The rise of the radical center

French President Emmanuel Macron meets people after voting in the final round of parliamentary elections, in the northern seaside town of Le Touquet, France, Sunday, June 18, 2017. French voters are choosing legislators for the National Assembly in the second round of parliamentary elections expected to hand a huge majority to President Emmanuel Macron's new centrist movement, allowing him to advance his pro-business, pro-European agenda. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

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In the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff election, a growing chorus of voices in the U.S. has called for “a Macron-like figure to restructure [American] politics.”

The 39-year-old former economy minister had never held elected office when he founded the République En Marche (REM) movement, which trounced France’s establishment parties, winning the presidency and seizing over 60 percent of legislative seats.

Now, author Robert Levine argues that “Republicans and Democrats seem incapable of running the country the way it needs to be run” and praises Macron for bringing “a new vigor and energy [to France]” and for sweeping away the old special interests and power brokers that once set the agenda.

That same enthusiasm greeted newcomer Barack Obama in 2008, but as his presidency wore on, he devolved from an exuberant messiah into a weary, center-left functionary.

Macron himself is most accurately described as center-left. He embraces immigrants and the European Union, but also plans to pursue an economic program of privatization.

Where he differs from Obama is in his decision to found his own party.

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Macron’s positions are not so extreme as to exclude him from many of the existing parties. He could easily have used France’s Socialists or Republicans as a launching pad for his revolution. But he understood that to properly communicate his status as an outsider, he would need to work entirely outside the established parties and power structures that people have come to distrust.

In the United States, Donald Trump ran an “outsider” campaign and managed to steamroll the Republican establishment and win grudging endorsements from his bitterest enemies. Now he sits atop a rickety government, pulled this way and that by competing inner-circle advisors and his own ill-informed impulses.

He rails against the establishment and the RNC, but he still needed them and their money to get elected. He scorns them and barely resembles them, but he still owes them and nominally leads them. No wonder he can’t get anything done.

Even if he had won as an independent, he still would have had to deal with a government full of Republicans and Democrats that openly despised him, with few allies of his own in Congress to come to his aid.

But what if it wasn’t Trump? What if we could find an outsider with the political expertise to do the job both independently and well, and who could assemble a movement with the potential to seize a significant number of seats in Congress? That would truly upset the balance of power.

In a tweet posted earlier this month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat compared REM’s electoral victories to “a Bloomberg-Zuckerberg 3rd party winning the [White House] and 75 Senate seats.”

It’s certainly a possibility. Bloomberg considered entering the 2016 presidential race as an independent and Zuckerberg is currently on a nationwide “listening tour” that many have interpreted as testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run.

Bloomberg may be too old and experienced to muster any sort of outsider enthusiasm, but Douthat is on the right track here. The former NYC mayor has always played fast and loose with party affiliation, and the Facebook founder has a whiz-kid mystique that could prove helpful.

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If Trump’s election has taught us anything, it’s that people aren’t just angry at the other party. They’re angry at the whole system. If they were just angry at the other party, we’d be looking at President Ted Cruz. Trump won in spite of his nebulous policies because he was more irate and more of an outsider.

The problem is that you can’t be both an outsider and the leader of an establishment party.

From its founding as a democracy in 1978, Spain was a two-party system, but in the 2015 election, a new party, called “Cuidadanos” or “Citizens,” sprang up, and although it failed to achieve anything close to Macron’s success, it won several parliamentary seats and was popular among Spain’s increasingly anti-establishment youth.

Thirty-six-year-old party leader Albert Rivera does not consider himself a populist, but rather a unifier. He says his goal is to shake up the system and prevent the growth of the more toxic sort of populism that appears when persistent gridlock and corruption caused people to lose faith.

He calls his party “the radical center.” From Bloomberg to Zuckerberg, from Madrid to Paris, his ideas are gaining ground.

What do you think?

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