March 30, 2004
what's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it
I've reorganized and expanded my previous comments about how to revitalize the Left and have turned them into a single continuous essay, which begins below. I argue that the left suffers from a lack of positive vision that will probably cost the Democrats the 2004 election--and will certainly deny them a mandate, even if they manage to win. I then propose some alternatives for progressives to consider.
The system isn’t tilted against Democrats and liberals
I know a lot of people who think that Republicans play the political game more skillfully and roughly than Democrats do. Republicans also seem to enjoy unfair advantages, such as about $100 million more in cash (in the 2002 cycle), gerrymandered districts, and Fox News. Thus, my friends say, Democrats need the progressive equivalents of Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay. They need ideologues with mass audiences, brilliant and ruthless tacticians, and enforcers of party discipline.
I find this vision disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. The last thing we need in the face of complex, persistent social problems is simpler and more divisive “messages” from the Left to combat the incessant barrage from the Right.
What’s more, I don’t think that Democrats can win by playing harder, smarter, or meaner. Some aspects of the system are indeed tilted against them: for instance, Republicans took about 54% of the campaign donations in 2002, leaving Democrats with only 46%, and the gap will surely increase in 2004, when George W. Bush is on the ballot. It is also possible (although not clear to me) that conservatives predominate in the mass media.
However, imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans’ time, unfiltered and uncensored. Then they couldn’t complain that the political process was stacked against them. Instead, they would have to proclaim ideas that Americans might believe and find deeply inspiring. What would those ideas be?
To be sure, progressive leaders could take some fair shots at the incumbent administration, which has bought economic growth at the price of huge deficits that we will have to pay off with interest. Critiques of Republican fiscal policy—plus complaints about ham-handed diplomacy, bad planning in Iraq, missing weapons of mass destruction, Enron, and No Child Left Behind—may even win the 2004 election for the Democrats. That will depend on the dominant news stories between now and next November. But winning an election by criticizing the Bush administration will not build a mandate for truly progressive change.
The Left lacks vision
In my view, Democrats and progressives face much deeper problems than Fox News and Karl Rove—problems that also frustrate the Left in Europe; problems that have produced a long, slow decline over two generations. Their crisis is intellectual, not just tactical. It was painfully evident in the primary campaign, when we heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side.
Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR's welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.
Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left—people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos—strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the Left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.
Republican ideology--and its flaws
Conservatives win elections today, I believe, not because they play mean or exploit unfair advantages, but because they have broad, coherent, and rather radical principles, which boil down to this: “Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income but tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized.”
This position is deeply flawed. Government creates wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. Moreover, maximizing aggregate wealth doesn’t always help most people. The median American family earns only about 20 percent more real income today than in 1970, although our national income, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about nine-fold since then. This is a classic case of growth that doesn’t benefit average people.
The Left can say, furthermore, that we should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not increase the debt by cutting taxes. Some progressives will add that maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, anyway, because human consumption degrades the environment. Nor is rapid growth always compatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity.
There are also moral objections to conservative economics, which seems to value only disposable income (in other words, consumption), instead of the safety, availability, and dignity of work. Besides, private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. One can even appeal to the conservative value of hard work. Over time, unregulated capitalism tends to create a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.
Finally, there are political arguments against free-market policies. All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state.
These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. What’s worse, Democrats and progressives no longer believe in the traditional alternatives to markets. Hence, they find themselves in the position of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize.
For example, liberals favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize “clients.” They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot).
Democrats are the real conservatives
Thus, at their most effective, today’s “progressives” are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.
Today’s progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.
The same dynamic applies in global affairs. As E.J. Dionne has written, “Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives.” Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power.
There are certainly some issues on which self-described “conservatives” are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left—in Europe as well as America—for this partly explains the present political situation.
In defense of the Democrats’ conservatism
Actually, there are good arguments for conservatism as preached by today’s Left. The great English philosopher and parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry.
On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its arbitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, there are reasons to think that flawed public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical market alternatives suggested by economic theory. The most consistent and influential Burkean in modern America was a Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Why this left-conservatism loses elections
The problem with this kind of conservative “progressivism” is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, because it lacks a broad, coherent, forward-looking agenda. School systems, unions, and welfare programs are unworthy of more than half-hearted endorsement, yet no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past.
