Vol. 56, No. 3

In this edition

The latest edition of The Ripon Forum examines the effort to combat fake news in America and what the appropriate role of the federal government should be.

To Confront the Global Food Crisis, Quiet American Diplomacy Will No Longer Do

We are now in the midst of the biggest food crisis the world has seen in decades. The U.S. has led the response to this crisis. Now, it must convince other countries to do more, as well.

How Ukraine is Impacting the Transatlantic Relationship

Russia’s war in Ukraine is transforming Europe’s neglect of energy and defense policies into a dangerous wedge dividing the United States from the European Union.

Building Trust and Enhancing Performance

To rebuild the public’s faith in government, those who run government need to take on the challenges people care about in a way that gets results and makes a difference in their lives.

What Does It Mean to Be a Centrist Today?

America needs Republicans to provide a responsible alternative to the Democrats. GOP centrists can meet this need by advancing an alternative different than the radical left and authoritarian right.

Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party

With the GOP well positioned to regain control of the House and possibly the Senate this November, a discussion about a governing philosophy to guide the party’s course in the coming years.

Fake News and the Federal Government: Should Washington Step In or Step Aside?

Today, misinformation and its malicious sibling, disinformation, permeate U.S. society so thoroughly that citizens have no way of knowing which information is accurate.

Where Bipartisan Opportunities Exist for Tech Reform

While Congress debates partisan tech agendas, the EU is passing laws that put them in the driver’s seat of data privacy and how our tech companies operate abroad. It’s time for both parties to put politics aside.

Protecting Our Kids in the Age of Social Media

There is a mental health crisis amongst America’s youth which many place squarely on the shoulders of technology in general, and social media in particular. It’s an easy enough correlation to make.

The First Amendment Protects Freedom of Speech, Not Your Right To Someone Else’s Megaphone

To Protect Free Speech, Social Media Platforms Must Stop their Overreach

Ripon Profile of Stephanie Bice

The Representative of Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District discusses an issue facing American that is not getting enough attention and outlines the biggest challenges facing her District.

What Does It Mean to Be a Centrist Today?

Sixty years ago, a group of policy-oriented young Republicans who proudly identified themselves as centrists founded the Ripon Society. In so doing, they advanced a more moderate alternative to both the liberalism dominant in the Democratic Party and the emerging ideological conservatism of the Goldwater movement. 

But what does it mean to be a centrist today? Contemporary Republican centrists have two signature characteristics.  

First, although they share with other Republicans a belief in limited government, they recognize that private action alone is insufficient to solve some problems. Put another way, they recognize that some problems are legitimately public, and they believe Republicans should identify distinctively Republican proposals to address these problems. The Ripon Society has always been rooted in this wing of the party. 

Second, Republican centrists care more about lawmaking than political messaging and pursue incrementalism as a deliberate strategy.  On any given day, the Ripon Advance highlights a wide variety of well-crafted incremental initiatives offered by Republican lawmakers.  

Republican centrists have two signature characteristics. First, although they share with other Republicans a belief in limited government, they recognize that private action alone is insufficient to solve some problems.

Big problems seem to demand big solutions, making centrism appear insufficiently ambitious. In reality, however, comprehensive solutions are precluded whenever we disagree over what values we should try to maximize.  Abortion provides the most obvious example here, but there are many others. Even where actors on all sides seem to agree, conflict will arise over how much to spend on things we all claim to value, like national defense. This is because we can’t afford everything we want, and policymakers inevitably disagree over how to strike a balance among competing priorities.  

Because bargaining and compromise are almost always necessary to get anything done, proponents often regard legislative outcomes as disappointing.  Laws can be revisited in the reauthorization process, however, permitting gradual improvements over time. If an incremental bill proves to be inadequate, its very failure to solve the problem fully will make a strong case for additional legislation. 

Rejecting incremental bills that constitute a good first step in solving a problem, out of a misguided belief that bigger is always better, can prevent any action at all. This happened in 2020 when George Floyd’s death produced an aroused public opinion in favor of police reform. In the Senate, Tim Scott offered a Republican alternative to the bill passed by Democrats in the House. Although Scott’s bill was arguably more realistic, Senate Democrats rejected it as too incremental and blocked it through a filibuster. The moment was lost, and the Democrats’ all-or-nothing approach prevented any legislation from being passed.   

Second, Republican centrists care more about lawmaking than political messaging and pursue incrementalism as a deliberate strategy.

Centrists also recognize that limited understanding of most policy problems precludes comprehensive solutions achieved through a single piece of legislation. Because we can almost never say with certainty what consequences will flow from different policy options, new policies should be viewed as experiments from which we can learn. 

Just as good scientific experiments focus on a single variable to isolate its effects, it is easier to identify the source of unwanted consequences where a policy makes incremental changes.  Changing everything at once, as transformative policies do, makes it impossible to pinpoint what needs to be corrected. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he said, in reference to the French Revolution, that “innovation is not reform.” 

Properly understood, centrism is not just “me too, but less,” as critics on both the left and right have charged. To the contrary, solving problems gradually by building incrementally on past policies is the most efficient way to achieve large change in a world of value conflicts and imperfect knowledge. A series of small steps can add up to large change, and most of the time that is the only way major policy changes can be achieved. 

The nation desperately needs the Republican Party to provide a responsible political alternative to the Democratic Party. Contemporary Republican centrists can meet this need by  advancing and vigorously defending a centrist alternative to the radicalism of the progressive left and the authoritarian threat posed by the contemporary right. 

A longtime member of The Ripon Society, Michael T. Hayes is professor emeritus at Colgate University. He has written two books and numerous articles on incrementalism.