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November 12, 2005

The New Progressivism?

By Ezra

Folks here know the deep reservoir of affection I have for The Washington Monthly. I love that magazine -- its writers, its editors, its tone, its editorial line, its willingness to do big-think...and so, when I say this, I say this with love. But their package on The New Progressivism is truly, sadly underwhelming.

[T]here’s another, more populist strain of that tradition, one that has sought to use government to empower individuals to protect themselves (think Ralph Nader’s 1960s consumer movement). We’ve been wondering if it might be possible to update that sort of thinking. And so we asked the five writers whose work follows to come up with ways to strengthen the hand of the average American in the 21st-century marketplace.

Sounds promising enough. Particularly since they set it up as the enlightened response to Bush's Ownership Society. God knows a competing vision, preferably one lacking the Republican's green tint but retaining the power of the theme, is needed. But this isn't it. The package is Paul Glastris's hit on the conservative vision, Robert Gordon and Derek Douglas's piece inveighing against hidden credit card fees, Zachary Roth's call for a la carte cable, Karen Kornbluh's argument for widespread use of flextime, and Kevin Drum's piece on identity theft and who should pay. Inspired yet?

These are good articles, make no mistake. And the policies they advocate are worthy. But this is small-bore, Clinton-in-comeback-mode stuff. We can't respond to a vision that advocates a fundamental restructuring of Social Security and a reconceptualization of health care delivery with a brave stand against hidden credit card fees. It's laughable. Progressives can't unite under a banner of inching incrementalism while conservatives bravely promise new directions for society. Even if the right loses every legislative battle, their call will be so much clearer that they'll win every election.

Now, I'm not one who thinks Democrats lack competing ideas, we merely need to choose, assemble, and sell them. But insofar as others believe we need a new vision, they've got to imbue it with scale and sweep, not just tack on a name, an idea, and four tiny changes to irksome issues in the financial industry. We need to be talking about a health care system that empowers workers to seek their employment bliss, not yokes them to whomever offers benefits. We need to talk about ways to even out economic growth, to ensure workers share in their productivity increases, to limit obscene CEO compensation and tidy Board-Director-Executive arrangements, to create and encourage asset development, to end or mitigate the financial and professional disincentives to having a family, and on and on. There's much for a revitalized progressive movement to do, and the small things are part of that agenda. But we can;t do them until we convince voters that we've got the Big Things right.

November 12, 2005 | Permalink


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Universal Healthcare, $10 billion each year for 10 years in new Energy research, a $7/hour minimum wage, incentives to get teachers to stay in tough schools, making more friends so we have fewer enemies.

That's my new progressivism.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Nov 12, 2005 2:18:34 PM

What's wrong with going back to FDR's Four Freedoms, particularly Freedom from Fear? We've got an economic system that's set up to make people afraid -- afraid of getting sick, afraid of retiring with no money -- and the progressive ideal is to change things so that we don't have to be afraid any more.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Nov 12, 2005 2:39:43 PM

Progressives can't unite under a banner of inching incrementalism while conservatives bravely promise new directions for society.

First of all, it's funny that this sentence even makes sense. Shouldn't 'conservatives' be in favor of incrementalism over drastic change? Of course, they aren't, but...

Also, I don't exactly see why this sentence is true. I'm not saying it isn't, but it seems at least plausible that 'inching incrementalism' actually might be more successful than right-wing brave new promises. People actually tend not to like change, so I don't think it's at all self-evident that if the GOP is seen as the party of drastic change, they win.

A final point: I'm really not trying to be provocative here, or start an argument, etc., but the real problem here is that the most that liberals seem to want to call for is an expansion of the welfare state, without any underlying change in the economics of our society. Which is all well and good, don't get me wrong; universal health care is a good idea, and the minimum wage should be raised. But as long as liberals stick to this, they're going to be limited to promoting a kinder, gentler form of welfare capitalism.

If progressives are really interested in fundamental change, they could embrace socialism and try to change the basic economic and political dynamics at work. We're all socialists to some degree, anyway, but we just can't admit it because 'socialism' has become a dirty word. This limits us, both in rhetoric and policy; we are forced to articulate our own ideals in a half-hearted way, for fear of going beyond the pale.

Posted by: Dadahead | Nov 12, 2005 2:52:13 PM

Dadahead, based on current polls people seem pretty set for a fundamental change. if you cant do it now, then you will indeed be stuck with the incrementalist bowl of oatmeal to wade through

Posted by: almostinfamous | Nov 12, 2005 3:06:43 PM

But as long as liberals stick to this, they're going to be limited to promoting a kinder, gentler form of welfare capitalism.

Really, I don't see anything wrong with this. I want capitalism to crank out lots of computer hardware and soda and clothing and set up good restaurants. In the occasional cases where capitalism doesn't work so well -- health insurance, for instance -- I want the government to take over. And because of the diminishing marginal utility of money and the tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth, you have to set up lots of nice redistributionary programs (free universal preschool funded by taxes on the rich, for example). This is a pretty huge issue to discuss, but for the most part, I'm happy with being a welfare capitalist.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 12, 2005 5:31:49 PM

Amen, LizardBreath... my current rant is "No Hate! No Fear!"

Posted by: stumpy | Nov 12, 2005 5:48:21 PM

My theme is promoting the economic well-being of average Americans:

1. Universal health care for all with a progressive tax everyone pays, regardless of use (this includes rich people who opt out)

2. Higher minimum wage - $8/hr

3. A federal or state-run job training/job placement program

4. A reduction in defense and war spending, bills loaded with pork, and no-bid government projects.

Posted by: Katherine | Nov 12, 2005 6:14:49 PM

I'm with Neil -- I am a welfare capitalist. I'm not a socialist. Part of that is because both systems have transcendentally important insights into economics and power relations and, if you go too far towards the one, you lose the lessons of the other. The private market should take care of computer software, the public sphere should deal with health insurance. Some spheres lend themselves better to one approach than the other, and that, frankly, should be embraced.

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 12, 2005 8:19:26 PM

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