The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 16, 1999
August 16, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 42


Outlook: Mark Blyth on Third Way Politics

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Mark Blyth, an assistant professor of political science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, recently talked about a catch phrase that's swept through Europe and is being more frequently used in the United States: the Third Way.

For those who have not heard of the Third Way, could you tell us where it came from and what its proponents claim it to be?

The short version goes like this: Anthony Giddens, a famous British sociologist who happens to be one of the chief policy advisers to [Prime Minister] Tony Blair, wrote a book called Beyond Left and Right, which is one of the first programmatic statements of the Third Way. The basic idea behind it is that, essentially, states and markets are not inextricably opposed. You need the two of them in order to have a properly functioning economy. But the role of the state must be suitably circumscribed, while the role of the market has had, in terms of traditional social democratic thought, been underplayed. It's been seen as too unstable, too inequitable, etc. But this, it is argued, has had deleterious effects on everything from capital formation to investment incentives to risk-taking to entrepreneurship. Thus what Third Way protagonists think they are doing is taking the best of the state and the best of the market and combining them.

Mark Blyth

Is this anything new?

If you go back to 1949, you find that Arthur Schlesinger wrote a book called The Vital Center for a Democratic think tank called Americans for Democratic Action. The Vital Center is essentially a Third Way document because what it was arguing was that those who wanted to push the Democratic Party to the left, along with Wallace in 1944, were on one side too extreme, but the Republicans who wanted to dismantle the New Deal were, on the other hand, too extreme. So the way forward was this "vital center." In one sense, this is very new, and in another sense, it's not new at all. Now as to what it is, as to whether it actually presents itself as what it is, is a completely different question.

Until recently, it seemed as if Third Way politics were sweeping Europe, with leaders in Britain, Germany, France and other countries embracing it. Do you see Third Way politics dominating for a long time?

So long as international financial markets continue on the up and up in the massive bubble that they're in at the moment, absolutely. If nothing goes wrong, then it's safe to do the things the Third Way advocates want to do. If you're going to make the assumption there are no cyclical downturns in the economy, that it'll constantly go up and up, why in the heck do you need welfare?

Does Third Way politics have any relevance for most Americans?

To the extent that you've been living it for the past 30 years, yes. What constitutes the middle in American politics has always been seen as being much more to the right by European standards. Europe is now playing catch up with the United States. What the Europeans now call Third Way politics is essentially what the United States was practicing over the past 30 years in one form or the other. Now the United States has moved even further to the right. For example, it's no longer a question of should we have tax cuts, as we had in the 1980s; it's now just how much of a tax cut are we going to have?

Do you think the use of a buzz word phrase, such as the Third Way, has any chance of causing a backlash among voters who may be frightened or suspicious about what it really means?

Buzz words are essential parts of politics. Reagan never ever called his tax cuts "trickle down economics"--that's what the Democrats called it. But that's what that policy became known as. You cannot get away from buzz words for the simple reason that in order to defeat something, you have to stand for something, and that has to be called something. What is important, though, is that you don't really get a backlash against concepts. What you get is a backlash against the policies the concepts produce. If markets fail and if things do not continue as well as they are at the moment, then people will blame the Third Way as a collectively identifiable series of policies that they will see as having made them worse off.

Some people seem to be extending this Third Way terminology beyond just a matter of an option other than liberal vs. conservative and actually call for something called "third party government," which seems to mean neither government nor private business, but nongovernmental organizations in the so-called civil society sector. Are these two things connected at all?

If you really have a genuine Third Way, you have to transcend the differences between left and right, between state and market as exclusive solutions. And that would tend to point to somewhere else. If you're really serious about this, and it's not the state and it's not the market, and it's not just social democrats giving in to the conservatives, then one would have to think of it as transcendence. You can imagine other possible things, but if you're going to try to transcend both the logic of democracy and the logic of capitalism, you've got to come up with something pretty bloody creative. And I'm not sure what that could really be.

If liberal elected leaders in the U.S. and Europe continue to promote the new Third Way, what happens to traditional liberal social policies?

They would say that they're modernized. The basic argument they're making is that the world economy has changed drastically. As such, the solutions of the past are no longer appropriate for the problems of the present, and we need to think to the future; therefore, we have to modernize. The bottom line is, these Third Way social democrats now see the problems of unemployment, income distribution, service provision, etc., as not being something government really has any business attempting. If that's the case and government can't affect anything, how can you have a policy about it? The problem with this, of course, is that governments are elected to do things for their citizens, and if the traditional guardians of citizens' social and welfare rights abrogate that responsibility, then those citizens will turn elsewhere for support, and that could prove to be very dangerous in the long run.