As the Democratic primary heats up, what is particularly notable is how little the progressive debate is centered around Donald Trump, and how much it is revolving, instead, around big ideas and moral visions. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have unsurprisingly claimed a powerful narrative around the reinvention of our economic order, challenging inequality, corruption, and the rules of modern capitalism. But so too have candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris highlighted the centrality of major issues including the racial wealth gap, while moderates like Amy Klobuchar have noted the problem of monopoly power as a driver of inequality. Even newer faces like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have centered their campaigns around important structural reforms like the abolition of the Electoral College. Nor is this renewed interest in big ideas necessarily driven by the candidates; rather the candidates are responding to a powerful push from grassroots movements—from the Movement for Black Lives to the renewed labor activism of the teacher strikes and the Fight for $15, to a bottom-up push for universal health care and democracy reform.
This ideas primary is reflective of an exciting and long overdue moment, as these conversations highlight two important shifts in progressive politics. First, there is an increasing move away from micro-scale policies that might poll well but do little toward transformative, structural reforms that reshape the background rules of our economy, our government, and our society to tackle deep systemic inequities. Second, this policy shift is accompanied by an urgent moral shift, a deeper questioning of what democracy and equal citizenship actually require. Americans cannot be fully equal in an economy that reduces many communities to conditions of economic precariousness, or a democracy that systematically disempowers communities of color and young people.
These ideas represent a direct challenge to the underlying neoliberal presumptions that have dominated our public political discourse for decades. While the term “neoliberalism” may feel both obscure and overused, it captures a very real configuration of values and policy prescriptions. Neoliberalism is a worldview that emphasizes the centrality of markets as a solution to public problems, and as the highest manifestation of individual freedom. This worldview is at once a set of policy prescriptions—deregulation, minimal government, “free enterprise” of the unshackled private sector—as well as a particular moral understanding of freedom as the license to engage in individualized market transactions.
But as scholars from Quinn Slobodian to Nancy MacLean have convincingly argued, neoliberalism is more than just a familiar “free market” ideology; it also reflects a deep distrust of, and opposition to, the institutions and movements that have pushed for an expanded public capacity, the effort to build state institutions, policies, and social movements committed to dismantling structural inequalities along racial, gender, economic, and political lines. Nor is neoliberalism a purely right-wing phenomenon. Rather, what has made neoliberalism so powerful and pernicious is its adherents among liberals of the post-Reagan era who retreated from efforts to tackle systemic forms of economic inequality and racism, taking refuge instead in more status quo policies that promoted “good government” and market efficiency.
The counter to this neoliberal vision involves, then, a more thorough moral critique—and a more transformative policy agenda—that tackles the underlying forces of corporate power, market inequities, structural racism, and anti-democratic political institutions. That progressives are finally talking in these expansive terms represents a potentially transformative inflection point in American politics.
Domination, Democracy, and the Fight for Freedom
At its heart, the moral core of a post-neoliberal progressive vision is also the idea of “freedom”—not the narrow individualized market freedom of conventional conservatism, though, but rather the thick moral vision of freedom as emancipation from conditions of structural inequality and subordination. This is the freedom imagined by abolitionists and Radical Reconstructionists of the Civil War era, by the early labor movement during the industrial era, and by movements for racial, gender, and economic justice throughout American history.
Consider, for example, the progressives of a century ago, who understood the struggle for freedom as a fight against powerful new forms of domination. For progressives like Louis Brandeis, such a threat stemmed from the concentrated power of new corporate titans like J.P. Morgan—then still a man, not a firm (who nonetheless controlled the fates of whole towns and industries through his financial dealings)—and Standard Oil, or the railroad tycoons. These monopolies exercised a king-like sovereignty over the industrializing economy, holding the power to shape the economic fates of millions, but without being subject to any of the checks and balances that the country’s founders sought to place on the likewise unchecked political power of the monarch. Nor was this arbitrary private power limited to monopolies. Corporations more generally operated as what Brandeis called a “state within the State,” where workers and consumers were “absolutely subject” to the corporate will of bosses, owners, and investors. This placed Americans in a condition of “benevolent absolutism” at best, outright servitude at worst. Worse still, such subjugation arose even outside of the confines of the corporation, as a result of the very existence of industrial capitalism. Institutional economists and legal realists of the turn of the century—thinkers like Robert Hale, Richard Ely, and John Commons—saw in the entire system of wage labor, prices, and competition a legal regime that allocated power and privilege in highly unequal ways, systemically favoring wealthy and business interests, to the detriment of ordinary Americans.
