Rediscovering Government

Mar 28, 2012Jeff Madrick

Today we launch a new initiative and a new conversation about the purpose and possibility of government in the lives of Americans.

Today we launch a new initiative and a new conversation about the purpose and possibility of government in the lives of Americans.

The discourse about the positive purposes and possibilities of government has been barren for a generation in America. What discussion there is has been dominated by proposals and philosophical disquisitions on how to make the most of less government, but rarely about new avenues for government action or new possibilities for social improvement. Since the Reagan years, there has been almost no new social policy that required a substantial outlay of money. George W. Bush's program for drugs for the elderly was the one major exception, and it was riddled with concessions to the private market. Obamacare is a second. Both are clouded in controversy that is in good measure ideological.

Even the conventional language about the "role" of government is misleading. Do we talk about the "role" of parents in their children's lives, or the "role" of children in their parents'? One doesn't exist without the other. You don't talk about the role of water in swimming or the role of the ball in soccer.

In short, there is no economy without government; there is no America without government. If all this seems a little elementary, it serves a point. The language we use suggests at the outset an assumption that government should be limited. Note we don't talk about the role of business in America. Business is generally assumed to be the senior partner.

Let me make this one point clear: There is no capitalism without government, either. Like Keynes, I'd like to enable the country to enjoy the benefits of capitalism but also the benefits of government safeguards, investments, and efforts to develop everyone's "capabilities" to benefit, if they so choose and if they do their share, from a full life.

America started losing its way, I'd argue, precisely when it began to lose so much faith in government back in the 1970s. Why this happened is complex. The nation has always been individualistic in its orientation, given its history as a rebel against totalitarianism and its small population compared to available resources, including an open frontier. But community action and responsibility also had a larger part in America's development than current mythology suggests. Trust in government is at a low today, but surveys suggest it started to fall rapidly under Lyndon Johnson after the surge in such faith after the New Deal and World War II. It fell further under Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

But the nation was still moderately confident in government. In the early 1970s, many new regulatory agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, were started, Social Security was expanded, and welfare programs were expanded. A tax revolt in California led by Ronald Reagan was put down in early 1973.

But the economic devastation from 1973 through the early 1980s seemed to be a primary catalyst in causing Americans to doubt government. Americans were confused, frustrated, and angry. By 1978 there was a major tax revolt. Soon talk was all about cutting taxes, reducing social programs, and freeing business of regulations. Anti-trust became an almost archaic term. In ensuing years, few economists of any political stripe argued against undoing Glass-Steagall, which had separated investment and commercial banks in the 1930s. Higher unemployment rates were thought to be the ideal path for controlling inflation. The Democrats began talking about how free markets can supply social goods more efficiently than government. Unions increasingly were thought of as villains, not the providers of a middle class for workers. Hard-won gains on Social Security and Medicare were readily sacrificed in the name of fiscal responsibility, while raising taxes in the almost lowest-taxed rich nation in the world was considered anathema.

Check out the new special issue of The Nation, guest-edited by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

But government has brought some of this disillusion on itself. Some of it needed taming and pruning. Promises and hopes were at times excessive. And it has too often failed to do what it is supposed to do well. But one reason was also that those in charge often didn't believe in government. Reagan, for example, slashed budgets for key agencies. Increasingly, appointees saw government as a path to a good job once they left. Regulatory "capture" was widespread. Tax expenditures, like the home interest deduction, benefited the well-off far more than the rest. Companies enjoyed not merely loopholes but wonderfully lucrative and poorly administered government contracts. Democrats are not to be exonerated. They were leaders, for example, in deregulating key previsions that could have prevented the financuial crisis that began in 2007.

Maybe most sad, however, is that government stopped looking forward. I published a book a few years ago, to be found in our website's "Library," The Case for Big Government, that emphasized that government was a primary, and arguably the most important, agent of change. One of the myths that dominate America is that in the 1800s we had a laissez faire government. That is far from true. Government built the all-important canals when commerce needed them and the remarkable free and high-quality public school system when it became clear education was imperative both to freedom and a prosperous economy. Government built the municipal sanitation and water systems. Government financed the railroads. In the next century, it built the highways, financed research in health and technology, and subsidized college attendance. Oh, yes, it also picked up the garbage, sent the mail, and fought a couple of major wars.

None of this was anticipated. The tasks could not have been written into the Constitution. Times change, economies grow and become more complex, and our knowledge changes as well. Today, we know that early childhood education is key to full lives. We didn't always know that. Government should support it. We know that women need family support programs to join the workforce. And we know that markets don't cure racism on their own, even though some Nobel laureates claimed they would.

One final point. I find that many people I speak to underestimate how deep and dangerous the conflicts among the American people have been over the nation's history. I am not only talking about slavery, though that is obviously primary. But Thomas Jefferson had profound battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton about basic civil rights -- remember the Alien and Sedition Acts -- so much so that Jefferson felt obliged to assuage the differences in a famous State of the Union address. Andrew Jackson threatened to send in troops to force South Carolina to abide by new tariffs in the 1830s. Populism almost split the nation in two in the 1890s. America sent in troops to Arkansas in the 1950s to integrate schools.