As long as Democrats held a national majority and controlled the House, their leaders didn’t have to develop a coherent, positive philosophy. Instead, they could fight over the spoils of their regular victories. The House (with its 435 independently elected members) rewarded horse-trading and the aggregation of interest groups. But now, with Congress out of the Democrats’ control, a comprehensive positive vision is essential for the Left. In the primary, all the Democratic primary candidates invoked a better past (either the sixties or the nineties), criticized the Bush administration for changing America too fast, and struggled to develop compelling visions for the future. Their most radical idea—universal health insurance, has itself been an unfulfilled promise since 1948 (not exactly a novel concept).
What the Left needs are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, alas, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.
At best, we are now at the beginning of a long, slow process of developing a workable alternative to laissez-faire economics. In the meantime, I believe that progressives could choose among four options for relatively broad platforms. If they managed to win an election with any of these platforms (which I think is possible), then they would have a mandate for significant change.
More important, these platforms would create some breathing space. While a left-of-center president acts as I describe below, other Americans of both parties can develop truly progressive new ideas. With a progressive in office, the national debt will not rise, nor will voter turnout and trust in government decline so far as to destroy the constituency for social justice.
Idea # 1: Develop the Stewardship Theme
I have argued that Democrats cannot win merely by protecting and defending a hodgepodge of inherited programs. But perhaps they could develop the idea of “stewardship” enough to build a compelling program. Their rhetoric would go like this:
“In the last century, we finally developed a set of humane policies. We said that people didn’t have to survive on their own meagre savings or their children’s earnings when they could no longer work; we’d give everyone a pension and call it Social Security. We said that you could get some medical care even if you were poor; and we called that Medicaid. We said that not every acre of America could be paved or strip-mined; we’d have national parks.
“At the same time, we also created a set of wasteful and burdensome programs. We now realize that big, centralized, government programs have major drawbacks. However, no one has figured out better approaches than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance. Unfortunately, each of these crucial programs is threatened today by changes in demographics and economics, and by mistakes and misplaced priorities since 2000. We Democrats do not intend to expand government programs, but we do promise to protect and preserve the major elements of the system that we created in the last century by being fiscally prudent. Let’s not mince words: we’re going to have to raise taxes, because we can’t balance the budget sufficiently by cutting expenditures. The major entitlement programs absorb most federal domestic spending. We will raise taxes, but only for people in the top 20 percent.
“The same philosophy of conservation and stewardship also compels us to fight for the environment. In addition to strong environmental regulations, we need visionary policies to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Finally, we want to conserve the best of our traditional communities by controlling sprawl, by promoting sensitive development of older cities, and by supporting the fine arts.”
I admit that this is the weakest idea, but it would be the easiest to articulate and would be fully consistent with any of the next three proposals.
Idea # 2 “Bold, Persistent Experimentation”
This was a phrase that Franklin Roosevelt often used. Out of his New Deal experiments came many durable and highly beneficial institutions, from Social Security to the FDIC. Again in our time there are numerous progressive ideas that deserve to be tried on relatively small scales and rigorously assessed.
In the spirit of experimentation, we shouldn’t believe it when proponents merely claim that a new approach works. Instead, we should rigorously compare people enrolled in a new program with statistically similar groups who are not. Whenever possible, we should randomly assign people to “treatment” and “control” groups, in order to see the real effects of programs. We should then weed out all the weak projects or ones that are not cost-effective, and spend our limited public money on the few really effective ones.
Many progressives are skeptical of such rigorous evaluation, seeing it as an effort to kill public programs by holding them to impossible standards. Indeed, we are very inconsistent about what we test. Every school in America now has to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” or else risk losing its paltry federal funding. Meanwhile, Congress increased corporate tax subsidies by $178 billion in fiscal 2002-2004, according to Citizens for Tax Justice—without asking any of the beneficiaries to prove that these subsidies had any public value. In short, the only programs that are tested today are low priorities. However, progressives who are committed to experimentation should demand that corporate tax breaks and other conservative priorities pass the same tough tests that liberal programs face.
Meanwhile, they would rigorously test the most promising progressive ideas to find the ones that are worth expanding. In education, they would evaluate small schools that embody powerful community norms. They would also look carefully at service-learning programs: combinations of community service with structured academic learning. For “at-risk” youth, they could test programs that treat them as economic assets and provide them with meaningful work (Youth Build is an example).
In economics, they could try much easier methods of organizing labor, such as recognizing a union as soon as more than fifty percent of a workforce files cards in support of an organizing drive. In poor communities, they could try giving micro-loans to start very small businesses. They could assess a system of universal, publicly funded daycare in some jurisdictions to see how it worked.
