The Progressive Challenge

Robert Borosage

On a sunlit lawn in front of the nation’s Capitol yesterday, an impressive array of progressive legislators, union and civil rights leaders and public scholars lined up to sign onto New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Progressive Agenda,” a brief platform on income inequality. De Blasio plans to add thousands more signatures while calling on candidates in both parties to join.

De Blasio’s bold initiative is not alone. In April, National People’s Alliance, USAction, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Campaign for America’s Future released the Populism 2015 Platform, promising to take it across the country. The Center for Community Change joined with civil rights and progressive groups to launch Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All. The Economic Policy Institute released its agenda on Raising Wages.

The Roosevelt Institute and the Center for American Progress offered more extensive analyses, the former a report by Joseph Stiglitz, “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy,” and the latter a report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity, chaired by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

All of these are bold efforts to address the central issue of the day: an economy of increasing inequality that does not work for working people.

Although some are far more extensive than others, they share major themes. All call for major long-term public investment to rebuild America’s infrastructure and put people to work. All advocate progressive tax reforms to hike taxes on the rich and corporations. Virtually all want a new trade policy that will deal with currency manipulation. All call for extensive reforms to insure that the rewards of growth are widely shared: raising the floor under workers (hiking the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick days, vacation days and family leave, adjusting overtime, etc), empowering workers to form unions and bargain collectively and rolling back the excesses that have bloated CEO pay packages. All put basic equity at the center of economic growth – immigration reform, an end to mass incarceration, pay equity for women. Virtually all call for major investment in education from universal pre-K to affordable college. Most envision an expansion of Social Security, affordable health care, and other shared security programs.

These platforms are bold, progressive calls for government action to fix the rules that have been rigged to favor the few. All argue that inequality is not inevitable, not an act of nature, but a product of policy and of power.

The Wall Street Journal and others have argued that the triumph of the Conservative Party in Britain is a warning to America that voters are skeptical of populist big government programs based on taxing the rich. Growth trumps redistribution, they argue.

But these platforms argue that our inequality has reached such extremes – with the top 1% capturing virtually all the rewards of growth since the Great Recession – that it makes robust growth virtually impossible. The task is less one of redistribution than of fixing the rules of the economy so the rewards of growth are widely shared, providing the basis for rebuilding a broad middle class and sustained prosperity. Growth through greater equity.

These platforms reflect a growing consensus among the activist base of the Democratic Party. They set up a face off between the demands of the “money primary,” where big money sets the agenda and the demands of the “ideas primary” where activists make their choice.

To date, among Democratic contenders for the presidency, only Bernie Sanders has put forth an economic agenda of similar bold scope. As Hillary Clinton is finding in the trade debate, activists will turn up the heat on the others to take a stand.

All this sets the stage for a general election battle between conservatives arguing their unaltered agenda – deregulate, cut taxes and government and let markets work – and a progressive growth agenda of government investment, fair taxes and fair share. Americans will choose between a tribune of the failed ideas of the conservative era or a candidate calling for more activist government.

Both are likely to face a skeptical citizenry. Republicans will find it hard to sell the same failed promises. And Democrats will have to convince voters that government can work for them, and not for the rich and the entrenched interests. Only the Populist 2015 Platform and the Stiglitz report emphasize the need to curb big money in our politics. Sanders, with a campaign fueled by small donations, has made it a centerpiece of his campaign. Hillary has already spoken to the need for reform, even as she opens up her own super Pac. In a campaign that will break all records for spending, the corruption of our politics will be central to the debate.

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