It is often remarked that the United States is a nation founded on ideas. These ideas—liberty, justice, equality, opportunity, accountability, and the rule of law—have guided our collective voyage since embarkation and have served as a beacon light through turbulent times. While all of these ideas have been formative as well as transformative for our nation, we at Divided We Fall would posit that one idea, specifically, is of paramount importance: unity.
One need not look further than the first sentence of the Constitution to understand the importance of unity to the Founding Fathers. Consider the opening line: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” (emphasis added). These immortal, unifying words not only underwrite the preamble—“…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”—but the rest of the Constitution as well as the government it created.
The theme of unity is found in other artifacts, including our national motto (E Pluribus Unum or, “Out of Many, One”) and on the Great Seal of the United States. But beyond words, unity is woven into the fabric of our nation through our deeds. In point of fact, the Constitution itself was created as a result of a compromise, the Connecticut Compromise, which established our bicameral legislative structure (i.e. a Senate with equal representation and a House of Representatives with proportionate representation), mollifying the interests of both large and small states at the Constitutional Convention. Thus began a rich history of unity and compromise in the early United States, which continued through the first amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, to Washington’s mediation between the warring Federalists and Democratic Republicans. Our nation’s union has been tested many times since then from the great Civil War within to the Great War, the Second World War, and the Cold War without. But the Union has remained.
As of late, unity seems to have gone out of style. We often hear that we are living through a “culture war” where we can neither escape our liberal and conservative bubbles nor wish to, content to shout into our echo chamber abysses. Meanwhile, compromise has become something of a dirty word akin to defeat. Party over country is no longer a banality, but our modus operandi. We live in red states or blue states as opposed to the United States.
To many, there is a certain inevitability to the current division in the United States of America. We at Divided We Fall, however, decline to accept this prognosis because we still believe that what is wrong with America can be fixed by what is right with America. We still believe that there is more that unites us than divides us. And, indeed, we must believe this because the work of making a more perfect Union can only be done together.
Belief is only the starting point, however. We must create the change we seek. To achieve these ends, a new political force is required: the Radical Centrist. The following guide attempts to define Radical Centrism as well as explain why and how the Radical Centrist does what they do. The guide outlines “ten commandments” for Radical Centrists which, to borrow a phrase from Saul Alinsky, “make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one.”
Check out the guide to becoming a radical centrist.
1. Reclaiming the center
The Radical Centrist is neither a radical nor a centrist but borrows from both traditions. They are radical in the sense that they recognize pressing societal problems—with immigration, healthcare, infrastructure, climate change, and education in the United States, to name a few—and believe in bold action. But unlike radicals, traditionally defined, they believe in operating “within the system” because they recognize the progress that has been made without minimizing the work that still is to be done. Also unlike radicals, the Radical Centrist does not believe that the progressive Left has a monopoly on solutions to these problems and, indeed, more than suspects that there may be just as many effective ideas for solving them from the conservative Right.
As a result of this process of truth seeking, the Radical Centrist often finds themselves in the middle in between two extremes. However, this does not mean the Radical Centrist is necessarily in favor of moderation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned of the moderate who is, “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The Radical Centrist agrees and must carefully balance the centrist with the radical.
Opponents might imply that the Radical Centrist “splits the difference” and thus lacks any values or ideas of their own. These critics believe that Radical Centrism creates a false equivalence between the two sides of a political debate (which, inevitably, their particular side is of course always right and righteous). However, the Radical Centrist does not subscribe to this “Aristotelian Mean” type of thinking. The essence of free thinking is not averaging. Rather, Radical Centrism is a process—a Socratic process of engagement, discussion, and debate in pursuit of truth. The Radical Centrist is equally prepared to accept that the truth is in the center or that it is not.
In many ways, a Radical Centrist is like a judge whereas a partisan is like a lawyer. A Radical Centrist’s method is to listen to both sides of an argument and, as best as humanly possible, make an objective determination based on the merits of those arguments. The partisan, in contrast, aims to win at all costs. The opinion of the judge and the Radical Centrist is determined by the facts whereas, for the lawyer and the partisan, the facts are determined by their opinion.
