Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Is the center starting to think again?

Let’s be optimistic. The 2012 presidential election isn’t going to make room for new ideas because old ideas must first fight for seats at the peace table.

The Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century had great dramatic potential. The future of the Holy Roman Empire would be returned to the Catholics—or the Protestants would take over. God would stop making both miserable; supposedly, his preferred management style would be revealed. It ended up, however, simply exhausting an entire continent, being fought by mercenaries, and settled in a series of real estate arrangements amongst nearly a dozen kingdoms and sovereign states.

American politics has turned into a similar struggle for dominance. Three decades ago, righteous amateurs and big ideas drove the conflict. Now, professionals do the important fighting. The insurgent ideas on the right are now as stained as the conservative ideas on the left. Candidates don’t revisit Harvard to test their policies. They listen to billionaires who want to restore America to a time when all they were thinking about was making money.

The only certainty that keeps both sides fighting is the fear that the other side will dominate the peace—will drive the “grand bargain.”

The absence of new ideas will necessarily discourage turnout or make for a dull election. Their absence will be regretted and the campaigns will carry on.

Nevertheless, concrete ways to think beyond this long conflict are emerging. Clive Crook of the Atlantic Monthly just introduced to the mainstream a concept and a blog by University of Michigan professor Miles Kimball. It’s called “supply-side liberal.” Check it out.

It’s not as elegant—or elastic—as the term “vital center,” coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. early in the Cold War. However, it offers a safe space for skeptical and constructive thinking. It suggests that a vibrant private sector and a vibrant public sector are both essential and that both must be closely watched.

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