This has not been an easy nation to run. Many were opposed to financing the canals, public education, and the municipilization of sanitation and water. These were all ideological battlegrounds, but fortunately the victory was usually in favor of community action, government support. Among America's remarkable achievements has been an ability to resolve conflicts, not always peacefully, that almost rent the nation asunder. Post-partisan good will does not well define most of American history. Government was needed to resolve differences and proceed forward. None of that progress was ever inevitable.

Today, we are launching a new web site called It is the conversation locus for our new Rediscovering Government Initiative. We aim to restart a public discussion about the purposes and possibilities of government. We aim to present a counter-narrative to the cynical anti-government ideology that has dominated the nation since the 1970s. We do not want to tell people what to think. But we want to give them a place to think, comment, and argue. We will have open public discussions through presentations around the country, and our web site will be the repository of key information, news, research, and books on relevant subjects you, the reader, may miss. This blog will ideally be the cite of a new American conversation. We welcome all to participate. We will be open, searching, curious, and humble in pursuit of a healthy new discourse on how to govern ourselves.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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Watch Live: Stiglitz, Schneiderman Lead Conversation on Role of Government

Mar 28, 2012

The Roosevelt Institute is kicking off its newest flagship initiative, Rediscovering Government, with a day of lively discussions by foremost thinkers exploring key questions around the role and purpose of government, including keynote addresses by Nobel laureate and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Joseph Stiglitz and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Starting at 9 a.m., watch video of the conference live here:

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The Roosevelt Institute is kicking off its newest flagship initiative, Rediscovering Government, with a day of lively discussions by foremost thinkers exploring key questions around the role and purpose of government, including keynote addresses by Nobel laureate and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Joseph Stiglitz and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Starting at 9 a.m., watch video of the conference live here:

Free desktop streaming application by Ustream

Out-of-touch conservative dogma has been on full display during the Republican primary season, but now we're going to hear from leading progressive thinkers as they work through how to change the national conversation and develop a new narrative about the purpose and value of public action. Under the leadership of Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Rediscovering Government Director Jeff Madrick, our goal is to counter the anti-government language, attitudes, and policies that have dominated American politics for a generation.

For more, check out the new special issue of The Nation guest-edited by Madrick, in which he poses the fundamental question of American politics: Can we trust government again?

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FDR Countered Wall Street's Greed With Mass Prosperity

Mar 22, 2012David B. Woolner

Today's financial giants pursue greater wealth at any cost, but in order to build a sustainable economy, we have to make life richer for all Americans.

Today's financial giants pursue greater wealth at any cost, but in order to build a sustainable economy, we have to make life richer for all Americans.

Today, national progress and national prosperity are being held back chiefly because of selfishness on the part of a few... You know their reasoning. They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life "some people are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen." And they say that that is nature itself and you cannot do anything about it and it is just too bad if some, the minority of people, get left behind.

It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought, to give anything but lip service, to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed. The majority of them say, "I am not my brother's keeper" -- and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.

But, my friends, this Nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and processes of recovery to those people who owned -- I say "owned" -- the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933. -Franklin D Roosevelt

The recent publication of an editorial in the New York Times by a top executive at Goldman Sachs has sparked a fierce debate about the culture of greed that has permeated Wall Street in recent years. Critics argue that the author of the article, Greg Smith, is right to point out that Wall Street has lost its moral compass and that firms like Goldman are no longer interested in their clients and couldn't care less about the long-term implications of their investment strategies. Today's Wall Street, they insist, is driven by one motive and one motive only: to make as much money as possible for themselves and for the firms they work for in the shortest possible time, whatever the consequences for the customers the company is supposed to be serving. On the other hand, the defenders of Wall Street insist that the desire to make money is nothing new -- that greed, in fact, has always been a part of the culture of the investment banking community, and that we should not be so surprised or alarmed that the people who work in the financial sector do so out of a desire to become rich.

Given the consequences of the recent financial crisis, the fact that Mr. Smith's article has provoked a debate about the culture of Wall Street seems understandable. With unemployment still over 8 percent nationwide, a good share of the population remains concerned about the possibility that the "toxic atmosphere" Mr. Smith describes on Wall Street might lead to another financial meltdown. Yes, we do have Dodd-Frank, but will this piece of legislation prove adequate to prevent a repeat scenario?

These are all legitimate questions, but given the poor state of our economy and the millions who remain unemployed or underemployed a full four years after the onset of the collapse of the financial sector, the real question that needs to be addressed concerns not just the behavior of Wall Street, but the impact that the singular pursuit of wealth in whatever field has on the nation as a whole.

Seventy-four years ago, on March 23, 1938, Franklin Roosevelt addressed this very question in a speech he made to the people of Gainesville, Georgia. Two years before, Gainesville had been devastated by a violent tornado that left over 200 people dead and destroyed much of its downtown area. But with the help of over $1 million in federal aid from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and a number of construction projects carried out by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along with the financial support, hard work, and "unselfish cooperation" of the citizens of Gainesville, the city was rebuilt. Moreover, the new Gainesville was better than the old, with less congestion, better housing, and more parks and green space for the people to enjoy.

