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The Way Forward for Progressives

There is no going back to business as usual once the 2016 election is over. Here’s what a transformative progressivism looks like.

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

As the 2016 election lurches to its conclusion, it is increasingly clear that the tumults of the last year will continue to shape American politics for some time to come, regardless of the final outcome on November 8. Most distressingly, the right-wing, exclusionary populism activated by Donald Trump’s appeals to economic grievance and racial animus will continue to pose a challenge for ideals of inclusion across lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation. But the clashes of the spring campaign between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over inequality and economic policy—and the powerful impact of social movements like Black Lives Matter—have also created a major shift in the terms of debate within liberal and progressive circles.

These battles cast into relief the deeper challenges that 21st century progressive politics will have to address. First, there is the problem of structural and systematic economic inequality, and second, the related problem of concentrated private power, whether it’s the rise of new quasi-monopolies, as evidenced by the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner, or the persisting concerns about the financialization of the economy. Third, there is the need to overcome the historical and systematic exclusion of racial minorities from the mainstream of economic life and opportunity.

Addressing each of these concerns will require a government that is effective and capable, but also democratically responsive and accountable. This represents a fourth challenge: Laced throughout the anxieties of this election and the politics of the Great Recession is a fear that our most powerful tools for economic and social change—government and public politics—are utterly broken.

Trumpism offers a particularly terrifying response to these challenges, proposing to sweep away our norms of democratic governance to drive an authoritarian remaking of our economy at the expense and exclusion of minority communities and women. The task for progressives after 2016 is different: What does a sufficiently transformative progressivism look like, that is up to the scale of these challenges, but committed to values of inclusion, equity, and democracy?

We do not enter this debate in a vacuum. There is a rich history of more radical progressive economic populisms on which we might draw. By recovering these traditions, we can sketch the foundations of a 21st century progressive populism—and develop a moral vision of democracy and economy that reckons with the compromises and tensions of late 20th century liberalism.

More than a hundred years ago, the American economy was in crisis. It was facing a wrenching transformation in the face of industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of corporate giants like railroad monopolies and Standard Oil and financiers like J. P. Morgan. For many Americans, these new forms of private power loomed as a kind of arbitrary, dominating force. Railroads could exploit farmers dependent on the transit infrastructure to get goods to market. Corporate managers dominated workers struggling for dignity and basic protections. Financiers lurked behind all of it, extracting returns at the expense of the American citizen. Meanwhile, the vast impersonal forces of the market created widespread anxiety and hardship through social dislocation, fluctuating wages, and the upheavals of a changing economy. At the same time, however, the political system seemed increasingly incapable of addressing these systematic concerns, stymied by corrupt party machines and outdated institutions, and prey to the concentration of political influence among big business and wealthy elites.

This confluence of economic crisis and political dysfunction mobilized an entire generation of reformers and thinkers. The People’s Party emerged out of the agrarian populist Farmers’ Alliance, calling for a “second declaration of independence” from the tyrannical power of monopolies, big finance, and big business. These populists also called for surprisingly modern and expansive governmental interventions, from a public banking and finance system to displace the extractive power of private financiers, to national investments in education and infrastructure. Similarly, urban progressive reformers targeted the problem of monopoly as a central threat to economic and political liberty, and pioneered new health, safety, and minimum wage regulations. These progressives created new institutions to restore popular sovereignty against the corruptions of party elites and influence of corporations, turning to direct democratic mechanisms like ballot referenda, new expert regulatory agencies, and expanded city government powers as a way to empower the public to hold economic actors accountable.

The labor movement also gained force during this period, organizing workers to counteract the monarchical powers of managers and owners in the workplace, and aspiring towards an ideal of economic independence and liberty that seemed so distant in an unequal, industrializing economy. These “labor republicans” called for more than just worker rights; they sought to create new forms of mutual aid and social insurance through cooperatives, and, ideally, through a public safety net. 

These reformers cut across a wide range of constituencies and issues, but their activism was animated by a common ethos. The problem of capitalism was not just about income inequality or growth; it was rather a fundamentally political challenge.

First, these activists shared a common critique of industrial capitalism. The problem was not just inequality and inefficiency, but rather a deeper problem of domination in which some private actors and the market system possessed an arbitrary, unchecked power to shape the life prospects of individuals, businesses, and communities. Furthermore, they saw the market itself not as a “natural” force, but rather as a system created by law and policy—which could therefore be reshaped to create a more equitable and humane economy.