In the face of such terrifying and immiserating forms of economic power, Americans needed what the Farmers Alliance and the Populist Party declared in their 1892 convention to be a “Second Declaration of Independence,” seeking liberation not from the tyranny of King George but from that of new corporate overlords. The then-conventional discourses of “market freedom” that dominated conservative politics and judicial opinions seemed a cruel joke, a smokescreen designed to ratify the existing highly unequal distribution of economic power, or as Horace Kallen put it, to “vindicate tyranny and injustice.” Genuine freedom, for these Progressive Era thinkers, thus required a response to the private power of corporations and monopolies, and to the diffused systemic inequities of market capitalism. To achieve this in turn required a democratic government. As John Dewey, the philosopher of progressive democracy par excellence put it in his famous work The Public and Its Problems, Americans needed new vehicles of collective action to effectively challenge these forms of economic power; democratic institutions and civil-society associations provide the structures to catalyze collective action and enable the contestation of economic power, making possible a more meaningful form of economic freedom.
These normative and philosophical debates were deeply enmeshed in the reform politics of the age. Progressive Era reformers pioneered new social movements like the rise of labor and consumer rights, as well as urban justice movements, while also creating new governmental institutions charged with checking concentrated economic power and giving greater democratic voice to the public. This was the era of the first public utility commissions, which, starting at the state and municipal level, experimented with public ownership and oversight of critical industries, from milk to water to electricity. They forged institutional designs, but also a cadre of battle-tested policymakers who would go on to fuel the New Deal revolution—and its (partial) codification of expansive socioeconomic citizenship—a few decades later.
This moral vision of freedom from domination animated movements for racial inclusion as well, as structural racial domination has always been deeply intertwined with economic disparities. In many ways the most radical visions of economic citizenship and freedom stemmed from the abolition movement during the early years of post-Civil War Reconstruction. It was during this period that coalitions of abolitionists, Republicans, and freedpersons sought to transform the meaning of citizenship. This effort included the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and codifying rights of equal protection and due process. Yet these coalitions also attempted to redistribute land and financial wealth—the immoral results of an extractive slave economy—alongside the creation of new political rights, which included voting, participation, and association. Reconstructionists created the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Bank, early attempts at national-scale bureaucracies that, though woefully under-resourced and underpowered, sought to effectuate a radical shift in economic, racial, and political inclusion. The 1870 and 1871 Enforcement Acts empowered federal authorities to prosecute white supremacists working to undermine the voting and civil rights of newly empowered African-American voters. The 1875 Civil Rights Act included expansive protections against discrimination in transportation, commerce, and public accommodations, seeking to redress the toxic fusion of racial discrimination and economic subordination.
These same aspirations to racial and economic equity fueled the more radical visions of civil and economic rights in the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s. Building on the landmark achievements of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts—which finally vindicated the Reconstruction-era aspirations to civil and political citizenship—the movement leaders of the 1960s envisioned a far-reaching transformation of economic citizenship. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and others saw the civil rights bill as requiring a massive redirection of wealth and investment into black communities, including commitments to full employment. The welfare rights movement of the late 1960s and ’70s—notably, a movement led by black women activists—similarly espoused a radical vision of freedom that included calls for racial justice, basic income, massive investments into the social safety net, and participatory visions of community action and grassroots democracy as part of a larger effort to realize equal dignity.