Buy a copy of The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, featuring a chapter by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler.

Taking note of this, FDR observed that the efforts of the people of Gainesville to rebuild their city touched "the interest and life of the whole Nation" because they typified the concept of citizenship "which is latent in the American character." It was true that in the wake of the destruction the city had "great needs," but these needs "were met," he said, "in accordance with the democratic principle that those needs should be filled in proportion to the ability of each individual to help."

Not one to miss a teachable moment, FDR then went on to address the larger question of economic inequality that still plagued the country. Much of this inequality, he insisted, was the result of the selfishness and greed of those at the top end of the income ladder who refused to accept or acknowledge that a society built on such vast disparity of wealth was not only undemocratic, but also economically unsustainable. These individuals, he went on:

...are the kind of people who...were saying, "Oh, yes, we want nobody to starve" but at the same time were insisting that the balancing of the budget was more important than making appropriations for relief. And when I told them that I, too wanted to balance the budget but that I put human lives ahead of dollars and handed them the book of the government estimates and asked them just where they would out the appropriations, inevitably they folded up and came back and told me, "Mr. President, that is not my business, that is yours."

FDR then went on to speak about how such attitudes affected the nation as a whole, of the consequences of economic inequality and the critical need to provide work and better wages for the "bottom third" of the U.S. population. He insisted it was vital to improve the "buying power" of the millions of unemployed and other workers "who are so under-employed or so underpaid that the burden of their poverty affects the little business man and the big business man and the millionaire himself." Moreover, he also reminded his listeners that better buying power meant not just greater purchases in hard-hit industries but also "many other...things -- better schools, better health and hospitals, better highways."

In short, FDR insisted that the best way to work our way out of the Great Depression and sustain capitalism was to make sure it worked for all our citizens, rich and poor alike. Happily, the actions of the people of Georgia in the wake of tragedy had convinced him that more and more Americans from workers and farmers to bankers and businessmen were coming to see "that the continuation of the American system calls for the elimination of special privilege, the dissemination of the whole truth, and participation in prosperity by the people at the bottom of the ladder, as well as those in the middle and those at the top."

It is certainly not a bad thing that Mr. Smith's article about the culture of Wall Street has stirred up a debate about the values and motivations of the individuals working in the financial sector. But in a society where the same newspaper has recently reported that the number of poor and near poor in America -- those living "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it" -- has now reached approximately 100 million Americans, one wonders why more people are not focused on the "one third of a nation" that, as in FDR's day, sadly finds itself "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill nourished." Would an editorial bemoaning the increasing level of poverty in America have sparked the same amount of interest?

Viewed from this perspective, the culture on Wall Street, with its huge bonuses and drive for ever-increasing wealth no matter what the consequences for the client, becomes all the more disturbing. Not so much for what it says about the financial sector, but rather for what it says about the state of the country as a whole. The pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake is a poor foundation upon which to build a modern economy well-suited for the 21st century. Surely FDR is right when he reminds us that it is better for us to become "our brother's keeper" than to "pass on to the other side."

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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Romney Finds Republican Religion on the Minimum Wage

Mar 7, 2012Richard Kirsch

Romney's flip-flop on raising the minimum wage betrays what Republicans really mean when they talk about small government.

Last month I wrote about how economic issues like the minimum wage were twisting Republican candidates into pretzels as they tried to make it look like they cared about the economic squeeze on American families while toeing the line on free-market orthodoxy. As I said at the time:

Romney's flip-flop on raising the minimum wage betrays what Republicans really mean when they talk about small government.

Last month I wrote about how economic issues like the minimum wage were twisting Republican candidates into pretzels as they tried to make it look like they cared about the economic squeeze on American families while toeing the line on free-market orthodoxy. As I said at the time:

Romney, clearly aware that he needs to support some policies that show him sympathetic to struggling families, has broken with free-market orthodoxy by supporting indexing the minimum wage to inflation. For this he was loudly attacked by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and Rush Limbaugh, among others. Andrew McCarthy’s post in the National Review captured the mood with the headline, “See Mitt Pander.”

It turns out Mitt couldn't take the heat from his right yet again (which makes you wonder how he'd deal with the pressures of actually being president). This week he got back in line with right-wing economic theology, telling CNBC's Larry Kudlow "there's probably not a need to raise the minimum wage." Even in reversing his position he can't help throwing in a waffle: "probably."

In the same interview, Romney told Kudlow that "people are hurting; they want someone who can see rising incomes, rising jobs, and a bright future for their kids." Unless, it appears, those people are working full-time at minimum wage and still don't make enough to rise above the poverty level.

Maybe the problem is that full-time workers are not "the very poor" who Romney isn't "concerned about." He told us "we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it." So I guess since minimum wage workers are just poor, not the very poor, Romney doesn't think they need help.

Check out “The 99 Percent Plan,” a new Roosevelt Institute/Salon essay series on the progressive vision for the economy.

