We live in an age of whipsaw politics. The elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 each saw more than 20 sitting House members lose their seats, more “throwing the bums out” than in any string of elections since the 1940s. Why the volatility? A fundamental cause is the inability of both the right and the left to articulate and stand behind a coherent, plausible political philosophy that offers ideas on how to protect the middle class in an age of extreme economic change.
The right offers trickle-down theories that are increasingly implausible. The basic free-enterprise, lower-taxes philosophy that has been GOP orthodoxy for 40 years continues to appeal to some, especially in the absence of an alternative. But trickle-down is tread-worn. Yet progressives have fared little better on the big ideas front, unable to stitch critical but disparate issues like health care and immigration policy into a larger whole. Many lament the lack of a progressive narrative, a bumper sticker slogan as pithy as “smaller government, lower taxes.” But the problem is much deeper than that: We don’t have the long answer either for Americans worried about how we will be able to live decent lives at a time when technology and globalization are driving tectonic shifts in the economy.
The next 12 years will be critical in determining the basics of the twenty-first century American economy. Will we prosper or flounder in the increasingly globalized world? Consider: In the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for men will decrease to 68 percent as the population ages (it’s 73 percent now). Wages are expected to continue to stagnate—but no one thinks the same of corporate profits, which were around three times higher in 2011 than in 1995 and are likely to keep soaring.
By 2024, progressives must rise to the challenge of providing the long answer. If we don’t figure this out by then, we can expect to see un- and underemployment rise even as GDP recovers, resulting in vicious cycles of generational suffering—no health care, limited home ownership, reduced educational prospects—throughout broad parts of the country where, for the last century, the middle class has thrived.
Developing the long answer will require three big elements. The first is a sustained intellectual effort to better understand the drivers of the next American economy—the capital structures, educational systems, and types of businesses that will create sustainable jobs and promote the kind of growth that can be broadly distributed. While good work is being done on some of these topics individually, it is important that a diverse and vigorous set of thinkers address some of the questions holistically. Is the manufacturing sector really going away or just changing dramatically? Can we promote growth that isn’t clustered only in technology hubs? What is the role of the new-energy economy, particularly U.S. domestic energy, in driving this? What does it mean that basic research in key industries, which used to be a comparative advantage, is increasingly being conducted internationally? How will changing American demographics shape and promote the next American economy? Our research effort needs to be both vigorous and broad.
The second is success in bringing back government. It will take political courage to embrace a simple message: Government can, and does, do good. In any scenario, a brighter economic future for Americans will require some critical role for government, because only government has both the power and the mandate to promote the public good. At the Roosevelt Institute, in partnership with like-minded groups, we have launched a multiyear effort, “Rediscovering Government.” This isn’t an argument about a particular type of government, or for absolute loyalty to old ways. It is an argument to open our minds and broaden the political space that would make possible experimentation with forms of government intervention that today are never even attempted because they are politically moribund.
And the third element is a coherent, publicly accessible story, told often and told well. Marketing matters. We must talk about our real economic problems and the range of tools needed to address them, and, taking a page from FDR’s book, demonstrate political leadership in trying different solutions.
If all this happens we can imagine a different world. Government’s role could be expanded, and we might be willing to develop programs involving not just private, but also nonprofit and public-sector incentives and investments. These are likely to be most fruitful in health care and education, the two segments of the service economy where government’s roles as provider and guarantor matter most, and where positive results in people’s lives could, over a decade or so, actually become apparent. Success can breed more success, not only in terms of policy, but also politics.
Of course, conservatives are not going to just stand around while we act. This electoral season shows that they are at a crossroads. They may double down on market fundamentalism in the hope that it, combined with a continued emphasis on social issues, will keep the base happy. Or they might embrace economic populism, taking demographic trends seriously in the hope of gaining strength with Latinos and young people in particular. In either scenario, there’s little chance that conservatism in the next dozen years will include a real role for government or real thinking about not just growth but distribution.
This leaves a political opening for progressives. New and specific economic circumstances have arisen, triggered by the crisis of 2008 but with far deeper roots in structural economic changes that are at least 30 years old. In order to respond to these changes, progressives must develop a deep, factual economic analysis, a programmatic response, and a public narrative that make sense to middle-class Americans. Without a better philosophy, we will not see better politics.