The Economic Story Progressives Need to Tell

Apr 3, 2012Richard Kirsch

As part of the How We Value Government series, a simple narrative with clear heroes and villains that progressives too often fail to tell.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a simple narrative with clear heroes and villains that progressives too often fail to tell.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush vowed to protect Medicare two sentences after he trashed "nationalized health care." The fact that Medicare is our national health care system was apparently as lost on the president -- and most of the listening American public -- as it was on the senior citizens who went to town hall meetings to protest the government takeover of health care after seeing their doctor earlier in the day on government health insurance.

When was the last time you heard someone define Medicare as "our national health care system for seniors?" Imagine if that was a regular description that Democratic elected officials and Medicare advocates used. Maybe the concept might begin to take hold.

People filter the experiences of their own lives and the world at large through stories and narratives. The greatest hole in progressive communication about government is not the absence of myriad good examples of how government meaningfully improves people's lives and drives a more prosperous economy or a host of recent examples of how stripping government protections is disastrous. What is missing is the consistent telling of our story about the role of government in creating broader shared prosperity, opportunity, security, and freedom.

One mistake that progressive advocates of government make is to make government the subject. People don't wake up in the morning wondering about government; they wake up thinking about getting their kids to school and themselves to work. They don't worry about the size of government; they fret about keeping their jobs, how they are going to pay for their kids' college and have enough left over to retire. The story we tell has to be focused on the core anxieties of ordinary people and how government can address those concerns.

Like any yarn, our story has to include heroes and villains. And since this is a narrative about how the world works, we need to explain what the villains did wrong to get us into this mess and what the heroes will do to rescue us, or better yet, themselves.

For the past year I have been working with a group of progressive leaders and communicators on the development of a "progressive economic narrative," a way of telling our story about the role of the individual, business, and government in creating shared prosperity. The goal of the group is "to develop and promote a common economic narrative that is used across the progressive movement, a powerful story that we are telling consistently through words and actions, in our communications and organizing."

Join the conversation about the Roosevelt Institute’s new initiative, Rediscovering Government, led by Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

The progressive economic narrative we've drafted has five conceptual pillars, which describe what went wrong with the economy, define a powerful economy and how we get there, outline the political challenge, and conclude with a call to action. It has villains -- Wall Street speculators, CEO campaign contributors, and the super-rich -- who did bad things: cut our wages and benefits, shipped our jobs overseas, got rich quickly at the expense of American workers and families. These evildoers bribed politicians to rig the rules in their favor, and in doing so, crashed the economy, crushed and closed the middle class, and wrecked our democracy.

The hero in our tale is the great American middle class, the engine of our economy. At the heart of our story is the notion that, as Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, "We all do better when we all do better." This is a statement of economic truth and of our values. We believe that the true measure of our economic success is the well-being of our families and the productivity of our nation, not the stock market and corporate profits. And that economic progress is driven by innovating and investing in the future so that all Americans have good jobs and can educate their kids, support their families, and retire with security. We all do better when we all do better.

To get there, our hero -- the middle class, working families, the 99% -- has to fight to free the government from the grip of the rich and powerful and put our democracy back in the hands of ordinary Americans. That matters because the great American middle class does not happen by accident; it is built by decisions we make together. Decisions made when the government works for all of us -- decisions to invest in our people, to expand opportunity and security to pave the way for business to innovate and meet the future, and to write rules that boost businesses that do the right thing, like creating good jobs in America or safeguarding the environment.

You will recognize that this is a very different story from that told by the right, in which economic success depends on rugged individuals in a market free from government. Our story is that people, business, and government drive the economy by working together to create broadly shared prosperity, opportunity, and security.

If this seems simplistic, that's a strength. It is also misleading, because so much of communication on our side fails to talk about our view of what makes the economy a success and how the main actors -- people, business, and government -- each play a role. Simplicity is a powerful asset if we begin to tell the story consistently in all our communications, which means our words and our actions. The "we" here needs to be broad, including progressive organizers, activists, pundits, journalists, and academics.

If we are to help Americans rediscover government, we need to keep telling a powerful story about how a government that works for all of us will allow each of us to prosper and believe again in an America in which our children will prosper.

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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Mark Schmitt: We Need to Tax More Than Just the 1%

Mar 2, 2012

The Roosevelt Institute has kicked off its own weekly show on Bloggingheads, aptly named "Fireside Chats," with a conversation between Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt and author William Voegeli. In the clip below, Mark makes the case for not just reforming taxes for the 1%, but asking the middle class to share the responsibility:

The Roosevelt Institute has kicked off its own weekly show on Bloggingheads, aptly named "Fireside Chats," with a conversation between Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt and author William Voegeli. In the clip below, Mark makes the case for not just reforming taxes for the 1%, but asking the middle class to share the responsibility:

President Obama's pledge not to raise taxes for anyone making under $250,000, Mark says, was "one of the gravest mistakes." It was short-sighted, he points out, as the country needs the revenues not just from top earners, but from a broader base. Plus it makes many feel that they don't share any obligation for financially supporting their country. "The illusion that it's all about somebody else, someobody in that 1%... is a real abdication of the responsibility" that comes of sharing in the prosperity of the 2000s and for the remaining middle class that avoided most of the recession's blows, he says. "The obligation is enormous."