These critiques linked political activists and reformers as well as intellectuals from the rapidly evolving disciplines of economics, social science, philosophy, and law. The emerging economics profession at the time was led by progressive economists like Richard Ely, John Commons, and ERA Seligman, who were active in the formation of the American Economic Association as a progressive reform-minded institution. Similarly, legal thinkers like Robert Hale and Louis Brandeis deconstructed free market ideologies, showing how legal rules of property, tort, contract, and public policy allocated power and economic opportunity.

Second, these critics sought a response to the problem of economic domination in the ideal of democracy. Only through collective action could American ideals of popular sovereignty be restored. This collective action similarly would not emerge in a vacuum. It instead depended on the work of new social movements and the creation of new institutions for policymaking that together would overcome private power, political dysfunction, and endemic corruption. For some reformers, this meant focusing on organizing in the labor movement or the consumer protection movement. For others, it meant advocating for greater decentralization of policymaking to the local city or state level. And for still others it meant creating new, expert bodies of publicly minded and corruption-free regulators.

This political vision—of democratic mobilization to counteract the problems of economic domination—offers a rich depository of ideas for progressive politics today. But there were critical problems with these early progressive movements, which shaped the trajectory of liberal policies deep into the 20th century. Most importantly, these movements had a troublingly limited view of who counted as a member of “the people” to be protected and served by reform. While there are examples of attempts at cross-racial alliances between Populists, Progressives, labor republicans and African-American activists, particularly in the aftermath of the abolition movement, these links were tentative and short-lived. Rather, African-Americans were left out of this radical progressive vision at best—and actively subordinated at worst.

These exclusionary tensions had a long legacy. Even as the New Deal codified many Progressive Era proposals on financial regulation, antitrust enforcement, and other issues, it accepted and contributed to the gendered and racialized bifurcation of the economy. It excluded African-Americans, migrant workers, and women from the labor protections and the social safety net, and facilitated racial segregation through federal support of discriminatory urban planning and housing policies.

At the same time, there was an internal tension among Progressive Era reformers over how to ensure government would best serve the public in addressing these economic concerns. Would “the people” be best protected against economic power through the creation of neutral, technocratic bodies that regulated the economy from on high through the use of social scientific expertise? Or would they need to be more directly empowered through more participatory and democratic means? For many New Dealers emerging out of the ferment of the Progressive Era, the answer to this question was decidedly the former: Only through neutral expertise could the public good be served, free of the vagaries and messiness of politics.

Six and a half years ago, President Barack Obama travelled to Cooper Union in downtown New York, to give a make-or-break speech defending his proposed Wall Street reform package. Outside, protesters demanded the firing and prosecution of the CEOs of the major Wall Street firms. Inside the building, those same heads sat in the front row of the audience, skeptically listening to Obama’s address. While the financial crash provoked widespread anger at Wall Street and a willingness to overhaul the structural dynamics of our increasingly unequal, financialized, and precarious economic order, the administration’s crisis response largely sidestepped these appeals. Instead, the Obama administration’s approach to the problem of “too-big-to-fail” financial firms relied largely on the New Deal model of top-down expertise: delegate more authority and provide more resources to regulators in insulated bodies like the Federal Reserve, and trust them to mitigate financial risks.   

While the Obama administration was undoubtedly hamstrung by conservative opposition, its approach to the Great Recession also reflected the particular progressive tradition of technocratic, expertise-based responses to economic upheaval. Indeed, while it is easy to lay the blame for today’s economic crisis and ineffectual policy response at the feet of anti-regulatory conservatives, liberals themselves are not blameless. In the face of the conservative revival, liberals have moved further away from earlier critiques of economic power and appeals to democratic values.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, liberals have narrowed their substantive economic aspirations. The focus shifted from targeting private power and enacting New Deal-era kinds of structural, transformative changes, to a more limited stance of closing market failures and making free markets work more smoothly. We can think of this as liberalism making its peace with the mythology of free markets, exemplified in Bill Clinton’s famous declaration that “the era of Big Government is over.” Unsurprisingly, this was manifested in the liberal efforts in the 1990s to reform welfare and deregulate Wall Street, policies that bear an important share of the blame for today’s economic anxieties. These moves sought to defuse the conservative attack on government by taking some of its critiques of capture and valorization of markets on board—essentially narrowing the progressive vision to preserve a smaller remnant.

In the course of this strategic retreat, liberals have also shifted their view of what “good governance” means. In the effort to counteract conservative attacks on government, liberals have tried to reassure voters that government can in fact be effective and publicly spirited. This has led to the embrace of cost-benefit analysis, a preference for top-down, technocratic policy design, and a focus on transparency and “open government.” It has also manifested itself in the preference for policies that operate invisibly, through what former Obama regulatory “czar” Cass Sunstein calls “nudges,” or what political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state.”

