Review: The Moral Center

David Callahan’s The Moral Center can be a difficult book. Not because it’s exceptionally intellectual, partisan, or long. It’s difficult primarily because it emphasizes ways in which the American political landscape has subverted actual reason by favoring what is easy and appears straightforward. And by showing the naked irrationality of the policies of both political parties, such a book is apt to make all readers a little uncomfortable.

In just one example of his gift for iconoclasm, Callahan points to a visit President Bush made to a military hospital where he honored the service of America’s soldiers, praising their patriotism–and vicariously his own. Then, he tells us how, just weeks later, Bush cut funding for veterans programs as a means of crafting a more balanced (which is far from truly balanced) budget–patriotism indeed.

Callahan pushes further, asking why so little noise is made about recent efforts by Americans corporations to incorporate offshore to avoid paying domestic taxes. This tax-dodging is hardly something either party should support–it’s unpatriotic and forces more and more of the tax burden onto honest businesses and citizens. These are just a few things that can lead to profound disappointment with both the Republicans who speak patriotism but ignore the needs of America’s soldiers and citizens, and the Democrats who fail to point out or correct such blatantly dissonant logic.

On all the issues that he discusses, Callahan offers some possible ways forward that could cut through all the rhetoric that clutters such issues and would begin the creation of a truly meaningful and serious set of policies that the vast majority of Americans can support. These ideas are a welcome relief, even if they’re not programs that we’re satisfied will ever happen.

If Callahan’s The Moral Center has one essential flaw, it’s that it has no champion. Callahan has recruited no politicians to do all that he suggests, nor does he even mention who might have the guts. Instead, he offers the platform to Democrats, or perhaps a third party–anyone who will take it.

Interestingly, the new paperback version suggests that the Democrats (that what progressive means, right?) can do it, though if they will is completely unclear. The book was initially released (just over a year ago) with the subtitle “How We Can Reclaim Our Country from Die-Hard Extremists, Rogue Corporations, Hollywood Hacks, and Pretend Patriots,” a non-partisan, if long and unclear, subtitle.

Released last week, the paperback–the version at left, which contains the exact same text–was released with the subtitle: “How Progressives Can Unite America Around Our Shared Values.” Whether this is the publisher making an effort to better market the book in the current political climate, or a reflections of the author’s real intent is not clear.

This lack of a clear party to solve America’s problems is no small issue, and it is not the work’s only. Though Callahan’s solutions are typically interesting and moderate, they’re not the most polished or clear. He tends to favor broad ideas more than specific policies. This would work if a party shared his aims, but it many ways the Democrats are showing that they do not.

Overall, David Callahan’s The Moral Center is still a compelling, if flawed, work. He compellingly frames many of the problems this country faces in a non-partisan way. He makes the rare but welcomed calls for moderation. He offers interesting–if not the most useful–policy ideas and suggests how they could get the buy-in of the American people.

But so far, many of his rational and non-partisan ideas have failed to get attention. And with the Democrats counting how much power they’ll have after 2008, not if they’ll get it at all, it seems that Callahan’s vision can really only win if a viable third party emerges. Here’s hoping for that.

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