The Radical Center and the One-Race Doctrine

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 4.33

by Arnold Kling

November 21, 2001

The Democratic Party was once a magnet for policy-oriented intellectuals. Forty years ago, the big question was who would be anointed to join the luminous Kennedy Administration.

The attraction of the Democratic Party for intellectuals appears to have faded. One might say that today the question is who will be the last policy-oriented intellectual to leave the Democratic Party. ("Dr. Krugman, when you go, could you turn out the lights please? Thank you so much.")

Once, there was a young Democratic speechwriter named Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He spent the rest of his life as a prominent party leader.

More recently, there was a young Democratic speechwriter named Daniel Pink (he last worked in that capacity for Vice President Gore). On Sunday evening, November 18, as I was listening to the car radio I happened to catch an interview with Pink on C-Span. Although the topic was Pink's book, Free Agent Nation, the interviewer kept bringing the subject back to politics.

Pink averred that he retains his Democratic Party registration "by a thread." He called himself a "bleeding-heart libertarian," a phrase that had a familiar ring.

Two-Dimensional Choice

Another sign of collapse within the intellectual wing of the Democratic Party is a new book called The Radical Center, by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. Their claim to the "center" rests on this:

Suppose that, like many Americans, you believe in reproductive choice as well as school choice. In an ideal world, you could vote for a presidential candidate and political party that reflects both positions. In today's political system, however, any American holding these two views must confront the uncomfortable dilemma of choosing one at the expense of the other. --The Radical Center, p. 4

With this one brief passage, Halstead and Lind have articulated the entire problem of American politics for many of us. It cannot produce a vibrant wing of either party that is pro-choice in both dimensions. Those who favor school choice are drummed out of the Democratic Party, and those who favor reproductive choice are drummed out of the Republican Party.

The problem is "litmust-test" politics. There is enough political energy behind certain issues to make certain positions politically untenable within each party.

However, this is not a book about "litmus-test" politics or about how to end it. Instead, it is an extended platform for the non-existent politicians who are pro-choice in both dimensions.

In crafting this extended platform, the authors might have chosen to go in any one of three directions.

  1. They could try to convince Republicans to change their stance on abortion.
  2. They could try to convince Democrats to change their stance on education (as well as other issues where their industrial-era policies are anachronistic).
  3. They could make a case for a third party that embraces the pro-choice view on abortion while taking the conservative position on school vouchers and other issues.

Lind and Halstead say not one word further about abortion. Therefore, one is forced to infer that the book is an attempt at (2), convincing Democrats to throw away their positions on Social Security, education, race, and other issues.

On education and taxes, they propose replacing state and local revenues with Federal revenues, and allocating money on the basis of school population. They do not use the term "vouchers," because that would not be polite in company that includes Democrats. But what they are advocating seems to me to walk like the v-word and talk like the v-word. They admit that

The allocation of funds on a per pupil basis would also be simplest and most beneficial in a system that permitted some kind of school choice...(ibid, p. 155.)

On Social Security, the authors risk offending Krugman by endorsing partial privatization. In fact, they go so far as to adopt my position of raising the retirement age.

One-Race Doctrine

On the issue of race, Halstead and Lind also make proposal that is similar to one that I conceived previously. However, in this case I was not ahead of them in putting the idea in writing. I call this the "one-race" doctrine. It is a radical version of Moynihan's "benign neglect."

My version of the one-race doctrine is that the government should establish a policy against classifying people on the basis of race. I call it the one-race doctrine, because it reflects the view that we all belong to one race--the human race.

As Halstead and Lind point out, there is no objective basis for racial classification. You cannot walk into a laboratory, be analyzed by a machine, and be classified as "caucasian" or "black" or "asian."

All of the statistics of racial disparities are based on subjective classifications. On various application forms and the like, people are asked to classify themselves into racial groups. You may choose to classify yourself as belonging to a different race than me even though we share a common great-grandparent, and even though our DNA may have more in common than someone who classifies herself as being of the same race.

The government could simply stop putting racial classifications on its own forms, including the Census. We no longer would report population by race, crime by race, educational attainment by race, and so forth.

The government could discourage--or even outlaw--racial classification by private entities. Rather than require banks to track loan applications by race, the government could insist that banks not ask loan applicants to classify themselves on the basis of race.

Abolishing racial classifications would not end racism. However, it would send a strong message that the official position of our government is that each of us should be treated equally.

Without racial classifications, a dark-skinned person still might be rejected unfairly for a loan. I would still want a person to be able to sue a bank and win unless the bank can demonstrate that the criteria for rejecting the loan application were applied objectively. However, for the individual to win the lawsuit it ought to be neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate a connection between the bank's loan decisions and applicants' racial self-classification.

If I were a suspect in a crime, then police might still describe me as a "white-skinned male." That is fair, just as it is fair to descibe me as short and balding, with glasses. But no one thinks about describing me as a member of the "short race" or the "balding race" or the "near-sighted race," so why should I be described as belonging to the "white race"?

If we abolished racial classification tomorrow, I believe that many people would continue to use racial categories in their thinking. However, we could get to the point where racial models are something akin to astrology--a persistent but marginal superstition. Many people read their horoscope, but most of them go about their business without taking astrology into account.

The one-race doctrine is not in the interest of the Democratic Party in the short run. People who self-classify themselves as African-Americans tend to vote Democratic. The "race card" is the most predictable electoral strategy of Democrats.

Looking a decade or two ahead, however, the "race card" may turn into a loser. There is a growing segment of the population that classifies itself as neither white nor black. Many in this group may prefer the one-race doctrine to a racial spoils system.


When all is said and done, opposition to school choice is likely to remain a litmus-test issue for Democrats. If indeed the purpose of The Radical Center is an attempt to shift Democrats away from this and other narrow-minded positions, then my guess is that they are wasting their breath. A lot breath, I might add, because much of the book is filler and fluff, served up as alleged historical perspective.

If there is an enduring consequence to The Radical Center, I hope it is the One-Race Doctrine. If our society were to embrace that doctrine, I believe it would be better for everyone.

In the 1960's, intellectuals to their credit pushed the Democratic Party away from the racial demagoguery that solidified its southern base. It is to Halstead and Lind's credit that they are trying to push today's Democrats away from the racial demagoguery that solidifies its current urban base.