The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.
Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece in late December by saying, “Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.”
Edsall’s bleak prognosis raises the biggest question facing not only progressives, but the future of our democracy: is the political system in the United States capable of responding to the escalating crisis of stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, dissolving economic opportunity, and disappearing hopes of living anything that resembles the American Dream?
It is a question I ask myself every day. But I reach a different conclusion than Edsall, because for all his powers of observation, he misses the role that people play in changing history. I see a growing movement of Americans organized by progressives who are not waiting for the social order to break, but are instead forcing the political system to respond.
Edsall reaches his conclusion by way of two commentators, my colleague Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute and Harvard economist Ben Friedman. Konczal’s analysis of the quandary is cogent, as he provided “a two part description of the liberal state” in a 2011 post:
#1 you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power, and #2 you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks… I think it is safe to say that liberals have abandoned #1 and doubled-down on #2… Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.
Friedman’s contribution is to point out, as Edsall summarizes, that “during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving.” Friedman says that when people are squeezed economically, rather than identifying with those still worse off, they “enter a period of retreat and retrenchment.” That is certainly what we are seeing now, with the government cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a much larger swath of the safety net in a shrinking budget.
On the other hand, Friedman says times of broadly-shared prosperity encourage “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”
When we look at the big periods of progressive change in the 20th century through this lens, we can ask, are we more similar to the soaring post-World War II middle class that led to the Great Society, or to the wrecked economy that led to the New Deal? After the Great Recession, that’s a no-brainer.
So is Edsall then correct in concluding that the only way to get to the next New Deal is waiting for another disintegration of the economy like we saw after the Great Depression? Or is even that a misreading of New Deal history, in which decades of building a movement of working people laid the groundwork for the New Deal laws that established the right to organize unions, fair labor standards like a minimum wage, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation?
If we have to wait, we’re in big trouble, because as we saw in 2008, we are much less likely to see another collapse like the Great Depression thanks to the progressive accomplishments of the 20th century. The aggressive use of the Federal Reserve and banking regulations prevented a total collapse of the financial system. The safety net – food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – and the social insurance programs of unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare prevented widespread destitution. These measures allowed us to have a Great Recession rather than a second Great Depression.
But the Great Recession also deepened the three-decade-long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages, eroding benefits, and the rising costs of gateways to opportunity. As a result, we are seeing an escalation of the path to the next New Deal: organizing people to demand that we create a 21st century economy of broadly-shared opportunity and prosperity.
The past year saw the explosion of organized fast food workers, from a handful of community-supported walk-outs demanding higher wages a year ago to actions involving thousands of workers and supporters in some 130 cities in December. The growing movement earned national as well as local news coverage.
Less visible, but deeper, is the emergence of new forms of worker organizing, taking place largely outside of traditional unions and the national labor law, known generally as the workers’ center movement. Domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Union, have won passage of laws giving them new labor protections in California and New York. Tomato pickers in Florida, under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have won higher wages by building consumer pressure against the supermarkets and restaurant chains that buy the crops they pick. Immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, at workers’ centers that are part of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, have resisted wage theft and won basic protections in day labor and construction. The examples go on and are analogous to the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The long-simmering pressure for raising the minimum wage is now becoming a national political force, with Democrats embracing the issue. The passage of a $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, outside of Seattle, will be a harbinger of more local actions to define a minimum wage in ways that make sense for people’s lives, not some political calculation about what’s possible.
In New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s reluctance to support paid sick days, siding with the business community, destroyed her support among the progressive base, paving the way for the election of Bill de Blasio, who rose both on his progressive platform and as the result of a decades-long base-building project in the city. These contests will continue to escalate, as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, where a Democratic mayor has twice vetoed a paid sick day ordinance approved by the City Council. As they do, Democrats who take the Quinn route will find themselves on the sidelines with her.
Cultural and demographic trends are encouraging, too. While the progressive politics of the growing numbers of the young, single women, and Latinos have garnered notice, another hopeful trend is that among non-college-educated whites, one of the most conservative groups in the country, the young are much more progressive than their older counterparts. Pope Francis has become an instant hero not just by easing back on his church’s focus on sex, but by directly challenging trickle-down economics.
In all this, history will look at President Obama as a transitional figure. He has pledged to make income inequality the defining issue of the day, but he still chooses a low-wage Amazon warehouse as a venue to address the issue. He still seeks to reconcile the destruction of the middle class with the rise of Wall Street.
Wall Street and K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all greasing the system while stoking resentment of “the takers” and people of color, in a nation with a deep “it’s up to me and my family alone” streak, remain huge obstacles to building an America that works for all. The change we are making will take time.
What gives me hope is that, for all its flaws, we still live in a nation where popular will can make change. And we have a history of creating change from below and then electing leaders who, like FDR, drilled into the deep well of hope that has given life to the best of America, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society.
Earlier this week, on the last day of 2013, I called up Mike Konczal and asked him to reflect on Edsall’s dark conclusion. Here’s what he told me: “I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote that piece two years ago. People are agitating, building new infrastructure. Issues like the minimum wage are gaining prominence. We’re seeing mobilizing among non-traditional workers like day-care workers.”
It is up to us to make history. Let’s get to work in 2014.
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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