Neoliberalism as Anti-Egalitarian Backlash
If this legacy of a thick progressive vision of freedom encompassing economic, racial, and political inclusion represents a powerful alternative to narrow neoliberal conceptions of market freedom, the rise and persistence of neoliberal politics must also be understood as its own form of resistance, in this case to the more expansive account of freedom that was being built during the New Deal and the Second Reconstruction. While neoliberalism is often associated with a genteel “high politics” of free-market intellectuals like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, in fact, this elite intellectual discourse has often been paired with a decidedly less high-minded coalition of interests bent on reasserting economic, racial, and gender hierarchy, and hoarding power and wealth. The modern conservative coalition, starting with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” fused big business opposition to the New Deal state with backlash against civil rights under a banner of opposition to the federal government and to the nefarious agenda of progressive “elites.” This basic strategy continued with the Reagan-era’s (racialized) vilification of “welfare queens” and “big government,” and more recently in the “dog-whistle politics” of the second Bush era. These rhetorical tactics tapped into a deep tradition of hostility to egalitarian, racially inclusive, democratic politics that stretches back to the founding, and to the Civil War backlash in particular. Indeed, it was the violent rise of white nationalist paramilitary groups that broke the emerging political power of post-Civil War black Americans and ushered in Jim Crow. This vision of racial exclusion severely limited the reach of the Progressive Era and New Deal style economic freedom—pushing them to cut out women and communities of color from their understandings of social and economic citizenship. In the late twentieth century, this same goal of limiting membership was implemented by a more hidden strategy of political opposition, deregulation, and economic segregation that reaffirmed racial and economic inequity in the aftermath of the civil rights movement’s successes. Indeed, this coalition succeeded spectacularly in the late twentieth century—gradually rolling back civil rights and the New Deal state, through moves like welfare reform, budget cuts, the narrowing of constitutional protections against racial discrimination, and a reduction in antitrust enforcement, among other moves. While less nakedly violent than the backlash against Reconstruction, this shift to greater inequality and a greater hoarding of wealth and power at the top was no less harmful to the lives, security, and well-being of communities of color and working families.
This alliance of intellectual support for free markets and belief in government failure on the one hand and a mass politics premised on racial hierarchy and big business interests on the other continues to animate conservative politics in the Trump Era. Thus, “neoliberalism” as a political project encompasses everything from deregulation of business, corporate concentration, and finance, to systematic efforts to break the power of workers through crackdowns on unions, to voter suppression among communities of color. All of these tactics represent policy tools aimed at limiting the political power of a multiracial progressive populism—and at dismantling the laws and institutions built to realize a vision of inclusive freedom from domination.
The Way Forward
This brief political history highlights two important lessons for today’s progressive reimagining of a post-neoliberal political economy. First, this progressive alternative to neoliberalism is, at its best, animated by a moral vision of freedom that is richly multidimensional, encompassing a commitment to oppose and replace structural racial exclusion and concentrated economic power with an inclusive conception of democratic politics. Second, in order to be realized, this vision of progressive freedom must go up against a powerful coalition—economic interests seeking to hoard wealth and opportunity in part by dismantling egalitarian movements and institutions, and political actors aiming to reassert racial hierarchy by undermining political power among communities of color.
What then must today’s progressives do to make good on an alternative to neoliberalism? We are in a moment of powerful new social movements that share this expansive vision of a freedom to thrive—from, once again, the Movement for Black Lives, to Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, to the Fight for $15, and the rise of other new forms of labor organizing focusing on precarious workers, women, and workers of color—the very workers cut out of the original New Deal compact and most vulnerable in our modern economy. We also are in the midst of a policy renaissance, as progressive candidates embrace bold, transformative ideas in their quest to dismantle the structural roots of economic, racial, and political inequity. But these building blocks do not guarantee success. To get there, progressives will have to mind five key lessons of the past.
