Third Way’s Jon(athan) Cowan: self-proclaimed leader, still seeking followers.

The Third Way’s Jon(athan) Cowan: self-proclaimed leader, still seeking followers.

After last week’s shellacking, Third Way, the self-proclaimed “leading moderate think-tank of the progressive movement”, has gotten a lot of attention.  (Just ask them.) I hadn’t heard of them before linking in late September to their admittedly cool idea of sending each taxpayer an itemized receipt of what the taxes pay for.  But they clearly consider the Democrats’ losses to be their gain. In the last few days they’ve told us  “Why Liberals Need Heath Shuler” and “How the Democrats can Stay Relevant” in spite of controlling only the Presidency and the Senate (answer: “ditching economic populism, offering robust pro-growth policies and embracing fiscal responsibility…[also] taking on some sacred cows – like downsizing federal employee pensions”).

The Third Way’s President is Jonathan Cowan, whose name seemed familiar.  Cowan’s Wikipedia page, which shows signs of having been written by Jonathan Cowan (compare Cowan’s bio at Third Way), reminded me why: back when he called himself Jon, Cowan led Lead…or Leave, an anti-deficit group which in the early 90s received a huge amount of press as a harbinger of Gen X’s generational anger—in fact, he helped metastasize the Gen X label in the first place.

Lead…or Leave was an interesting organization.  It professed to speak for my generation, and to be post-partisan, while being funded by Pete Peterson, Nixon’s Commerce Secretary, and Ross Perot, and defining leadership as slashing entitlements and cutting taxes for the wealthy.  (See also here and, though not available online, Andrew Cohen, “Me and My Zeitgeist,” The Nation, July 19, 1993, pp. 96-100). The group claimed a million members but, according to an American Prospect article, “ha[d] no paying membership and compile[d] its numbers by counting the student populations at colleges where the group ha[d] managed to win over at least one local, unelected representative.“  This  1995 Newsweek article by Martha Brant summarized the group’s history when it folded:

…”If there have ever been smoke-and-mirror organizers, it’s these two guys,” says Heather McLeod, an editor of Who Cares, a magazine about youth activism. Telegenic and good at spin, Nelson and Cowan had short attention spans for the details of grass-roots organizing. They got around that problem by inflating membership numbers. Their literature boasted they represented 1 million people, but the pair acknowledges that only 1130,000 [sic: the LexisNexis version says 100,000, and even that sounds generous] either gave money or attended Lead . . . Or Leave events. “There was fudging,” admits Andrew Weinstein. who briefly worked as the group’s communications director.

And the duo’s cheekiness sometimes veered into immaturity. When they stuck a condom in a mailing to illustrate the need to “practice safe politics” by reforming spending, one conservative quit their board. At a meeting with the chief of staff of Sen. Bob Kerrey’s blue-ribbon Entitlements Commission, the pair showed up in shorts. [Cowan was pushing 30 at the time.—AS.] “They walked around like MTV stars wearing purple sunglasses and never returned anyone’s phone calls.” says Paul Hewitt, who started Americans for Generational Equity, a similar (and now defunct) group.

Cowan and Nelson admit they have been arrogant at times but, as Cowan explains, “Sometimes you have to be a butthead to get things done.”

Rather than ignoring his Lead…or Leave experience or apologizing for it, Cowan brags about having co-founded “the nation’s leading Generation X advocacy group.”  If he fools us twice into thinking he represents something or somebody other than himself and his financial backers, shame on us.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

5 thoughts on “Third Way’s Jon(athan) Cowan: self-proclaimed leader, still seeking followers.”

  1. oh dear. I know that man. He was my fraternity brother in the mid-80s at Dartmouth. Still self-important, I see.

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