These successive waves of liberal governance reform—from the Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” initiative, to the Obama administration’s emphasis on cost-benefit analysis and transparency—share a common problem: They prioritize “good” government over “democratic” government. This liberal vision of governance reform does not address the root challenge raised by critics on both the left and right today: the fear that government is ineffective, unresponsive, or unduly influenced by business and economic elites. 

As the 2016 election winds down, it is increasingly clear that progressives cannot resort to this established playbook of market-optimizing, technocratic governance. Instead, progressives will have to develop a more robust, structural, and transformative response to the persistent problems of economic inequality and racial exclusion. 

Consider the major movements shaping progressive politics today. From the movement for criminal justice reform, to Black Lives Matter and its focus on structural racism, to the raise of new “alt-labor” groups seeking to organize domestic workers, gig economy workers, and others left out of the traditional trade union movement, these movements reflect a very different progressive vision than the one that shaped either the technocratic liberalism of the 20th century or the mainstream response to the 2008-09 financial crisis. For these reformers, there is a common move to structure: the problems of inequality and exclusion are not just about individual malfeasance; rather they emerge from the laws and policies that wire our systems of work, cities, and markets, narrowing opportunity for some, concentrating gains for others. There is also a greater focus on the problem of power: the concentrated and unaccountable power of corporations, or of policymakers immune from democratic contestation and pressure. Finally, they seek to drive social change through a combination of movement organizing and institutional reform.

These new progressive social movements thus evoke a very different tradition from the mainstream of 1990s liberalism or New Deal technocratic governance. Instead, they evoke the radical critiques of economic power and democratic mobilization of pre-New Deal Progressive Era reformers—but crucially, combined with the ethic of inclusion inherited from the civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ movements, among others. And they point the way towards an agenda for progressives going forward. 

First, this alternative “progressive populism” rests on a serious diagnosis of the new forms of economic power shaping the economy and restricting economic freedom and opportunity. Where for Brandeis and his contemporaries private power meant monopolies like Standard Oil and elites like J.P, Morgan, 21st century economic power looks surprisingly similar. Finance remains a central problem: Too-big-to-fail firms remain a feature of the landscape, and the industry as a whole diverts funds, people, and resources away from real investments in communities and businesses. And we face similar concerns about concentration of markets areas like internet service provision, media, information technology, and big agribusiness.

It also means rewiring the basic rules of our economy to provide for basic stability and security for all. We must look at the underlying rules and policies of urban planning and housing that produce geographic (and racially disparate) concentrations of poverty and limited opportunity. We need a 21st century safety net where workplace protections and social insurance are available to all workers, including vulnerable on-demand and low-wage workers in the gig economy, or industries like fast food, retail, or domestic work. It also encompasses battles for more inclusive access to the basic necessities of life, from health care to broadband to minimum wages.

Second, progressive populism must be committed to a truly inclusive definition of “the people.” Progressive populism must take as a starting point the battles for inclusion, social standing, and identity on basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status, to name a few. It should be no surprise that many of the leaders of movements to reinvent the safety net and respond to new forms of economic power are from constituencies that have historically been excluded from the progressive victories of the 20th century: communities of color, women domestic workers, and the like. 

Third, progressive populism requires an investment in the ecosystem of movements, institutions, and practices that can make popular sovereignty real—through new forms of democratic empowerment and agency. This means more than the focus on campaign finance reform, as critical as that might be. It also means investing in grassroots movement organizing to empower constituencies to have political influence independent of the electoral campaign cycle. It means orienting these movement organizations to plug in to the often mundane tasks of daily governance in federal regulatory bodies, local governments, and state agencies—the places where, outside of the glare of the election season, the real business of governing and writing of the economic rules takes place. It means creating new entry points for democratic participation and accountability within these processes creating regulations and public policies. For example, the Fed Up campaign’s effort to tackle the slow and racially disparate effects of the recovery includes a call to broaden the representation of minorities in the policymaking bodies of the Federal Reserve.

A century ago, progressives responding to the upheavals of industrialization set the stage for the New Deal, creating policies that assured decades of economic prosperity and wellbeing—but at the cost of racial exclusion. Today we face a similar level of economic upheaval, and with it the potential to once again remake our economic system. Whether we can do better than the reformers of yesteryear—whether we can for the first time achieve a truly inclusive, equitable, and democratic society—remains to be seen.