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It’s Not the Progressives—It’s the Democrats

by Arthur Goldwag

Jul 10, 2013 | Politics


Over at Slate, Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick’s two-part series on the future of progressive politics has sparked, as they put it, a “tiny firestorm.”

In the first piece, “What’s Left?: Have progressives abandoned every cause save gay marriage?” they accuse progressives of having serially abandoned choice, the death penalty, religion in the schools, gun control, poverty, and economic equity—virtually all of their signature issues except gay marriage.

Gay marriage survived the winnowing process, they said, because of electoral calculations: “increasingly bipartisan, it was safe. Is it any wonder that the only other issues the left wholeheartedly and unequivocally embraced were electing the country’s first black man as president, and immigration reform? Those were about winning elections too.”

But have progressives really turned their backs on choice, to name just one issue?

Democrats don’t want to alienate the upper reaches of the income scale. It is not progressivism that is exhausted. It is the Democratic Party.

Clinton-era partisans like James Carville and Paul Begala notwithstanding, few who witnessed the scene outside the Texas statehouse last week (in which state Senator Wendy Davis filibustered an anti-abortion bill) would agree. Democrats might still be triangulating like crazy, but that’s because most view progressives as one of many blocs whose votes they need to win.

In “What’s Left? (Part 2): Our progressive—and popular—wish list,” Friedman and Lithwick argue that a progressive agenda can be politically viable. After all, progressivism “is just the idea that working together, often with and through government, we can make the world a better place.” Subsidized childcare is a progressive goal and a popular one; so is quality public education. “Let’s dedicate the next four years to doing for education what Congress and the president did for health care,” they write.

Is it just me or does that sound like a threat?

Vocational training, they propose, is needed to retool displaced blue-collar workers for knowledge-economy jobs, which is nothing presidents from both parties haven’t said in their State of the Union addresses. They deplore the assault on the Fourth Amendment posed by the rise of the national security state; the War on Drugs, they say, should be suspended.

They get no argument from me on the substance of these, but it’s notable that both involve a withdrawal of government—and as such, these are as much libertarian as progressive aims.

Friedman and Lithwick write about prison reform and the need to protect the planet; they call for renewed protections for voters’ rights. Then things get a little weird.

They seemingly reduce the complexity of immigration reform to a upper-middle class professional’s need for safe, legal and affordable nannies, house cleaners, and lawn cutters: “We … should quickly and dramatically reform our red-tape-filled work and tax laws, so ordinary households can employ immigrants and see they get the Social Security they deserve.”

And then there’s this:

We’re all for the incentives provided by the capitalist system; they’ve made this country great. But we’re equally well aware of the perils of market dysfunction and rampant greed. Drastic, breathtaking inequality—inequality that even many wealthy today regret—has never been a prescription for long-term social success. Progressives should make the case for addressing this without looking to alienate the upper reaches of the income scale. (emphasis added).

I submit that it is not progressivism that is exhausted. It is the Democratic Party.

FDR might have saved capitalism by co-opting some of the more popular features of socialism, but the bipartisan neoliberal regime that has held sway over the country for the past 30 years has gutted the New Deal’s social welfare legacy while enabling the Gilded Age inequality that Lithwick and Friedman so deplore.

President Barack Obama has been such a crushing disappointment to the left because his job has been to prop up and ultimately strengthen that regime. The broken job engine and rampant income inequality that are so characteristic of modern capitalism are features, not bugs of the system. They work all too well for the upper reaches of the income scale.

There is a deep progressive vein just waiting to be tapped—but in some ways the libertarian right has made a more convincing bid for progressive votes than the Democratic mainstream has.

It’s ironic. The far right (many of whom identify as libertarians) believe that billionaires have been using progressive, socialist, Council on Foreign Relations front men to consolidate their control over the government for generations. Their analysis might be insane, but at least they acknowledge that the system is broken.

By insisting that a progressive agenda can be grafted onto a neoliberal power structure, the Democrats are virtually guaranteeing that it will stay that way.


Arthur Goldwag is the author of Isms & Ologies; Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and most recently The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. Follow him at @ArthurGoldwag.

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