As Romney knows, it's easy to go after the very poor, who are demonized as dependent on government hand-outs in code for racist politics. But there is overwhelming support for people who are working hard and still barely able to feed their families. Even if most people make well above the minimum wage, they still feel the economic crush of stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and job insecurity.

You can just see the Obama campaign lampooning Romney for pretending he understands that "people are hurting" while opposing raising the minimum wage, after he was for it. It's a perfect combination of Romney the rich guy who doesn't get it, Romney the captive of the right wing, and Romney the flip-flopper.

But beneath the political vulnerability is a deeper truth that Obama and progressives more broadly need to drive home this year. When Republicans preach smaller government, less regulation, and defending business as job creators, they are sentencing families to a future that is the opposite of what Romney told Kudlow he wants. It's a future of shrinking incomes, disappearing jobs, and a darker future for our children.

We don't need smaller government; we need government that works for working people, not the ultra-rich. We don't need less regulation; we need rules that assure that working families can live in dignity. It's not businesses that are the job creators. It's people who go to work every day, who shop on Main Street, who are the business creators. And that includes people who work their butts off every day at the minimum wage.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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Brandeis's Key Components of Citizenship: From Turnout to Time Off

Jan 31, 2012Sabeel Rahman

Louis Brandeis's vision of what it takes to create an engaged citizenry went far beyond voting rights, touching on leisure, regulation, and the welfare state.

Louis Brandeis's vision of what it takes to create an engaged citizenry went far beyond voting rights, touching on leisure, regulation, and the welfare state.

During the Independence Day celebrations of 1915, Louis Brandeis was invited to give the prestigious Fourth of July Oration at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Brandeis was already a towering figure in the progressive movement, driving minimum wage reforms as a practicing lawyer, pioneering the use of social science research in legal advocacy, and serving as the chief intellectual architect of the 1912 "New Freedom" campaign by Woodrow Wilson (who would later appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court). In this famous speech, which Brandeis called "True Americanism" (full text here), he provided a compelling vision of democracy, freedom, and pluralism, outlining themes that continue to resonate with core progressive values. The speech revolved around two key elements. He portrayed citizenship as more than just voting or civility. Rather, he said, it is fundamentally about sharing in the project of governance -- a view of citizenship that requires policies and institutions to thrive. He also emphasized the economic dimensions of citizenship: both as a right of all individuals to a level of economic wellbeing, and as an obligation for each of us to make public policies that provide those economic necessities.

Brandeis opened his speech by noting the diversity of American citizenship: America, unlike other countries, welcomed the inclusion of immigrants and thrived on diversity. This uniquely "inclusive brotherhood" recognized equality regardless of race, gender, or country of origin, and saw such equality "as an essential of full human liberty and true brotherhood, and...[as] a complement of democracy." America's greatness, for Brandeis, stemmed in part from its commitment to the belief that "in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress." This was the central foundation of democracy: the belief that "all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the "conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization." This democratic faith sought progress in diversity and the drive of ordinary people rather than relying on an aristocratic faith in the "principle of the superman."

But Americanism for Brandeis also meant accepting a substantive view of human freedom. This ideal of freedom served two purposes: it offered a set of values that knit together an otherwise diverse populace, and it implied a particular vision of the good society that was built to expand and foster the capacities of citizens themselves, thereby ensuring the very progress that Brandeis saw possible in a diverse democratic society. American ideals, then, meant "the development of the individual for his own and the common good" through the promotion of "democracy and social justice." Freedom thus meant more than just the negative freedom from interference by the state. It also meant freedom "in things industrial as well as political" and the fostering of opportunities for meaningful participation in the political, social, and economic life of the country. On this view of freedom, self-fulfillment could come "only through the full development and utilization of one's faculties."

This view of freedom and fulfillment thus implied a particular configuration of social, political, and economic arrangements designed to foster each individual to make full use of his or her abilities. In particular, Brandeis outlined several elements required to realize this vision.

First, he defended the importance of an inclusive franchise, giving individuals the opportunity to partake in the central political issues facing the country. But the franchise was only one of the necessary elements.

The second element was a robust welfare state. "In order that men may live and not merely exist," argued Brandies, they must have education, regular employment yielding "reasonable income," and health care: "the essentials of American citizenship are not satisfied by supplying merely the material needs or wants of every worker." Further, citizens needed insulation from "sickness, accident, invalidity, superannuation, unemployment," or "financial losses" -- thus "the standard worthy to be called American implies some system of social insurance."

Click here to buy Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch’s new book on the epic health care reform battle, Fighting for Our Health.

Third, citizenship required leisure. In stark contrast to the anxieties around contemporary defenses of the welfare state, Brandeis argued that leisure was essential to human fulfillment and was a worthy goal for the welfare state. "But leisure," he warned, "does not imply idleness. It means the ability to some thing besides breadwinning. Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy."

Fourth, citizenship required the extensive regulation of concentrated private power. Citizens in a successful democracy must be free, and they could not be free so long as they were "dependent industrially upon the arbitrary will of another." Thus, "some curb must be placed on overweening industrial power," in particular on the threats posed by the vast economic and financial power of trusts. These constraints on private power required both external government regulation and internal empowerment of workers themselves as co-participants in the governance of these private firms: "control and cooperation are both essential to industrial liberty."

