Dozing through “the Great Moving Right Show”
The greatest danger currently facing all of us in America, and particularly progressives, is one of drift. As an economy, the United States is drifting along a low-growth path that is acclimatizing all of us to levels of unemployment which only a decade ago would have been treated as an outrage. As a society, the United States is drifting towards levels of income and wealth inequality so large that, if left unchallenged, will soon become irreversible. And as a political system the United States is drifting towards a Republican sweep of both the House and the Senate in November unless the democratic left acts now to reverse what is in truth a carefully-orchestrated and heavily-funded great moving right show.
Those of us of a progressive predisposition are drifting towards a political defeat of historic proportions – one underpinned by an economic and social settlement of a highly conservative kind – and we are doing so with what would appear to be only the slightest sense of alarm. If that is true, we do now need to wake up, and do everything we can to stop the drift.
The political drift is understandable. The idealism briefly mobilized by the Obama candidacy in 2008 against the backdrop of an unpopular war and an unprecedented recession has long gone, washed away by the moderation of Obama the president and by the steady post-recession pressure on the job security and living standards of Democratic voters. Any generalized faith among particularly young Obama supporters that the levers of power in Washington could be deployed for progressive ends by our first African-American President has been rendered mute by the gridlock of divided government and by the intransigence of Republican opposition to each and every one of his policies, no matter how moderate those policies turned out to be. And the resulting White House horse-trading of big gains for minor ones has taken the gloss off a presidency that once promised so much, by restricting the capacity of even as gifted a politician as Barack Obama to use the presidential bully pulpit to articulate a convincing alternative progressive vision.
It is conservatives who are enthusiastic for politics now, not progressives – that is how much has changed since 2008 – and that conservative enthusiasm constitutes a real and present danger not just to the Affordable Care Act but also to what still remains of the legacy of both the New Deal and the Great Society. The fate of minimum labor rights, of Social Security, of Medicare and Medicaid – all that also hangs in the balance as America goes into its next electoral cycle. So this is no time for understatement. Right now the democratic left in America is being seriously outplayed. Progressives are losing both the public argument and public support. We have to understand why, and we have to do something about it.
Why are we losing support? We are losing public support in part because there is currently so much money flowing against us, as the Supreme Court repeatedly opens the sprocket through which the funds of conservative billionaires so easily flow. We are losing public support in part because the Republicans, sitting in power in the House, are able to block one progressive initiative after another, so generating an impotence in Washington which further alienates people from government, reinforcing the very antipathy to public policy on which conservative Republicanism feeds. And we are losing public support in part because what progressive leadership there still is in Washington is either preoccupied by the wider responsibilities of office or rendered invisible by the mainstream media’s almost total focus on the daily pantomime of Congressional deadlock. Mix into that lethal political cocktail the additional fact that so many of the senators now struggling for re-election are themselves on the conservative wing of the Democratic coalition, and it becomes even clearer why the November elections could be a progressive wipe-out. It could be a complete wipe-out to the degree that one uninspiring Democratic office-holder after another is rejected in favor of an even more conservative Republican opponent by a mid-term electorate seriously reduced in size by the unwillingness of so many Democratic supporters to vote at all.
We cannot let that debacle happen without trying to prevent it; which is why the fight-back has to start now. Starting in November will be far too late. The current Republican onslaught of ideas and money has to be challenged throughout the summer and the fall – challenged with ideas and money of our own. Progressive ideas need to be widely reasserted, the better to encourage the flow of Democratic money and activism. The American electorate needs to hear again, in every corner of the public debate, progressive arguments that undercut core Republican claims and progressive ideas that project a clear and superior alternative social and economic compact. Potential American voters need to hear again arguments and ideas, that is, which collectively constitute an equivalent great moving left show.
Good shows need a good script. This one could use at least the following.
· Markets, left to themselves, work well when everyone within them has equal purchasing power. But when that basic equality of consumer power is missing, unregulated markets simply privilege the rich and intensify the inequality that corrodes their inner working. If Republicans genuinely want markets to work well, they should join us in creating a level playing field for all the participants.
· In any case, even when markets do work well, not all of them are the same and not all services are properly bought and sold. Labour markets (markets in which people sell their skills) are not the same kind of markets as those for the commodities people then make; and because they are not, they require different kinds of regulation. Some services (not least the provision of decent health care) are not best distributed by price. You shouldn’t buy and sell things that are more properly available to everyone by right.
· The current Republican Party resistance to effective federal regulation runs counter to the fundamental truth that, for long-term democratic health, public policy should always take precedence over private monopoly. Public goods are vital to the public good. Even Adam Smith recognized that such public goods required their public provision; and what was good for Adam Smith ought to be good for those who follow him.
· Trickle-down economics simply does not work; and because it does not, the most effective route back to full employment and rising living standards – given our contemporary economic conditions – is not through a growth strategy that further empowers the rich. It is through a growth strategy based on greater income and wealth equality. Greater equality is currently an economic as well as a moral imperative.
· Equal pay for equal work, as part of a sustained assault on the gender gap, is more than a morally desirable objective – though it is certainly that. It is also a key element in a vitally-needed resetting of the balance between work and life in contemporary America, and as such is by far the most effective way currently available to us to immediately strengthen the American family. You don’t strengthen families by underpaying women.
· Nor do you strengthen American employment by exporting jobs overseas. A strong American middle class requires a strong American manufacturing sector. Low-paid service employment simply will not cut it. Nation-building at home needs to precede nation-building abroad; and
· Climate-change denial is a conservative luxury that we can no longer afford. No adequate economic strategy can or should ignore the appalling environmental consequences of excessive business de-regulation. The route to long-term and secure growth has to be a green route, and it is a route whose time has come.
Each of these central progressive assertions needs to be developed and justified by detailed arguments relevant to them alone. In the months to come, my contribution to creating and sustaining a great moving left show will be focused on that task. I hope that others will contribute too, adding to the list of progressive assertions and developing the arguments to sustain each. Conservative and libertarian voices have been allowed to frame public discourse in Obama’s America for too long. The few progressive public intellectuals on which we now regularly rely – the Paul Krugman’s, E.J. Dionne’s and Harold Meyerson’s of this world – have carried the burden alone for too long. It is time for the entirety of the Democratic Left to stir itself, and to be heard again.
These arguments are more fully developed in David Coates, Answering back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
 This argument is developed more fully in David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. New York: Continuum Books, 2011, chapter 2: available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506
 This argument is developed more fully in David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. New York: Continuum Books, 2011, chapter 4: available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.