their objections soft and haughty; he was determined to be part of "the governing class."

He ran for the New York State Assembly from a wealthy district on the east side of Manhattan. Impressed by his father's good name and the precocious energy of the young candidate, residents sent young TR to Albany in 1881. Like children of the Victorian era, first-term assemblymen were supposed to be seen and not heard, but Roosevelt immediately set about attacking not only the Democrats from New York's notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall but the political bosses from his own party as well. He heartily criticized the assembly's atmosphere of "narrow and bitter partisanship," writing his sister that "most of the members are positively corrupt, and the others are singularly incompetent." Referring to a member of his own Republican Party's leadership, Roosevelt wrote that he had "the same idea of public life and civil service that a vulture has of a dead sheep." From the outset, Roosevelt made it clear that he was a reformer before he was a Republican. In the process, he made himself into the leader of the young reformers of both parties in the assembly.

Republicans were widely seen to represent the interests of the rich. Roosevelt toured tenements with Samuel Gompers, and purposefully set about sponsoring bills that benefited the poor sweatshop workers and tenement dwellers in the rapidly expanding metropolis. It was his intention to bring the Republican Party away from the defense of special privilege and to the forefront of progressive reform. To that end, he brought impeachment charges against a prominent judge for colluding with the multimillionaire Jay Gould and tried in vain to reduce the influence of the Tammany Hall machine in electing aldermen in New York City. He was more successful in achieving civil service reform by crossing party lines to form a coalition with the Democratic governor-and future president-Grover Cleveland.*

Roosevelt's career as a crusading young Manhattan politician was proceeding smoothly. He was reelected to his seat with nearly twice the number of votes than in the previous election, despite a general Democratic sweep of the state. His outspoken independence helped him to stand out and gain widespread support beyond party labels. Despite being blocked in a precocious bid to serve as Speaker of the Assembly, he was getting action in the direction of his father's beloved social gospel of good works.

Then, on Valentine's Day 1884, the sun suddenly sank on Theodore Roosevelt's charmed life. His wife, Alice, and his mother, Martha, both passed away suddenly, Alice after giving birth to their first child. The baby girl, also named Alice, was baptized the day after her mother was buried. Grief-stricken, Roosevelt wrote in his diary that "for joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out." As newspapers recorded the tragedy in hushed tones, Theodore sought refuge in action-throwing himself into his work like a man possessed, writing, "I think I should go mad if I were not employed." It was evidence of a personal philosophy of dealing with grief memorably expressed in his phrase "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough."

Even in despair, his high-voltage personality shone through the surrounding gloom. Inspiring friends and followers alike, he was a natural leader who would not allow himself to be isolated on the fringes of political life. Typical was journalist William Allen White's breathless account of his first meeting with TR: "I went hurrying home from our first casual meeting . . . he poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude towards life and patriotism and the meaning of things as I never dreamed men had . . . it was youth and the new order calling youth away from the old order."

Roosevelt's determination to break free of the constraints of the old order almost led him to renounce the Republican Party while he was still a young man. In the 1884 presidential convention, the Republicans nominated Maine's James G. Blaine, who had been widely accused of accepting bribes from the railroad industry. Roosevelt aggressively opposed Blaine's nomination and put forward the name of the comparatively virtuous Vermont senator George F. Edmunds. When Blaine and the Republican bosses proved victorious, Roosevelt impulsively threatened to leave the party while speaking to a reporter from the New York Evening Post. Positioning himself as leader of the independents, Roosevelt reportedly said that he was ready to leave the Republican Party, adding that "any proper Democratic nomination will have [the independents'] hearty support."

But for all of Roosevelt's frustration with the old guard in the Republican Party, corruption in the Democratic Party-particularly within New York City-was worse. Roosevelt harbored a deep contempt for the corruption of Tammany Hall and would never consent to forming an alliance with Boss Tweed's machine. Roosevelt's friend Henry Cabot Lodge convinced him to campaign for the Republican ticket during the 1884 election, but TR spoke on behalf of the party, avoiding any mention of the name James G. Blaine.

Two-thirds of Roosevelt's fellow independent Republican objectors left the party in response to Blaine's nomination. TR's ultimate refusal to do so reflected the pragmatism that would make him president while earning him the enmity of many fellow reformers. He believed that the best way to be an effective reformer was to work within the imperfect bounds of the Republican Party organization. He later explained that "I am a loyal party man, but I believe very firmly that I can best render aid to my party by doing all that in me lies to make that party responsive to the needs of the state, responsive to the needs of the people, and just so far as I work along those lines I have the right to challenge the support of every decent man, no matter what his party may be." Until he formed the Progressive Party, Roosevelt would remain a party man, equal parts realist and reformer.

Meet the Author

JOHN P. AVLON is a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He is the president of Prides Crossing Executive Communication and worked on Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign. His essay on the attacks of September 11—“The Resilient City,” published in the anthology Empire City: New York Through the Centuries—won acclaim from Fred Siegel, author of The Future Once Happened Here, as “the single best essay written in the wake of 9/11.”

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