On October 2nd, 2017, Free Wheel Media was able to interview the man with an idea that could possibly save the American political system from itself. His name is Dr. Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College and co-founder of The Centrist Project.
Dr. Wheelan codified the idea mentioned above in his book “The Centrist Manifesto” and it slowly evolved into the movement known as “The Centrist Project”. The movement that developed from his idea seeks to provide the American voter an opportunity to show politicians we require them to focus on the will of the Nation instead of the will of their parties.
This movement could change America for the better and we believe change is badly needed. If you’re interested in hearing how, read our interview below; because the engine behind his vision is you, the American voter.
All text in italics is narrative from the perspective of Free Wheel Media, it was not pulled from the interview.
FWM – Free Wheel Media
DCW – Dr. Charles Wheelan
After getting our love of Chicago and its sports teams out of the way, we delved into Dr. Wheelan’s past, asking him to explain how he ended up publishing a book that ultimately started a movement.
FWM: Do you mind telling us about the day you realized you wanted to start a centrist movement?
DCW: Sure. I would say it began as more of an evolution. The book kicked around on my hard drive for a long time. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to try and reform the Democratic Party or change the Republican Party. I knew somehow we had to empower the center. I knew, as a policy person, that neither party had a monopoly on the right way to approach issues – that I’d be more comfortable taking some issues from one party [and some from others]. The moment where I realized I had to write the book, not necessarily start a movement, was when the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission essentially died. Or more accurately, was left to die by both parties. That was why I decided this system is not going to fix itself. Simpson-Bowles was the last, best hope for the current system to work and it failed, so that’s why I wrote the book. I figured I’d write the book and somebody else would start the movement.
Well, Dr. Wheelan figured correctly. His book spurred a movement called The Centrist Project, which is currently in operation.
FWM: How did the movement really start? How did The Centrist Project take off?
DCW: I think over the course of time in which I wrote the book, and it takes a while to publish it and get it out, the political system got even worse, as we were kind of discussing offline. And I think that there were some friends of mine — and by that time I was more vested — who said, “You know, maybe we should try and do this.” Again, it wasn’t my strategy, but by virtue of writing the book, I got in touch with people who had similar ideas.
There was a guy named Colston Young, who tried to do what I was talking about nationally, in Iowa, I got in touch with him. Greg Orman, who ran for the senate as an Independent in 2014, had co-founded something called “The Common Sense Coalition”, so I contacted him once the book came out. So I found all these like-minded individuals and with them and some other friends, we said, “You know what, if we’re gonna write the book, we ought to at least try and make the movement,” so at that point we founded “The Centrist Project”.
FWM: We know in “The Dartmouth” — the newspaper from Dartmouth College — you mentioned you had tried going toward a centrist party but realized we don’t have an environment where that’s going to thrive at the moment and that the “Fulcrum Strategy” evolved from that. Do you think that if the Fulcrum Strategy works, and some Independent Senators build credibility, eventually a Centrist Party will come? Or do you think the idea of one is over and done with?
DCW: It’s entirely possible [that the Party develops]. One of the many reasons we’ve said not to form a party is just that people dislike parties so intensely at the moment. Weighed against that is the reality that to support candidates, like we’re talking about, including independents, who are going to have this common centrist banner and work together as a slate, maybe caucus together, it takes resources, organization, and branding to recruit, equip, finance, and get those guys to win — guys and women. So, effectively, we would be doing what a political party does anyway; we are doing what a political party is doing anyway. So at some point it’s kind of semantics. But for the foreseeable future, I think we will not be a party, even as we kind of act as a party, without hopefully becoming as self-serving as the two parties have become. Which I think is what people ultimately object to more than the label [“Party”] itself.
Without creation of a party, our thoughts immediately went to the issue of how to get everyone rowing the boat in the same direction. We were wondering how Dr. Wheelan’s Centrist Project would come up with unified plans to confront contentious issues. Dr. Wheelan surprised us with some Elon Musk-esque “first principle” style thinking.
FWM: In your book you talked through a lot of hot policy topics and that we should take from the Right on some and take from the Left on others. If new policy topics arise, that neither the right or the left really have a cemented view on, how will The Centrist Project agree on a way forward for a certain topic? Will there be a national board set up that will have the discussion and debate and define the way forward? Or how will it work?
DCW: Probably not. I don’t think there’s going to be any litmus test. There will probably be a 501(c)(3), so a nonprofit, that would be think-tank oriented that would generate information, so I don’t think it’s going to be dogma, and I have wondered about this from time to time. One of the most encouraging things I’ve found in meeting real independent candidates is that those who are willing to run as independents just have a different approach to the issues. They tend to be more pragmatic, they tend to be less dogmatic, and they tend to be more respectful of other views.
