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The Political Centrist

John Lawrence Hill

Publication Year: 2009

Today almost half of all Americans decline to define themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative.” In fact, modern liberalism and conservatism seem hopelessly fragmented ideologies. Liberals claim to believe in individual freedom yet advocate a more collectivistic approach to government and an increasingly paternalistic role for the state. Conservatives are hopelessly divided between two incompatible ideals--the highly individualistic, limited-state philosophy of classical liberalism and an older, more collectivistic tradition of cultural conservatism that holds government responsible for shaping social morality. As a result, modern liberals are economic collectivists and moral individualists, while conservatives are economic individualists and moral collectivists. Centrists reject each of these fragmented and polarized approaches to politics. We believe that government has a role to play in structuring social and economic opportunities and in reinforcing basic moral norms, yet we are deeply troubled by ever-expanding government. We reject libertarianism, left-liberalism, and the various schools of conservatism as a model for government. Part I of The Political Centrist briefly traces the trajectory of the liberal and conservative traditions. It argues that modern liberalism is an unprincipled fusion of classical liberal and socialist ideals while modern conservatism is an untenable hybrid of economic liberalism and social conservatism. Part II offers a centrist approach to many of the most contentious contemporary political and social issues. Those include: • abortion • affirmative action • the death penalty • gay marriage • illegal immigration • judicial activism • the relationship of religion and politics • the role of government in the economy

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi

I thank Indiana University School of Law–Indianapolis and the John S. Grimes Memorial Scholarship fund for their generous support for this work. I am also grateful to all the following, who have reviewed portions of this manuscript: Jeffrey Grove, Linda Kelly-Hill, Andrew Klein, Gerard Magliocca, R. George Wright, and Seth Zirkle. I extend a special thanks to the exhaustive research support...

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Introduction:The Center Holds

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pp. 1-8

The idea that political ideologies can be placed along a continuum that runs from left to right is a legacy of the French Revolution. Delegates to the 1789 French national assembly were seated according to the interests they represented: the conservatives, representatives of the nobility and the church, were seated to the right while the representatives of the common people—those whom we would call...

Part I: Beyond Liberalism and Conservatism

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Chapter 1: The Liberal’s Paradox

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pp. 11-28

Adam Smith may have been the first to use the term “liberal” in the modern political sense in his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Yet it was not until the 1820s in Britain and the United States that the term “liberal” became part of our linguistic currency as a political expression.¹ There were no “liberals” during the American Revolution, for example, though many of the founding fathers—

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Chapter 2: The Conservative’s Dilemma

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pp. 29-47

Modern conservatism was born in reaction to liberalism, and conservatives ever since have self-consciously felt their central purpose to consist of raising an organized resistance to liberalism. Whereas the term “liberalism” was used as a political shibboleth beginning in the 1820s, the label “conservative” first appeared in its political sense in 1830, in an article in the British Quarterly Review.¹ A combination...

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Chapter 3: What “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” Mean Today

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pp. 48-63

To understand what modern “liberalism” and “conservatism”—as these terms are now used—have become, we have to begin by recognizing a truth that most contemporary liberals and quite a few conservatives, too, will want to resist. By any measure, both liberalism and conservatism have moved considerably leftward on the political spectrum over the course of the past two centuries. What counts as...

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Chapter 4: Why the Big “Isms” Fail

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pp. 64-78

Political centrism avoids the gravitational pull of each of the other three dominant strains of political thought in the United States today—progressive or left liberalism, the various forms of conservatism, and libertarianism. In Part II, I spell out our differences with liberals, conservatives, and libertarians on particular issues, but in this chapter I explore our deeper political and philosophical agreements...

Part II: Toward a Centrist View of U.S. Politics

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Chapter 5: Politics and the Big Questions: On God, Morality, and the Human Condition

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pp. 81-94

“At the core of every moral code,” Walter Lippmann wrote, “there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe and a version of history.”¹ The same holds true for every political code. All political theories make basic assumptions about the nature of the good, about whether there are objective moral rights and wrongs in the world, about whether human beings have free will or are determined...

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Chapter 6: Between the Night Watchman and the Leviathan: The Centrist’s Conception of Government

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pp. 95-110

Just as we centrists avoid the gravitational pull of the purely religious and the rigorously secular in matters of morals and metaphysics, we avoid another set of dichotomous extremes in the sphere of politics. If our accumulated political experience gained over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has taught us anything, it has taught us two basic truths. On one hand, the era of the laissez-faire...

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Chapter 7: Centrist Constitutionalism: Democracy and the Role of the Judge

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pp. 111-129

When the Supreme Court decided Gonzales v. Carhart in April 2007, liberals were more than a little bitter. Gonzales upheld a federal law banning “partial-birth abortion” in cases where the mother’s life was not endangered.¹ It represented the first case since Roe v. Wade in which the Court upheld a prohibition on a specific abortion procedure. In reaching its decision, the Court had to severely limit—some...

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Chapter 8: From Gay Rights to Drug Legalization: The Tension between Individual Freedom and Social Morality

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pp. 130-145

Which arguably private activities should remain beyond the reach of the law? How strong a presence should the state have in the personal decisions of the ordinary individual? While centrists may agree with conservatives that issues such as gay marriage, abortion, or other private activities should be decided by the democratically elected legislature and not by the courts, this does not mean that we...

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Chapter 9: A Centrist Approach to Abortion

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pp. 146-160

No other subject has quite so divided liberals and conservatives as abortion. This is due, in no small measure, to the political atmosphere that has followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and to its obvious connection to women’s rights, on one hand, and to views of others concerning the sanctity of human life, on the other. The U.S. public is deeply divided about abortion. A recent Gallup...

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Chapter 10: Race, Gender, and Reasonable Equality of Opportunity

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pp. 161-175

Early in my teaching career at a law school in Chicago, as South Africa’s regime of apartheid was in its death throes, the faculty had invited a white South African candidate to interview for a tenure-track faculty position teaching international law. BALSA, the school’s black law student association, requested a hearing before the full faculty to oppose the hiring of this candidate. They opposed his hiring...

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Chapter 11: Crime and Punishment

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pp. 176-195

A few years ago a joke floated around the Internet that captured in a visceral way the distinction between the liberal and conservative approaches to the problem of crime. It posited a liberal and a conservative, each confronted with the following scenario: A middle-aged family man is walking with his wife and children down a city street in a vaguely threatening urban setting. As dusk begins to fall, from out...

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Chapter 12: The Debate over Illegal Immigration

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pp. 196-213

In the pa st few years, Americans have witnessed a resurgence of often vitriolic debate on immigration policy, particularly concerning the problem of illegal immigration. We are profoundly ambivalent about immigration policy. On one hand, we are proud of our national heritage as a refuge from oppression and as the land of opportunity; on the other, we are understandably concerned about the rising tide...


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pp. 215-236


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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780826516701
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516688
Print-ISBN-10: 0826516688

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Centrist Party.
  • Liberalism -- United States.
  • Conservatism -- United States.
  • Political science -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 2001-2009.
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