In this brief account of American citizenship, Brandeis outlined a vision that offers significant lessons for progressives today. This is not to say that Brandeis or his contemporaries had all the answers. Indeed, Progressive Era reformers of the early twentieth century were notorious for their Victorian sensibilities, often favoring the interests of white, middle-class, male Americans over others. Nevertheless, the thinking and rhetoric of key Progressive Era intellectuals like Brandeis paints a picture of progressive politics and of American citizenshp more broadly than ours. In many ways it is more compelling and more substantive than much of contemporary political rhetoric.

Inclusion is central to citizenship, but it requires more than formal inclusion in the franchise. Inclusion was not just a value in the abstract for Brandeis; it was also a central driver of progress. It rested on a commitment to progress through the empowerment of all individuals, rather than through an "aristocratic" faith in superhuman individuals. By contrast, too much of contemporary discourse speaks of inclusion and opportunity, but valorizes the particular unique genius and capabilities of a few select individuals -- from Steve Jobs to Alan Greenspan or even to Barack Obama. Rather than seeking such heroic ideals in business, expertise, or political leadership, progressives should focus on unleashing of every individual's talents and capacities.

This unleashing of individual capacities -- and in turn the larger social progress that arises from it -- requires a sustained and coherent set of reforms across all policy areas designed to protect individuals and unleash their capacities to innovate, to create, and ultimately to lead fulfilling lives. These reforms would expand the ability of individuals to participate in both political and economic decision-making. They would also expand the scope for individual leisure, giving people the space to engage in fulfilling activities in both the public and private arenas. They would constrain the ability of private actors to interfere with these individual capacities. This approach makes citizenship more than a mere exhortation to civility or virtue; it is instead something that has to be fostered and sustained through extensive political, social, and economic reform.

Brandeis's vision of citizenship is ultimately shaped by a sense of active humility, rather than passive exceptionalism. While the values he articulated are powerful and important, they are aspirational, demanding extensive action to make them a reality. In the final moments of his speech, he alluded to the great conflict in World War I Europe, calling for a universal commitment to this vision of democracy and economic wellbeing as a route to world peace. But he also warned his audience that America did not possess a monopoly on rightness, but rather must work to promote these ideals through its own example.

Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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What Do Obama, the Tea Party, and Occupy Have in Common? Citizenship.

Jan 30, 2012Sabeel Rahman

A new series to look at how to meaningfully engage Americans in a political system run amok.

A new series to look at how to meaningfully engage Americans in a political system run amok.

In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama repeatedly appealed to the civic virtue of both voters and representatives, calling for all Americans to work together to overcome the central challenges of a struggling economy and declining social mobility. This call to civic engagement and collaboration has been central to Obama's most compelling moments as a public figure, going back to his remarkable campaign. The most memorable moments of 2008 stemmed from Obama's evocation of the ideal of American citizenship -- the ability of citizens to work together, to get involved, and, through politics, to remake their world.

While the resonance of that appeal has varied over the course of Obama's presidency, the theme is one that lies behind the other defining episodes of political discourse over the last few years. Although neither was as much of a mass movement as it purported to be, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement tapped into a similar set of anxieties and aspirations. They channeled anxieties that the scale of contemporary social challenges exceed our capacity to manage them, whether they be from the economy, the environment, corporate power, or government regulation; and aspirations to expand the collective political power of "we the people." While both movements diagnosed the problems and defined "the people" in vastly different ways, the root of their appeal was in some sense a result of this shared notion that ordinary citizens are not as empowered, not as capable as they ought to be in a well-functioning democracy and a good society.

Click here to buy Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch’s new book on the epic health care reform battle, Fighting for Our Health.

Both the power and transience of each of these experiences -- Obama's campaign, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement -- point to a deeper structural problem in American politics that lies beneath specific policy debates or electoral rhetoric. This problem is fundamentally one of the nature of modern American citizenship: that despite formal inclusion in the franchise and the political process, we as citizens continue to lack the capacities to meaningfully engage in the practice of politics. On top of that, the mechanisms we do have are inadequate for the scale of the challenges the country faces and the defects in the political process itself.

In the coming months, I will explore this problem through a series of posts about democratic citizenship, what it means, and what it requires. But appeals to citizenship cannot simply be appeals to "bipartisanship," or the obligation to vote, or the individual virtue of elected officials. These are often empty appeals, lacking in definitive substantive content, and thus unable to really shape our thinking or response in an effective way. Instead, a coherent vision of citizenship necessarily requires a set of substantive commitments about what freedom means, about how an economy should be structured, about what democracy requires in practice. Thus this series focuses in particular on progressive citizenship. In other words, these posts will try to explore what is a distinctly progressive view of citizenship. What are the core ideals that animate progressive citizenship? What are its implications for substantive policy debates on issues such as economic revival? What does it imply for the reform of governmental institutions?