So I’ve come to believe that if you kind of select people based on kind of a loose screening of policy and more focused on respect for different opinions, fiscal responsibility, environmental responsibility, etc., that the other issues will kind of take care of themselves.
Not because everybody has a uniform view, but everybody has a — an approach to problem-solving. You know, if you think about any functional organization you’ve been on, whether it’s a school board, a church board, some group that has to make decisions, you don’t walk into the room and say, “I hope everybody thinks exactly the same thing.” The hope is, “I hope that everybody on this board has the best interests of our institution at heart, that they listen to what everybody has to say, that they’re open to compromise, and that when we walk out you actually say, ‘Boy, I’m glad that I listened to John because I hadn’t really thought about it that way and now I understand. And you walk out of the room — and I’ve been on many boards like this — and you say, “Because we are a diverse but pragmatic group, we actually came to a better conclusion!”
We at Free Wheel Media loved this answer. In taking the “first-principle” approach, Dr. Wheelan made a great case for choosing politicians not solely based on their ideological views, but on their approach to solving problems. However, this approach would make finding candidates to support quite complex, so we wondered, how does Dr. Wheelan and The Centrist Project vet and choose these candidates?
FWM: How do you ensure that a dogmatic right or left person doesn’t, you know, fake the funk as a centrist and get your endorsement? How do you vet people?
DCW: Well, it’s quite a rigorous vetting process. So we are only endorsing, you know, I would say probably ten percent or less of the candidates that come to us. And there’s a multipronged test. Some of it is just “do we think this person has a path to victory?”
Not guaranteed to win, but is this person credible, professional, of the caliber for the office that they’re running, and so on. Then do we think this person’s beliefs are broadly consistent with what we are advocating, and that’s where I think you would screen out the extremes, and at that point we would be prepared to endorse them.
FWM: Is there any organizational power being spent on trying to convert current moderate Republicans and Democrats into independents?
DCW: Oh, wowee, yes. Absolutely. They’re not taking our calls. And, in fact, Joel made a comment that they won’t let him anywhere near them because they know exactly what he’s going to ask. So, two things. The Democrats are out of power so they’re not feeling the same cleavage. I mean, you’re seeing what’s happening with Republicans, we’ve got McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins consistently breaking with the party. You know, at some point you have to ask, “Why are you still a Republican?” Like, “What’s left for you in the Republican party?”
So — you know, I think in the case of Susan Collins, I knew her from back when I worked in Maine, her father was a big Republican in the state. I mean, I think there’s a cultural attachment to party. That’s what she’s worked her whole life on. There’s always pressure against any apostate. You know, there’s an expectation of loyalty.
But I think if you — if you just look around and are objective about it, she would have more influence in the Senate as an independent, without having to change any of her views.
So, yes. We are not being too effective on that front, but we absolutely, positively will seize any opportunity we have to try and pry some of those folks away.
The same on the Democratic side; but, again, I’m not sure they are feeling the same schism. It’s going to happen because the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders way of the party is not the way of the party of, the Robert Rubins of old and so on. But they’re so irrelevant at this point they’re not feeling the pressure the way the Republicans are.
So, they have a process to find candidates…but how do they expect to earn votes for them? We’ve all heard it, people think a vote for an independent is “wasted” or “a vote for the other side”. However, more voters than ever align as independents, so maybe they have a chance.
FWM: Right now, in America, a lot of voters align as independents, that’s what they poll as. But then you see the independent vote getting very little. You see a lot of votes for a republican/democrat because people think a vote for an independent is a wasted vote, a vote for the other party, and all that stuff. How does The Centrist Project convince those people polling as Independents to vote for Independents — that it’s worth it? How do we make them believe, “Hey, this actually can work!”
DCW: This is a really important strategic question. The first thing is you’ve got to put really good candidates on the ballot in races they can win. You should not be putting them in races where you’re just going to change the outcome but not win. So we have to be very selective and strategic in the races we choose to enter. Those candidates who enter have to have sufficient resources right away.
[Greg] Orman, for example, in Kansas, was able to help self-fund. We weren’t a very big organization at the time; we hadn’t found him yet. But because he was able to get his message out there quite early, he got to — I’m making up numbers, but they’ll be broadly accurate — to maybe 12 or 14 percent in the polls. And that was sufficient. He calls it “breaking out of the orbit” or “breaking out of the earth’s gravitational pull,” which is the force you just described where, “Aw, it’s a wasted vote, he’s not going to win.” He got outside of that, and then people said, “Wow, he might win.”