They could also try substantial increases in the minimum wage within particular localities, paired with comparable jurisdictions where there is no such increase. This experiment would build on the famous research by David Card and Alan B. Krueger, who found that an increase in the minimum wage did not increase unemployment. Their finding remains controversial and needs to be tested in other contexts.
In the environmental field, there are highly promising approaches to “smart growth” that use combinations of zoning, transportation, and tax policy to concentrate new development near mass transit lines.
Experimenting with these ideas would be consistent with a generally Clintonite fiscal policy of fighting deficits and making the tax code moderately more progressive. Fiscal conservatism is important because government debt is tremendously wasteful and prevents the state from expanding public expenditures if (but only if) we can find programs that really work.
Idea # 3 A strong “good government” program.
There is a substantial bloc of Americans whose primary concern is not with any economic or social issue, but with the process of government. They want our political system to be more democratic, transparent, accountable, civil, and dignified. These are the people who voted for Ross Perot, John McCain, and Bill Bradley, but they did not turn out for Al Gore in 2000. Exit polls showed that George W. Bush attracted 64% of past Perot voters and 59% of McCain supporters, even though Bush’s positions on campaign finance reform and balanced budgets were weaker than Al Gore’s.
Now that they are in opposition and have no corrupt advantages to protect, Democrats could address these people, saying (in effect):
"We don’t know what the best policies are in many areas. We admit that a lot of traditional progressive institutions no longer work well. However, we clearly see that our political system is broken: not just unfair to us, but unfair and unseemly for all citizens. We trust that a fairer and more deliberative process would generate better results.
"Therefore, we favor public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is already available in several states and major cities. We want to provide it for federal candidates.
"We also demand fair districting procedures. One of the worst scandals of modern politics is the way parties have drawn electoral districts. There truly is no point to voting if you live in one of the 385 congressional districts where one party is overwhelmingly dominant. What’s more, there is never a high-profile debate about federal policy in these districts, and as a result citizens are often woefully uninformed. On the other hand, Iowa’s nonpartisan districting commission shows that it is possible to draw fair lines that promote competition.
"Going beyond the campaign system itself, we seek radical tax simplification. A tax system of baroque complexity is inevitably unfair, because it rewards well-placed special interests. Also, it is dangerous to spend money through tax cuts, because then citizens cannot see how much each program is costing their government. Thus we ought to oppose targeted tax breaks in principle. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.
"We also seek alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get 'captured' by special interests. Fortunately, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. [The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.]
"In the media area, we could favor aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.
"Finally, we could support civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life."
Idea # 4 “Everyone a Creator”
Most classic progressive policies are redistributive; they transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that equality increases health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society).
Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is now politically foolish. While the median household income has only barely outpaced inflation since 1970, it has reached $50,000 for an average household of three people. That is an extraordinary level of affluence by historical and global standards, and it means that more than half of Americans feel capable of managing most aspects of their lives without government assistance. They do need help with retirement and education, but they suspect that other programs will benefit the poor at their expense.
Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It’s coercive, it’s divisive, it may be economically inefficient, and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.
Unfortunately, not everyone can manage without state assistance, for there are still about 50 million Americans living close to or below the poverty line. Yet they can be helped without resort to more redistribution. Instead, government can strive to increase everyone’s opportunities to become creators of wealth.
There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don’t have much money to start with.
The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. Equality of opportunity in a high-growth economy” is their slogan; it draws nicely from the right (“high-growth”) and the left (“equality”), while subtly disparaging the Green idea that growth itself is bad. “Opportunity” here means a chance to create wealth, to build a business, to develop an idea. There has been a lot of such opportunity in the United States, but we’ve always left a large segment of our population with little chance to be creative and entrepreneurial, because they’ve lacked access to capital and education. The Hope Street Group recommends, among other policies, subsidies for low-income home-buyers, much greater transparency in capital markets, and transferability of pensions from one job to another.
While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens’ opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Meanwhile, we could increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.
Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, the “digital commons” is composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet—collectively worth billions of dollars. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and by major corporations. All these players were doing what the University of Minnesota’s Harry Boyte calls “public work”: they were working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, we could use federal law to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.
Putting all these policies together, we would have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.
One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity to move almost daily from one professional context to another. Today, I attended a conference organized by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS). This is a federal program, buried deep within the bureaucracy of the US Department of Education. It is also an educational program, so most of the people who attended today were teachers, principals, or district supervisors. Federal bureaucrats and educators are two groups with their own distinctive folkways and vocabularies.
OSDFS has responsibility for "character education," which is a national movement. For me, it raises several questions: