Bold Versus Old

How the new political fights transcend the old left-right paradigm.

By Tom Perriello Felicia Wong

Tagged DemocratsElectionsMedicarepolitical partiesVirginia

Recently, prominent Democrats, and rumored 2020 presidential hopefuls in particular, have been signing on to some very big ideas. The latest is a national job guarantee, proposed in different forms by senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders, and making plenty of headline news. Guaranteed employment joins a slew of other such ideas like free university or community college, supported by senators from Kamala Harris to Brian Schatz. Medicare for All was a fringe concept in the Obama era, yet today it is championed not just by Senator Sanders, but by fully one-third of Senate Democrats.

Critics have tried to cast these proposals as evidence of a party rushing left too far and too fast, offering the progressive equivalent of Trump’s border wall—impractical fantasies designed to appease a base looking for nothing but bread and circus. But this narrative is wrong. Everywhere there are signs of ideas unthinkable in years past gaining traction because mainstream America—not just the far left—is actually ready for them.

For half a century now, a neoliberal, free-market consensus has governed our politics, forcing progressives into a reactionary crouch, particularly on economics. But both the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 election demonstrate that market fundamentalism has failed on its own terms; the result has been increasing inequality and the specter of political authoritarianism. The twentieth-century version of right-versus-left no longer makes sense.

Instead, today’s true measure is old versus bold. What matters is scale. Opinion polls, movement protests, and election results all suggest that ordinary people already know what our political parties have been slow to grasp: The economic, racial, and political landscape of the country has been ruptured. Americans want something drastically different, solutions befitting the enormity of this moment.

Our nation’s promise has been an experiment in economic liberalism, political democracy, and, very belatedly, racial and gender equality. Today, all three pillars are under serious threat. The first two are faltering under the stress of a broken economic worldview. The third is—at least for now—seeing backlash against its own success. In this era of mass disruption, whichever party responds with bold ideas has the opportunity to define the axis of politics for a generation. This will be an evolution, and not the flip of a switch overnight, but rewards will no doubt go, nonetheless, to the party that can keep up.

Bold has become the norm with tremendous speed. Criminal justice reforms, more ambitious than we’ve ever seen, that include substance abuse treatment programs and sentencing reductions, have gone mainstream in Texas. States from New York to Tennessee are promoting free community college. A $15/hour minimum wage, considered laughable just a few years ago, is now standard policy in states and cities across the country. To stay ahead of the curve, some major retailers have adopted this policy nationwide. From California to Kansas, legislatures are, after decades of cutting, raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for hospitals and schools.

And “bold” does not just mean “blue,” either. The minimum wage has gone up in Arizona and Maine, states with Republican governors. GOP governors are also leading fights for free community college, and conservatives are proposing new legal regimes on antitrust, privacy, and ending the abuse of eminent domain for corporate gain—often with allies that defy traditional political lines, as seen in recent bi-partisan fights in Virginia against both a sweetheart deal for the electric monopolies and the construction of a fracked-gas pipeline through the Blue Ridge.

Nor is “resistance” limited to coastal bastions. Since 2016, close to 2,000 American cities and towns have seen marches in the name of women’s rights and gun safety. This is Middle America rebooting democracy: Retired librarians, school teachers, and working moms are joining Occupy protesters to broaden the coalition. From Indivisible chapters in every congressional district to teachers striking in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, this is a convergence of voices that looks more like all of America than any political movement in living memory.

The 2017 elections in the swing state of Virginia captured this transformation particularly well. Winning candidates up and down the ticket embraced some of the country’s most progressive “bold” policies—not only raising the minimum wage and debt-free community college, but also an unqualified welcoming of immigrants and refugees, ambitious demands for gun reform, and access to long-acting reversible contraceptives. Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, and Kathy Tran, running in the hotly contested exurbs of Virginia, all leaned in to their immigrant roots and won by campaigning on higher wages, health-care access, and more public education funding. These positions themselves have gone from marginal to the mainstream so quickly that Republicans did not even bother to disparage them in their negative ad campaigns, focusing instead on stoking fears of lost Confederate memorials and armed Latino gang members, a new “globalized” phase of the Southern strategy.

The Virginia midterm elections also helped illustrate another important phenomenon of this political moment: our country’s continuously growing partisan divide, and how differently our political parties have reacted to these seismic changes. While some Republicans have begun to embrace bold, the national party as a whole has embraced a reactionary populism, rather than a vision of the future. Most have abandoned the ideals of even-handed conservatism and have either gone all in with Donald Trump’s agenda of white identity politics; remained in complicit silence; or, like House Speaker Paul Ryan and 30 of his fellow House Republicans, have retired or resigned from politics altogether.

The Democratic Party’s direction, meanwhile, remains in flux. The small-bore fixes of the 1990s no longer make sense. Today, party leaders are learning, in fits and starts, to move beyond half-hearted criticism of the status quo, and some are experimenting with going big in a way that the times demand.

Like all sociopolitical transformations of this magnitude, our current disruption has been long in the making. From Ronald Reagan onward, market fundamentalism turbo-charged corporate power. Politicians watered down regulations that had long encouraged small businesses, laying the foundation of the megastore economy. From finance to telecommunications to health care, the pattern was the same: Fewer companies controlled more market share and took home more profit. CEOs saw their compensation skyrocket 90 times faster than average worker pay. And corporate lobbying began its rise to a $6.3 billion per election cycle industry, more than is spent on all federal elections combined.

Yet the rise of market fundamentalism coincided with actual progress in our racial and gender relations. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the civil rights and women’s movements made actual gains. Equal treatment in the workplace became the legal standard (though gender wage gaps persist, most perniciously for women of color). Black mayors were elected in major cities nationwide, from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles. Perhaps a backlash was inevitable. Yet that backlash was no doubt intensified by shrinking municipal budgets, and by middle-class jobs fleeing cities for mostly white suburbs, and then fleeing America altogether. The result has been, for many, a fear- and prejudice-driven race to the bottom.

Today’s seemingly sudden about-face toward the bold is the result of a growing awareness that tinkering that was not enough, in addition to denials of hard-won racial and economic progress.

Therefore, in 2018, the policy and political answers must be more democracy, not less. More imagination, not less. All of the bold ideas now being floated share the same backbone; combining the need for public goods with rule-making in the service of the common good, which, by definition, must also be racially inclusive. This is true not just for universal health care, guaranteed jobs, and free higher education, which have already been embraced by politicians. It is also true for other bold ideas being developed and discussed: a universal guaranteed income, muscular anti-trust and competition policy, the break-up of technology giants, a Public Integrity Protection Agency to consolidate the disparate anti-corruption forces in government.

We need bold because we already know where caution in the midst of confusion leads. In 2009, during the financial panic, President Obama’s chief economist argued for a $1.8 trillion stimulus. Instead, austerity-driven common economic “wisdom,” and political considerations about how big a package Congress would pass, won the day and led to a package half that size. This prevented a depression but failed to rejuvenate the middle class; unsurprisingly, politicians caught nothing but hell for their efforts. In contrast, when politicians go bold, as the Obama team did with its $80 billion auto bailout, they can reap both economic and electoral rewards.

The bold-versus-old axis also demands scale, which is where the Elizabeth Warren and Mark Warner wings of the Democratic Party could converge. Senator Warner calls for a “new capitalism,” given the potential scope of automation-driven disruption. Senator Warren argues for structural reforms including a real curb on monopoly power, because she understands the chokepoint threat that Big Tech and big banks, too massive to fail, pose to our democracy.

Critics who fear big ideas are mistaken. Viewed through the lens we propose here, the best critique of Senator Booker’s job guarantee proposal is not that it is too big but that it is too modest, focusing on a handful of pilot projects instead of a nationwide effort linked to transformative infrastructure investment. We should move from talking about removing a few Confederate memorials to whether we should be holding a national racial truth and reconciliation commission. Calling for an end to racialized voter suppression is important, but let’s take that to 100 percent voter participation by broadening our voting windows and making registration universal.

On taxes, it is not enough to say that cutting is wrong. We can and should propose a new tax code, one that raises revenue for public investment; closes massive loopholes exploited by the extremely wealthy; and reduces corporate incentives to automate, outsource jobs, and pollute. Globally, we can and should reimagine trade deals to address corruption and consolidation, workers and wages, and the elimination of  international tax havens (to the tune of $73 billion annually). The failure to offer bold new economic solutions leaves a vacuum within which Trump’s backwards rhetoric can seem like truth-telling.

Importantly, recent research also says that we can afford bold. New studies say that the economy still has plenty of what economists call “slack,” meaning room to grow. The current unemployment rate masks serious underemployment—closer to 8 percent of Americans would take more work if they could find it, and those numbers are doubled, at least, for African-American men. In short: U.S. labor force participation is at historic lows. At a time when our nation’s children and elderly require more care, and our roads and bridges require more repair, we have more people than ever wanting jobs but unable to connect to the labor market. Some scholarship also suggests that more government spending would actually lead to more productivity, which could then be taxed.

This rejection of half a century of austerity thinking has finally made way for bold solutions. Consider a country where citizens were ensured affordable lifelong housing, health care, and education. Consider an America that ran not only on 100 percent clean energy, but produced at least half of it through decentralized production instead of outdated utility monopolies, reviving our small towns and rural communities. Consider elections where not only did every citizen vote, but where campaign spending and funding was strictly limited, as in many other advanced democracies. And consider an America that seriously addressed a 13:1 racial wealth disparity and the structural forces behind it, with child trusts and other tools to bridge that gap.

If all of this bold sounds outlandish, consider this, once again: Bold is winning. Bold politicians have triumphed not just in Virginia, but nationwide. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy won on a platform that included a public bank, ensuring equal pay for equal work, mandating earned sick leave, and raising the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s victorious Conor Lamb was staunchly pro-union, and endorsed by the AFL-CIO.  In Alabama, winner Doug Jones emphasized his track record as a U.S. Attorney who fought the Ku Klux Klan. Against this, Republicans have underperformed in every single election since 2016.

This is not just anti-Trump. It is much more.

We believe that bold is at the heart of the new vision that progressives have been searching for since well before 2016. Old thinking about markets and government has simply failed. Today we know that markets are only free and fair when public sector judges and regulators work to keep big firms from exclusionary domination. We know that our economy works best when all people are productive, and that it takes investment from both the government and the private sector to make that possible. We know that our society works best when all people are included, which means acknowledging and making real amends for rules—written and unwritten, past and present—that keep black people, brown people, and women, out.

We are in the middle of once-in-a-lifetime realignment. As we’ve said, whoever wins this race toward a new narrative, an agenda that addresses the key fractures of our age, will no doubt shape our politics for generations. This may sound like a lofty claim. And today’s rush toward major proposals may seem impossibly grandiose. And yet innovation, in the pursuit of one form of equality or another, has always been the central project of this country. Langston Hughes called America “the land that has never been yet, and yet must be.” Champions of bold will win by envisioning an America that finally makes real the promise of liberty and justice for all.  

Read more about DemocratsElectionsMedicarepolitical partiesVirginia

Tom Perriello is a former diplomat, congressman, and conflict analyst who now serves as Executive Director of the Open Society Foundations for the U.S., which supports the protection and expansion of open, inclusive democracy in the United States and around the world. He previously served as President Obama’s Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region, Special Advisor for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Congressman for Virginia’s Fifth District.   

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Felicia Wong is President and CEO of Roosevelt Forward.

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