2. De omnibus dubitandum
The Radical Centrist is consumed by a perpetual search for truth and plagued, in the words of Justice Learned Hand, by “that every-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right.” The going in position of the Radical Centrist is de omnibus dubitandum (everything must be doubted). Doubt is welcomed, not feared, by the Radical Centrist because, as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said, “in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt.”
At its core, the process of Radical Centrism is scientific in nature as the tools of the scientist and the Radical Centrist are the same: skepticism, questioning, observation, analysis, evaluation, and iteration. For the Radical Centrist and the scientist, nothing is verboten. Science, let alone politics, is never “settled,” as much as that phrase has come into fashion as of late. If the science is settled, then why now? We cannot be sure that centuries from now ours will be regarded as an age of science. In fact, history suggests that it will not be given the pace of our technological advance. So when even that which we think we know for certain, scientific laws like the Law of Gravity, is being disrupted (by recent work in quantum mechanics), we must be willing to challenge everything including and especially economic doctrine and social convention.
In other words, the Radical Centrist rejects the concept of universal truth. They do not believe that there is any political ideology, party, policy, or candidate that is correct in all places and all times. There are two sides to every story and a grain of truth in every argument. It is up to the Radical Centrist, then, to preserve the fruits of the European intellectual tradition: “the value of enquiry, the ferment of a doubt, a willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgement, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things” (Norberto Bobbio).
Indeed, our founders built a system of government that recognizes the importance of doubt. E.E. Schattschneider explains: “Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and none knows the whole truth… Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right.” At a time when most seem absolutely sure of themselves, it falls upon the Radical Centrist to bear this torch and hold it up as a beacon of light.
3. A bayesian approach
The analogies of the judge and the scientist begin to capture the essence of Radical Centrism but one more occupation must be added to the list: the statistician. In the Radical Centrist’s never-ending search for truth, they will encounter temporary and partial truths that may appear to refute their current understanding. The Radical Centrist is then compelled to revisit their assumptions and reassess that which they think they knew. Ultimately, depending on the strength of the evidence presented and their certainly in their previously held beliefs, they update their understanding. This constant iteration based upon new information is Bayesian in nature, a method of statistical inference to update the probability of a hypothesis as more evidence becomes available. John Maynard Keynes’s famous quip encapsulates the concept: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
The Radical Centrist is not afraid to change their mind and admit that they are wrong since truth is their ultimate end and aim. This is anathema to the partisan, however, whose identity is built upon a foundation of certainty. Thus, the partisan will seize on any change of opinion and accuse the Radical Centrist of lacking consistent values. But the Radical Centrist has one consistent value, truth, which they hold above all else. They change their mind not because of political winds and least of all for convenience but through personal reflection and sober second thought.
The Radical Centrist does not necessarily have to change their mind. After evaluating new facts, they may refute that information based on its inadequacies or insignificance. Alexis De Tocqueville describes the value of such a process: “Deep convictions lie at the two ends, with doubt in the middle… Man has strong beliefs because he adopts them without looking deeply into them. Doubt arises when he is faced with objections. He often succeeds in resolving these doubts and thereupon he believes once again. This time he no longer seizes truth by accident or in the dark; he sees it face to face and walks straight towards the light.” Change or not, the Radical Centrist is always prepared to update their understanding in pursuit of truth.
4. A lonesome road
The life of the Radical Centrist is a lonely one. When the Radical Centrist engages with a liberal they find themselves to their Right just as they find themselves to the Left of a conservative. The Radical Centrist must work twice as hard—to know themself as well as those to their flanks—and be twice as good. Christopher Hitchens warned in Letters to a Young Contrarian: “Most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security. Nor should this surprise us (and nor, incidentally, are those desires contemptible in themselves.) Nonetheless, there are in all periods people who feel themselves in some fashion to be ‘apart.’ And it is not too much to say that humanity is very much in debt to such people, whether it chooses to acknowledge the debt or not. (Don’t expect to be thanked, by the way. The life of an oppositions is supposed to be difficult.) It is difficult and for that reason most people will not do it.”
