From COVID-19 to climate change, addressing even the most obvious, urgent and universal crises facing the American people has increasingly seemed beyond the capacity of the U.S. government. At the same time, a radicalized Republican party, which has in recent decades benefited from the Constitution’s anti-majoritarian institutions to hold power, has now ceased to accept electoral defeats as legitimate outcomes. The dysfunction of U.S. governance presents a challenge for all organizations—in the media, in policymaking, and elsewhere—that seek to inform public debate and “aid constructively in the development of sound national policies,” as the Brookings Institution once put its mission.
How to be a voice of reason in an unreasonable time? The question has no easy answer, but I would make two recommendations to organizations dedicated to independent, empirical analyses of current events. First, independence must be correctly understood as nonpartisanship, not centrism. Second, pragmatism must mean proposing solutions that are unabashedly scaled to the size of America’s challenges.
Before defining my terms nonpartisanship, centrism, and pragmatism, I want to offer a brief appreciation for political compromise. Politics without compromise is political hobbyism; compromise is what all policymakers, legislators, and advocates are always doing at every level of government.
That compromise is the essential act of politics does not mean, however, that compromise in the form of bipartisanship is a reliable policy lodestar. Utterly disastrous decisions have been made with bipartisan accord; in the U.S. Senate, 29 Democrats and 48 Republicans voted to authorize the war in Iraq. Inversely, some of the signal achievements of American history were made on a partisan basis. No Democrats in Congress voted for the Fifteenth Amendment; it is because of the Republican Party, alone, that the Constitution proscribes race-based exclusions to voting rights.
Non-partisanship is more meaningful than centrism
This is why it is important to distinguish between nonpartisanship and centrism. Being truly nonpartisan (beyond meeting the narrow statutory definition) should mean taking the position one believes to be morally right and empirically accurate, whether or not that position lines up with a party’s platform. It should not mean adopting a position because it is the bipartisan consensus. It should not mean seeking the appearance of independence through false equivalence. And it should not mean shying away from clear and forceful policy recommendations simply because only one party happens to agree with you.
Centrism, by contrast, prioritizes the putatively moderate political middle, often in the name of ideological balance, compromise, or pragmatism. Centrism is therefore defined not by principle but with reference to the fluctuations of the political extremes. When the left or right of the political spectrum move, the center moves accordingly. To be centrist is therefore, ironically, the most political of positions to hold—that is, it responds most directly to contemporary shifts in power.
Centrism is not the same as holding principled policy views that, in a particular time and place, happen to be seen as moderate. For example, one could believe, based upon one’s values and familiarity with relevant economic analyses, that top marginal income tax rates should be 70% or higher; this was a moderate position in the mid-20th Century and is a left-wing position today. A centrist position over this period would have moved with the political tides toward lower top marginal rates.
Thus, in co-opting “moderate” policies, centrist claims can crowd out moderate voices by replacing a conversation about values and evidence with one about strategy and political feasibility, much in the same way that horse-race election analysis crowds out coverage of the candidates’ actual agendas. The case for moderate policies becomes wrapped up in their supposed pragmatism, rather than their actual effects. And, as with horse race coverage, assessments of a policy’s achievability do not always stand the test of time. U.S. legislative history is littered with proposals that were designed and defended in terms of their political feasibility … right up until their failure. Centrism, while inherently political, is not inherently savvy.
In the current context, the difference between nonpartisanship and centrism is particularly stark. The Republican Party has moved rightward beyond the bounds of democratic politics; there is no remotely equivalent activity occurring on the political left. This is an uncomfortable admission from a centrist perspective, but it is an empirical statement. In times of one-sided political extremism, as we are seeing today in the United States and abroad, centrist accommodation is genuinely dangerous. Any organization that exists to support the citizenry’s capacity to self-govern must support democratic values, even when anti-democratic politics have been normalized in a major political party. If Americans are to have the tools they need to navigate the coming political turmoil, political and policy analysis must be nonpartisan, not centrist.
Pragmatism should mean big reforms during crisis
The current political moment also requires a reconsideration of what is meant by pragmatism. To be pragmatic is, above all, to be sensible and responsive to reality. There is nothing pragmatic about America’s current, ostrich-like avoidance of the realities of climate change. The clear scientific consensus is that there is only a “a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,” but the climate change policies that are seemingly available are in no way aligned with the magnitude of the dangers we face.
And yet, while the legislative progress on climate has been utterly inadequate, it would be a mistake to assert that the federal government is incapable of quick and decisive action. In fact, legislation representing absolutely immense public expenditures have in recent years passed into law extraordinarily quickly. Contemporary federal legislative action is in an extreme condition of punctuated equilibrium, with periods of stasis interrupted by occasional sudden and large steps. John Kingdon famously described policy proponents as surfers, sitting in the ocean on their policy surfboards, awaiting a tide that could bring them home; at the moment, there are few waves, but the waves can be very large.
Policymaking in this environment requires a different kind of preparation. Governing in crisis is likely to be the primary form of governing that occurs for the foreseeable future, both because emergency measures have become a standard operating procedure and because large climate crises are a predictable part of the decades to come. This means having larger, more comprehensive and more stand-alone proposals at the ready. Pragmatism in policymaking in the contemporary world should be understood as policymaking scaled to the size of the problem.
If the recent past is any guide, the near future will be a time of crisis and uncertainty. It will be more important than ever that policymakers and the American public have access to political analyses founded upon nonpartisan accuracy, not superficial centrism, and policy proposals grounded in a pragmatism that recognizes that “political reality” is far more fickle and mutable than the reality of the challenges we face.