Sabeel Rahman is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow, a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Harvard University, and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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Liberalism Unlimited? Finding the Boundaries of Policy is What We're All About

Jan 13, 2012Mark Schmitt

Liberals aren't seeking a limitless welfare state, but the right balance between competing approaches.

Liberals aren't seeking a limitless welfare state, but the right balance between competing approaches.

Breakthrough Journal, which I predicted would offer a significant contribution to the political debate when it launched last summer, has doubled down on expectations by publishing a companion to their challenging  "Modernizing Liberalism" article from the first issue with "Modernizing Conservatism" by the Reagan biographer and AEI scholar Steven Hayward. The path forward for the country won't be found just by identifying some middle ground between two unyielding ideologies or some magical third way. It will be found by creating some real conversation among people who are fully engaged in reevaluating the future of their own assumptions.

The editors of Breakthrough invited my comments on Hayward's essay, which I tried to offer in a respectful spirit, although of course I'm not a conservative and conservatives don't need my advice. Hayward's main point was that conservatives should back down from the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting taxes and hoping that government will shrink as a result and acknowledge that they aren't going to crush liberalism forever. But before conservatives can make those compromises (which seem more like common sense than compromise), Hayward insists that liberals would have to back down from our aspiration to extend the "welfare state" to infinity.

I had a couple of comments on Hayward's first points, which you can read at the site, but the main point of disagreement, particularly in his reply to me, had to do with the question of whether liberalism's aspirations for the welfare state are limitless. This is worth digging into at length because it's quickly becoming a major theme on the right. William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute has written an entire book, which Hayward draws on extensively, contending that liberalism knows no limits, that for us progress is "Never Enough." It's the central premise of Mitt Romney's new stump speech, which argues that Obama's "entitlement society" economic policies have as their goal "equality of outcomes," rather than "equality of opportunity," and won't stop until they (we) achieve that radical leveling. This is the central charge in the economic culture war: As Hayward puts it, "the absence of any principled limit to the reach of egalitarianism is implicit -- and occasionally explicit -- in modern liberalism. The insatiable egalitarian impulse is only held in check by practical politics, not by any discernible principle."

Here's Hayward's killer piece of evidence: That liberals once talked about "comparable worth" -- that is, a system to adjust pay scales to reduce discrimination based on job classifications. "The idea almost made the 1984 Democratic platform," he says. That's it? An idea that didn't make it into a party platform 28 years ago proves that we're boundless egalitarians? (Actually, it was endorsed in the 1984 platform, and several states were implementing comparable worth standards for public employee job classifications without controversy. But it died such a quick death that most people under 40 have probably never heard of the idea.)

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It's really a pretty good example of where liberalism finds its limits, and why the process of finding those boundaries makes liberalism such a vital and adaptive political philosophy. Employment discrimination was and is a real problem, and formal job classification systems that systematically underpaid women were part of it. The market wasn't getting rid of this discrimination any more than the market eliminated racial discrimination before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A number of ideas were on the table, some of which worked. (Collective bargaining turned out to be a good way to fix discriminatory job classifications.) Ultimately, most liberals decided that a formal, government-mandated system of classifying the "worth" of different occupational categories across the private sector would be a solution worse than the problem. (I remember that being my view, even as a naïve college student at the time.) Liberalism is always about finding the right boundary between market and state, public and private, fairness and liberty. The process of considering and rejecting an idea like comparable worth is the process of finding that boundary.

Hayward would say that's not a "principled" limit. A principled limit presumably would be obvious and not argued about. But what's the principled limit to libertarian conservatism? Is it the minimal "watchman state"? I know that in practice most conservatives don't go that far, but why not? Part of the answer is "practical politics," as Hayward says of liberalism. But what's wrong with practical politics? In a functioning democracy (which ours, in which money plays a huge role and institutional quirks such as the filibuster play an outsized role, is not), ordinary politics -- elections, debates, fights over values, legislative struggles -- are a perfectly valid or even ideal way of defining the limits of the governing party's philosophy. We even internalize the limits of practical politics. For example, I've never been a supporter of single-payer health care, and most of the liberal wonks I know haven't been either. If pressed on the point by one of the few single-payer supporters I know, I can't give a very good answer on policy grounds. I understand that single-payer would be fairer, more efficient, and would lift the burden of health insurance costs from employers. But it's never going to happen and so I don't waste much time or energy on it. That's a limitation on my aspirations imposed by practical politics, but it's no less real a limit.

Egalitarianism (of opportunity) is one element of liberalism, but it's not the only one. Democratic practice is part of it, too, so the limits of practical politics are real -- not just the way we achieve other social goals, but an end in themselves. It's why making democracy work better is more than just a process concern. At the end of my comments on Hayward's essay, I suggested that the key to "modernizing conservatism" would be for conservatives to rejoin the democratic process, to get over the all-or-nothing impulse that led them to opt out of the health care debate entirely, or to attempt "nullification," to use James Fallows' word, of laws already passed. Hayward, like Romney, is basically saying that no real debate or compromise will ever be possible, that we face a pure clash of irreconcilable worldviews. That's simply not true of modern liberalism, and it shouldn't be true of conservatism either.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.