The road that the Radical Centrist travels is a virtuous one, in the most literal sense, as it requires humility to change ones mind, diligence to know thyself, and patience to embrace the other. Unsurprisingly, those who travel along this high road of virtue are not bothered by heavy traffic. But this does not trouble the Radical Centrist for they do not yearn for belonging. When faced with exile or estrangement, the Radical Centrist reminds themself of the words of Marcus Aurelius: “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
The Radical Centrist recalls what is written in Ezekiel 22:30—“I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one”—and is prepared to stand in the gap, alone. Nonetheless, they are confident that they will have company in time for the voice of reason that is small but persistent (Sigmund Freud).
5. Know thyself
Before the Radical Centrist attempts to know and embrace the other, they must seek to know themself. General Douglas MacArthur captured this imperative in a prayer for his son where he asks: “Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men.” He prays that his son “be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid” because “to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.” These are the depths to which the Radical Centrist must dive within themself.
The Radical Centrist must be certain about why they are embarking down this lonesome path lest they succumb to the temptation to turn back. This will inevitably vary for each individual but, in our experience, will often be derived from an insatiable inclination for meaning and truth. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers (Carl Sagan). And the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking (Charles Krauthammer).
The Radical Centrist must also know how they are to accomplish their Sisyphean task as well. Humility is critical, as discussed above, as is diligence. The Radical Centrist knows that books are the training weights of the mind (Epictetus) and devotes themself to constant study. Additionally, levity is a critical tool in the Radical Centrist’s toolbox. The Radical Centrist must be willing and able to laugh at themself. They must always be serious, but never take themselves too seriously. They must let a lot roll off their back.
6. Embrace the other
Proverbs 8:9 says: “Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.” Knowing themself fully, the Radical Centrist can begin to love the mockers. Even if it is human nature to hate what we do not understand, the Radical Centrist recognizes “while nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him” (Fyodor Dostoevsky). This is no bother for the Radical Centrist as they do not strive to do what is easy, but what is right.
Embracing the other is an act of heresy for the partisan. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: “When enemies shake hands, who is now the ‘us’ and who the ‘them’? Peace involves a profound crisis of identity. The boundaries of self and other, friend and foe, must be withdrawn. No wonder, then, that peace is often a mirage.” The partisan, ironically, actually needs the other for their identity is built around this foil. Without their counterpart, who would they resist? The trenches have already been dug but they cannot bury the hatchet.
Oppositely, embracing the other results is an act of confirmation for the Radical Centrist. It confirms their commitment to remembering what unites us and forgetting what divides us. And it confirms that politics for the Radical Centrist is merely a means to end. As Krauthammer said: “What really matters, what moves the spirit, what elevates the mind, what fires the imagination, what makes us fully human are all of these endeavors, disciplines, confusions, and amusements that lie outside politics.”
7. Know the other
Knowing the other is the essence of the Socratic method and essential for the pursuit of truth. The value of engagement across differences has been advocated by many, perhaps none more effectively than John Stuart Mill. Mill argues that: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” and that “even if we all were agreed on a proposition it would be essential to give an ear to the one person who did not, lest people forget how to justify their original argument.”
Knowing the other does not require agreeing with them, however. Aristotle points out that, “it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Rather, knowing the other means putting oneself in the their shoes, doing one’s best to try to understand, and giving the other the benefit of the doubt. It is about engaging as opposed to dismissing. And it requires tact, the ability to make a point without making an enemy (Isaac Newton). Or, as Winston Churchill remarked, the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
There is a passage in the Talmud that is worth repeating here, in full:
Reish Lakish died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm his mind? Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp. He went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, he would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha [biblical law] by itself would become broadened. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia 84a)
In this passage, Rabbi Yohanan loses his havruta (study partner) Reish Lakish, who is replaced by Rabbi Elazar. Instead of challenging Rabbi Yohanan, Rabbi Elazar merely compliments him by saying “there is a ruling which is taught that supports your opinion.” Rabbi Yohanan gets upset with Rabbi Elazar yelling, frustratedly, “Do I not know that what I say is good?” Rabbi Yohanan misses his havruta Reish Lakish who would “raise twenty-four difficulties” or objections to each of Rabbi Yohanan’s arguments to which Rabbi Yohanan would respond with twenty-four answers in turn. As a result of this process, Rabbi Yohanan believes that the halakha, our understanding of biblical law, was broadened. Rabbi Yohanan seeks civil argument and disputation for their own sake, as we all should, in his effort to know the other.
