Reclaiming the Third Way & why it's not a sell-out

The Left views Third Way politics as a sell-out these days and Josie Pagani is damned as an adherent – but what's wrong with compromise and wanting to win elections?

During a visit he made to Melbourne in 2000, I joined some colleagues to sit down for a chat with Dick Morris, the self-proclaimed strategic mastermind who claimed to have single-handedly rescued Bill Clinton's flailing presidency and coined the term "triangulation" along the way.

I can’t recall a word he said, but Morris was in terrible shape: red-faced, tremulous and bloated, he looked like an escapee from the Fall of the Roman Empire. In the years since, after lurching further and further right, Morris has become such a figure of scorn for his erratic behaviour and loathsome views that even Fox News showed him the door.

It was not always thus: at the time of our meeting, his alleged role in guiding Bill Clinton to comfortable reelection in 1996 made him guru du jour in political circles, and his advocacy of the so-called ‘Third Way’ found eager audiences across the political spectrum.

As with the man himself, time has not been kind to Morris’s beloved Third Way doctrine. The theory that parties of the Left can meet electoral success only after cherry-picking from the Right’s playbook (think ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’) emerged in the US after twelve years of Reagan and Bush, and eighteen years of uninterrupted Tory rule in the UK. In 1983 and 1984 respectively, before the phrase had even entered the lexicon, it was Third Way thinking that inspired new Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand to ostentatiously flaunt their deficit busting fiscal bona fides.

To absorb your opponents’ strengths is to neutralise your own weaknesses. Politics as Jujitsu.

While the term is rarely used non-perjoratively these days, the Third Way approach to elections has been spectacularly successful, and not just for parties of the Left. National’s co-option of Working for Families and Labour’s nuclear-free stance, not to mention its utter capitulation on the public provision of health and education, are central to its electoral viability.  

By contrast, in the US, as long as Republicans refuse to “triangulate” on issues like immigration (and, increasingly, same sex marriage) its path to the White House remains murky at best. Like Freudian theories of human psychology or Keynesian economics, the central insights at the heart of the Third Way have been fully absorbed into mainstream thinking even as the label itself has become discredited and unfashionable. And, as with Freud and Keynes, Third Wayism is hard to take in its undiluted form: endless compromise for its own sake; relentless message discipline without conviction; winning, but for what purpose?

On the left, the Third Way is the new third rail: code for sell-out, a generalised slur.

By way of questioning the New Zealand Herald’s perfectly sensible choice of Josie Pagani as an election commentator, blogger-extraordinaire of New Zealand’s liberal left, Russell Brown, snidely dismissed Pagani as a Third Way adherent when she is nothing of the sort.

Pagani, formerly an Alliance staffer, is actually a straightforward economic populist who has spent the pre-election period arguing that Labour should return to its roots and attack National head-on over issues like economic inequality, infrastructure, jobs and cost of living.  As Tonys go, she is closer to Benn than Blair – and yet, to Russell Brown and Pagani’s many other critics on the leftysphere, her crime is to talk openly about winning elections by fighting National for votes in the political centre.

These are strange times indeed when such an entirely unremarkable theory about elections – that political parties should try to win them – has become synonymous with selling out.  But, then again, it was Twain – Mark, I think, not Shania – who said that, while history may not repeat, it rhymes.

The very doctrinaire rigidity that led to one electoral defeat after another, and gave rise to the Third Way movement to start with, has emerged again in over-reaction to it.