First, we have to be clear about what this transformative progressivism is not. It is not a continuation of the thin, managerial, technocratic liberalisms of recent decades. For much of the last 40 years, progressives have sought to defuse the onslaught of anti-government and dog-whistle politics by compromising their own vision to a steadily more incremental and minimalist reformist one. They’ve favored more limited efforts to close market failures (for example, through “nudges” and public disclosures) to promote more efficient “good government” and to prioritize “color-blind” approaches to inclusion that avoid deeper reckoning with systematic forms of racism and subordination. Think, for example, of the 1990s and 2000s era fascination with job training, disclosure, affirmative action, and governmental transparency as a suite of reform ideas—all good things to be sure, but on their own ineffectual in the face of the deep inequities of the moment. These conventional liberalisms tend to overlook realities of power and avoid structural transformations—a caution borne out of fear of the right and out of a progressivism chastened by recurring defeat.
Second, in pursuit of a more transformative and inclusive vision of change, progressives must build the kind of durable grassroots power needed to drive—and defend—such reforms. That means no longer chasing the perpetual “centrist” swing voter (and, more often than not, valorizing the Trump-leaning white working class) and instead prioritizing an inclusive, multiracial coalition of progressive populists: young people, communities of color, women, and the broad working class encompassing black, brown, and white voters alike. It means activating this coalition through bold policies that speak directly to the profound experiences of unfreedom and inequity, narratives that identify the shared villains behind our current crises of inequality: private power, resurgent white nationalism, and anti-democratic efforts to hoard wealth and political power. And it means organizing these communities, once activated, into durable movement organizations, from new forms of labor organizing to membership-based grassroots community associations.
Third, this agenda has to tackle the deep structural drivers of domination and unfreedom. This means investing in new forms of antitrust and financial regulation to curb the excesses of corporate power; reimagining the safety net to build truly universal public goods from clean water to universal health care to debt-free college; and developing the twenty-first century legislative agenda that reimagines our previous progressive landmark achievements. This might include a new Civil Rights Act for the post-industrial economy, a financial reform bill that addresses the unfinished business from the 2008 financial crash, bold visions for reparations and racial equity through massive investments in communities of color, a new Wagner Act for the working “precariat,” a new Voting Rights Act and democracy reform agenda, and a Green New Deal, among other ideas. These policies must pay particular attention to shifting the balance of power, specifically by fracturing the dangerous fusion of business interests and white supremacy. Think for example of the recent campaign to get financial firms and investors to defund private prisons, or the efforts to reduce the spread of white nationalism through online platforms like Facebook or YouTube. These campaigns cut to the heart of the coalition sustaining and deepening the inequities of the current moment—and which, left to its own devices, will continue to fracture and dismantle efforts at transformative progressive change.
Fourth, progressives must lean into bolder visions of public policy arising from this moment of crisis. They must build powerful new governmental bodies that can dismantle structural racial and economic inequalities, and that will themselves be more democratically accountable and responsive, particularly to vulnerable communities. The successes of the civil rights movement depended in part on the creation of new institutions to defend and enforce that bold vision of freedom and inclusion, from the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” regime to regulatory oversight of disparate racial impact under the Civil Rights Act. If they are electorally successful in 2020, today’s progressives will have to think hard about what kinds of governmental institutions need to be (re)built to enforce this expansive vision of freedom and inclusion.
Finally, progressives must shift our own approach to making social change. Our existing social change infrastructure—from philanthropy and funders to electoral campaigns to the policymaking community—too often avoids these deeper investments in movement-building, racial equity, power, and structural reform in favor of yet another electoral get-out-the-vote campaign or of policymaking focused on technocratic efficiency and output rather than power. That has to change if we are to sustain the kinds of movements, institutions, and narratives sketched in this article.
For all the powerful visions and movements of the past, this country has never fully realized the aspiration of an inclusive, multiracial democracy committed to an expanded notion of freedom and inclusion. But like previous moments of transformative change, our current moment of crisis has opened up a massive rupture in the neoliberal paradigm, creating the space for a bold, radical progressive vision to take its place. Whether we can deliver on this opening remains to be seen.