And then he went from like 14 to 20 to 25 to 30 [percent in the polls]. He was leading that race by Labor Day. So, really, that’s the key. You’ve got to kind of get beyond that phenomenon that you have just described – you need to get to where people take you seriously and then it gets very serious, very fast.
Basically, it’s similar to the adoption of an innovative product. If the independent candidate can get past the “chasm”, their support could exponentially increase.
But to get voters, you have to talk about some very divisive issues, and in the current environment, that’s very difficult to do.
FWM: In trying to get people to discuss these very polarized issues in the extreme partisan environment we have today, what do you think is the best way to get people to stop, calm down, and have a thoughtful discussion?
DCW: I think part of it goes back to what I was saying about the kind of people who are willing to run as independents. I was in a very encouraging meeting with the USA Today editorial board. It was me; it was Nick Troiano, our executive director; and Greg Orman, and then USA Today had — they must have had eight or nine people there — and we were pitching the Fulcrum Strategy and what we were doing to recruit candidates and so on, and the USA editorial board said, “All right, Greg, you’re going to run in Kansas. Where do you stand on abortion?”
They went right to this wedge issue. You know, there’s still these issues that divide people. We look at them in a binary way, which I don’t necessarily buy into. And Orman said, “Look, my mother was pro-life. She used to travel around the country going to meetings. That came from a place of love. I mean, she believed passionately in this issue.” He said, “I don’t want to go back to the day when women have to get abortions in back alleys and it’s unsafe, but I appreciate where the other side is coming from on this issue.” And I have never heard a pro-choice candidate discuss the issue in that way. Right? Because the first thing he did was validate the strong beliefs that other people bring to the table. That’s not usually how these views are discussed.
What you have to do is speak about our common understandings, which is, nobody likes abortion, right? And then use that as a discussion starter for how you’re going to try and deal with this rift, as opposed to “How can I draw you away from the other side by demonizing the other side’s values?”
Many will want to call what Mr. Orman did “politicking”, but if you pay attention to recent discussions on issues, Dr. Wheelan is right. Political campaigns have become obsessed with trying to make the other party look worse, and Americans are now choosing to vote for the least-worst candidate instead of the best.
So, how is the Centrist Project attempting to make the dream above come true? For starters, they believe in a grassroots movement, but aren’t unrealistic about their expectations.
FWM: Do you think that a grassroots movement can compete with the machines that are the DNC and the RNC, these massive political machines?
DCW: No, no. We need a grassroots movement because no movement succeeds without strong grassroots support. But, you know, we’re all in with our eyes open. So we’re not going to take corporate money, we’re not going to take lobby money, but we also need big, private donors.
We have a Super PAC that we will use to spend on campaigns, provide air cover for our candidates. We’re going to do what it takes, but hopefully without taking sources of money that have agendas attached to them. The individuals who are donating, as far as I can tell, are doing it for altruistic reasons. They’re attracted to it for the same reasons that I am, which is they think it’s a better way to make politics work.
And I want to underscore actually how important the grassroots support is, because no wise, big-money donor is going to write a check if they don’t see it [grassroots support]. They don’t care about the current level of money, necessarily, they care about the depth and breadth of the support. So you got a million people giving a dollar a year, that’s all good as long as they’re giving something and have some skin in the game. And it’s actually even very encouraging, we now have a significant donor base that is giving small but recurring contributions. And that makes a huge difference from an organizational standpoint.
So where is The Centrist Project currently putting forth effort?
FWM: We know the Fulcrum Strategy was mainly focused on the senate, especially because of the way the senate is structured – it would have the most weight to have a small caucus where you could kind of throw your weight around exactly like a fulcrum would. The Centrist Project, though, has also thrown its weight behind some governors, such as Bill Walker in Alaska. What caused you guys to want to affect state and local politics?
DCW: It would build credibility for the Fulcrum Strategy more directly if we had more people in line for the Senate. By the way, there will be some other Senate candidates likely announcing soon. But, two things: One, it’s better for the people of Alaska if Bill Walker wins; it doesn’t advance our national agenda but that’s less important. And, two, quite pragmatically, it can just show they can win. If independents win, like Bill Walker, or Terry Hayes, who’s running for governor of Maine, then it says to people independents can win in races for governor. If they can win the governor’s seat, they can win Senate seats.
Just like for the movement — we’ve got to break through everything you described — which is, are independents really capable of winning? And so the best way to do that is by winning.
So, will the Centrist Project be able to “break through the gravitational pull” of party politics? We’ll have to wait and see. If you want to help them do so, visit: http://www.centristproject.org/.
If you enjoyed this interview, we highly recommend reading Dr. Wheelan’s book “The Centrist Manifesto”. Note: Free Wheel Media does not receive any proceeds from the sale of his book and have not been paid to advertise it.