8. The cost of inaction
Demosthenes, the great Greek orator and statesman, was once asked what to do about the decline of Athens. His response was simple yet instructive: “Do not do what you are doing now.” Demosthenes’ rule is the going in assumption of the Radical Centrist: that in order to save the union, our politics needs a radical change.
So what is it, exactly, that we are doing now? Well, our politics has become more partisan, polarized, and sorted over the past 50 years. As a result of this decrease in compromise and bipartisanship, in word and in deed, we have been unable to address the pressing issues facing our country—income inequality, entitlement reform, national debt and deficit, climate change, immigration, prescription drug prices, and gun control among many others. Big, bold, bipartisan solutions are required to address these issues but we are instead stuck with petty partisan.
For those outside of the political arena, it is easy to point a finger and blame. But the fault is not in our stars, it is in ourselves. No matter how disconnected and delusional our politics may seem, it is ultimately a reflection of ourselves. So, when we increasingly choose to live and engage with like-minded individuals, when one quarter of Americans would be unhappy if a family member married a member of the opposite political party, and when we are shouting down public speakers we disagree with or shaming them at restaurants, we should not be surprised at the behavior of those we elect. We get the government we deserve: a bad government. Plato, reminds us that “justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” We would do well to remember that.
So what, exactly, must be done? The list is long but unity and compromise would be a good place to start. Compromise is the oxygen of democracy, according to Jon Meachum, and we are currently suffocating. Lincoln conceded that, “devotion to the union rightfully inclined men to yield somewhat in points where nothing could have so inclined them.” It is unity and compromise, then, that we need to do but that we are not doing now.
9. An act of hope
To believe in Radical Centrism is, in the final analysis, an act of hope because the Radical Centrist must, in the words of William Faulkner, create from the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. They must have the willingness to “calleth those things which are not as though they were” (Paul the Apostle). They must do so for years if necessary. If necessary, alone.
But just because the task may be unattainable does not mean we can give it up. The Radical Centrist must remember that the man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. They keep buggering on because their goal is clear and their aim is high. It is, in the words of Lincoln: “To elevate the conditions of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
The Radical Centrist sacrifices for a cause that is greater than themselves. They have heard their country calling and believe the nation is worth fighting for. They work to heal the world, not for glory and least of all for profit. The sentiment of the Radical Centrist is best captured by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
10. Get in the arena
A philosophy of Radical Centrism is all but meaningless if it does not compel one to action. As Karl Marx famously noted: “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world, in various ways… the point, however, is to change it.” A Radical Centrist must enter the arena and strive to do the deeds, as Theodore Roosevelt still challenged us to do.
The Radical Centrist will face resistance in this sacred task. Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds according to Albert Einstein. But the Radical Centrist is not afraid of storms since they are still learning to sail their ship (Louisa May Alcott). They hold on to their principles—truth, doubt, humility, tact—to guide them through rough seas. And they rest easy knowing that there is holiness when we are willing to be laughed at for what we believe in.
The Radical Centrist not only wants to, but must act, because Radical Centrism is an inexorable part of who they are. The Radical Centrist feels as Beethoven felt, that what they have in their heart must come out. “Here I stand,” the Radical Centrist says as Martin Luther said, “I can do no other.” The Radical Centrist refuses to waste their voice. They stand up, speak out, and are counted.
It is our hope that these rules will inspire just one Radical Centrist towards action. We hope that they may make one lonely Radical Centrist feel a little less “apart.” And we hope that these words will inspire just one person to speak up and be counted or to sit down and listen, that they will result in one person challenging their assumptions, and that they will prove to be one small step to restoring a government of, by, and for the people.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that, “There is an act only we can do and only at this time and that is our task. The sum of these tasks is the meaning of our life.” Radical Centrism must now be our task. And we must not give it up.
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