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What Was Missing in Kansas: the Greatest Generation's Political Power

Dec 12, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

President Obama speaks proudly and often of his grandparents and their generation -- the men and women who confronted and beat the Great Depression and fascism. But for all of his words of admiration and affection, he has yet to show that he truly understands what made the Greatest Generation truly great. His remarks last Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas reflected a common misconception of what their struggles, labors, and achievements entailed and what they have to say to us today.

Seeking to regain the political initiative from Republicans, Obama went to Kansas not only to present his ideas on how we might reinvigorate the American economy, but also to reiterate his commitment to enabling Americans to pursue and realize the nation's historic purpose and promise. He specifically chose Osawatomie because it was there, 101 years ago, that the former president and Republican-turned-progressive Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism" speech. As Obama noted, it was in that speech that TR said, "Our country...means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

Progressives welcomed President Obama's speech. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, "It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation's travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism." Progressive editor Matt Rothschild exclaimed, "I wish Obama would go to Kansas more often. His speech... was unlike any I've ever heard him give. He finally embraced progressivism."

Undeniably, Obama made some strong points in his remarks. He finally pointed his presidential finger at the "greed" of bankers and "irresponsibility" of regulators and all that they have wrought. He spoke of the gross inequality that has come to mark American life and how it has corrupted our democracy. And he insisted that government has an important role to play not only in responding to the continuing joblessness and suffering, but also in addressing the ever intensifying inequality and declining opportunity we have experienced.

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Nevertheless, elements of the president's Kansas speech make me doubt that he fully grasps what needs to be done and how to do it. My reservations stem from the way he spoke of his grandparents -- and my parents -- and their generation. Before he quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Obama said:

My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton's Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out... And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.

All this is true. But like many who praise the Greatest Generation's values, the president left out the most critical, progressive, and democratic, if not inspiring, part of the story.

The men and women who saved the nation from economic destruction and political tyranny, and went on to create the middle class and turn the United States into the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth, didn't do so simply by having the right values and working hard to achieve them. They did so by electing and re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They chose a leader who not only believed in them, but also rallied and engaged them directly in progressive initiatives and struggles of recovery, reconstruction, and reform.

They undertook these labors against historical expectations, in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and despite their own terrible faults and failings. In the process, they subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, reconstituted the "We" in "We the People," established a Social Security system, rebuilt the nation's public infrastructure, and improved the environment. They did so, that is, by harnessing the powers of democratic government and in the process making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

We should honor our parents and grandparents from the Greatest Generation. The best way for us to show our appreciation is to live out their politics.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyJKaye.

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A Feast for the 1%, a Famine for the One Third

Nov 23, 2011David B. Woolner

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

[H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

[H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt rededicated himself and his administration to the creation of an America where the government and the people alike would strive to eliminate the destructive and unjust disparities of wealth that had wrought such great economic hardship that they threatened to undermine the very essence of our democracy. Thanks to this commitment, generations of Americans embraced the idea that, as President Obama once said, "in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play."

But in a disturbing article published earlier this week, the New York Times took note of the growing number of Americans whose hard work and responsibility have not brought them the measure of economic security they deserve. Struggling with incomes that stand just above the poverty line, they are labeled the "near poor." This diverse group of individuals and families lives paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of economic ruin, often working multiple jobs at low wages that have remained stagnant for decades. According to data that has yet to be published by the Census Bureau, the number of "near poor" in the United States has risen to 51 million individuals, which, as the Times reports, places approximately 100 million people, or one in three Americans, "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it."

The fact that one in three Americans now lives in poverty or just above the poverty line provides us with another distressing link between the Great Recession and the Great Depression. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt's Second Inaugural Address, when, after noting the nation's economic progress since the beginning of his first term, he challenged the American people to do better and join him in an effort to "paint out" from our national canvas the sight of "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

It was true, Roosevelt said, that since the day of his fist inauguration, the country had made great strides in reversing the downward economic spiral that had gripped the nation in paralyzing fear. Faced with an unprecedented economic catastrophe, the people of the republic had dedicated themselves "to the fulfillment of a vision -- to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness." But, he went on, "our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need -- the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization."

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In that purpose, he continued:

...we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit... We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

It is odd that in this time of Thanksgiving, one hears little about the millions of Americans trapped in or threatened by poverty or the need to fashion a society where the "elementary decencies of life" -- a job with a decent wage, access to health care and higher education -- are within the reach of all. It is even more perplexing that in a time of serious economic depravity, the focal point of our all-but-dysfunctional Congress is not how "to find through government the instrument of our united purpose" but how to obstruct the very sort of structural reforms needed to help average Americans secure better lives for themselves and their children.

Part of this stems from the blind faith that free market fundamentalists have falsely promoted as the solution to all of our problems and from the inordinate amount of money that now flows from Wall Street to Washington, creating a new Gilded Age where the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. But another part of it stems from our own misguided perception of what constitutes wealth and progress. In this second Gilded Age, wealth and progress have come to mean one and the same thing -- the acquisition of an inordinate amount of capital or other assets by an individual, often obtained through mere financial transactions.

For Roosevelt, however -- and for much of his generation -- the definition of wealth and progress was much more in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving. "Happiness," as FDR famously said in his First Inaugural Address, "lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort." Four years later, he added that the "test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

For the 100 million citizens of our nation now struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, these words sadly offer little comfort, for it appears we have abandoned the noble effort of the Depression generation to paint the specter of poverty out of our national canvas.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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The Real Media Bias: The Police Force's Disproportionate Power

Nov 22, 2011John Stoehr

occupy-journalTo say Occupy Wall Street has "clashed" with police is to pretend they have equal power and weaponry.

occupy-journalTo say Occupy Wall Street has "clashed" with police is to pretend they have equal power and weaponry.

Brian Stelter wrote last weekend about the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and of its 1,000 or so offshoots here and abroad. Stelter reports that the Pew Center's new survey found that OWS captured just 10 percent of national news coverage (presumably liberal, moderate, and conservative media combined) starting in October. Coverage fizzled to 1 percent until last Tuesday, when the NYPD prepared to muscle protesters out of Zuccotti Park. No surprise: At that point, news coverage soared.

With a few exceptions, the general tendency has been to ignore OWS. It doesn't have obvious leaders or an obvious agenda, both of which make it hard to understand if you don't put in the effort. So it gets a pass from most newsrooms -- unless the cops get involved. Then you have a story that lends itself to the genre of news writing. It has characters, conflict, chronology, drama. Every reporter wants to cover such news. But it's this habit of waiting for the cops that leads me to my point.

The media has a bias, but not the one everyone talks about. The media's bias favors cops.

This has always been true. Journalists need access to power. Those in power provide information that cannot be obtained otherwise. Reporters trade access for favorable coverage. The best reporters succeed without compromising their integrity. But most of this means interacting with everyday, run-of-the-mill manifestations of power, and for most journalists, and Americans generally, that means law enforcement.

Media's natural tendency is to sympathize with the police. They are the good guys, criminals the bad guys. And I think this is the right presumption until facts compel us to think otherwise. But I also think this habit of deference is so ingrained in the minds of journalists that even when it's very obvious that the cops are the bad guys in a story, the media still can't avoid false equivalency.

False equivalency is a term coined by James Fallows. It has other names. Eric Alterman calls it on-the-one-handism. Paul Krugman calls it the cult of balance. In any case, it means the journalistic convention of representing two sides of a story equally, no matter how unequal they may in fact be. For Krugman, this means putting Republicans and Democrats on the same plane, even though Tea Party Republicans have been far more radical than Democrats. For the media coverage of OWS demonstrations, this means portraying non-violent civil disobedience as if it were the same as outright acts of police violence.

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By far the most exasperating example I can think of is contained in one word: "clash." Google this: "protesters clash with police." Many of those links will lead you to stories with pictures of cops armed with rifles and batons, wearing body armor and face shields, and squaring off with unarmed and peaceful protesters. In many of those photographs, you will see cops blasting pepper spray into the faces of Americans whose only crime appears to be exercising an inalienable right. Pepper spray is one of those "non-lethal" weapons, like rubber bullets and sonic grenades, that have come into widespread use in the past 15 years. You'd think police would deploy them sparingly, only in cases in which officer safety is endangered. But OWS has revealed what observers have known for some time - that police, with the approval of courts, have used them increasingly to intimidate, coerce, and terrorize crowds. What else explains the horrible stories of police officers casually pepper-spraying an expectant mother, an 84-year-old woman, and hundreds of students at UC Davis?

These are not conflicts between rivals of equal proportion, as "clash" connotes. These are incidents of police violence and media should start calling then what they are. With so much amateur video out there, the media has little choice but to set aside convention, examine bias, and report what's happening.

Worse, the type of police violence used against protesters appears to be institutionalized. According to the Associated Press, what we saw at UC Davis -- a campus police officer, who did not appear in any way to be in danger, casually doused students who were peacefully protesting -- is considered "fairly standard police procedure." Though the UC Davis chief was put on leave and the chancellor has called for a review, that doesn't address how police forces nationwide have become increasingly militarized, according to Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief. As he writes in The Nation, "It's showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD 'white shirt' coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for 'trespass.'"

And let's not forget the two dozen journalists arrested during the evacuation of Zuccotti Park. Some have said the media landscape has changed so much that cops can't tell who's a professional reporter and who's an amateur. That's why they ended up arresting reporters and photographers. But another reason for so many arrests is that the cops are increasingly militarized and indifferent to the First Amendment.

If this were a war zone, the OWS protesters would be called innocents or victims of war. Police violence would be described as a crackdown, a suppression. As it is, protesters are "clashing" with police, as if they have anywhere near comparable weaponry to what the police have. As if they have weapons at all. Most are just engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Perhaps, with enough people being traumatized by this violence, the media will start talking about the police in terms that actually convey the experiences of those who "clash" with them.

John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale University.

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