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

Watch the full conversation below for a discussion of whether liberals envision limits on the welfare tate, if there are "more dragons to slay" for liberals after healthcare reform, and under what circumstances entitlements can be cut:

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A More Progressive Budget, a More Progressive President?

Feb 15, 2012Richard Kirsch

It doesn't matter what the president's motives are for proposing better policies. What's important is that progressives hold him to it.

A time-honored but largely useless exercise is trying to divine whether the actions of politicians are motivated by their core beliefs or by "politics." For most successful politicians, the line between the two is murky. In fact, it has to be. Politics being the art of the possible, elected officials who try to exercise their power will always be navigating a circuitous course within a broad set of values.

It doesn't matter what the president's motives are for proposing better policies. What's important is that progressives hold him to it.

A time-honored but largely useless exercise is trying to divine whether the actions of politicians are motivated by their core beliefs or by "politics." For most successful politicians, the line between the two is murky. In fact, it has to be. Politics being the art of the possible, elected officials who try to exercise their power will always be navigating a circuitous course within a broad set of values.

So it is that some wonder whether the budget proposal put forth by President Obama is driven by the president's belief that we need to take a more progressive direction to address the nation's deep problems. Or is the president just deciding he needs to tack left in order to rally his base behind him for the upcoming election?

What matters is not the president's motivation; what matters is what he does and how his actions are received. Having failed to reach a "grand compromise" with Republicans in the summer of 2011, including damaging cuts to core social insurance programs, Obama had no place to go but to his left. He was pushed there by finally realizing that his faith in his own ability to be an ideological bridge between left and right had been wrecked by the capture of the Republican Party by the extreme right. He was left looking weak to independents and a disappointment -- if not a traitor -- to his core supporters.

In many of his speeches since the summer's debacle, and in many of the substantive proposals in the American Jobs Act and his new budget, President Obama has embraced a progressive view of the economy and put forth proposals that would revitalize the economy by creating middle-class jobs paid for by taxing the rich. The proposals are good policy -- the only available course that offers hope to address our long-term economic problems -- and good politics, popular with wide swaths of the public.

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

The real challenge for progressives is to use 2012 to increase the likelihood that a reelected President Obama will keep to the new course in 2013. To do that, we will need to do four things. The most important task is to demonstrate that progressive views on the economy are winners with the public and at the ballot box. That will require running aggressive issue campaigns on core economic issues -- such as job creation, reining in Wall Street and the banks, taxing the rich and corporations, and ending corporate control of our democracy. The actions, message, and spirit of the Occupy movement need to be carried on across the country, including in battleground states and congressional districts, connected to voter registration, persuasion, and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The second key is to applaud and support the president and his allies in Congress when they do the right thing. When politicians perceive they are taking a risk, they need to hear cheers. There's no point in asking "what took you so long?" or "do you really mean it?" Instead, we should welcome and encourage words and actions that are in line with our values. If we don't, the president and other Democrats will believe those who say that you can never satisfy the left and seek more comfortable shelter with the advocates for the status quo.

However, applauding the good doesn't mean giving up on the better. The third ingredient is to keep pushing for more. For example, we can applaud the president for wanting to change the corporate tax code to punish companies that take jobs overseas, but that doesn't mean we should accept his proposal that there be no net increase in corporate tax collection. At a time when corporate taxes are at a historic low in terms of their share of federal revenues, and corporations are sitting on $2 trillion in cash, we should be raising more money from corporate income taxes, not treading water. We need to push for more progressive policies now to set the table for 2013, when Obama will again be attempting to enact legislation in the face of an onslaught from corporations and the right.

The last step is to do all of the above in a way that creates stronger coalitions, involves more activists, develops new leaders, and builds a real sense of momentum among progressives, from the large well-established infrastructure to the netroots and grassroots movements to the Occupiers. The more that we work together, both intentionally and by respecting the roles we all play, the greater our ability to actually move the nation in a progressive direction in 2013 and beyond.

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 work...at 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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Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Should Be Prominent on the Progressive Agenda

Dec 19, 2011Minjon Tholen

Ensuring that women can make healthy reproductive choices benefits their economic independence and our society as a whole.

Ensuring that women can make healthy reproductive choices benefits their economic independence and our society as a whole.

Last month, I was excited to see that the Ad Council is working together with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy to promote the use of birth control as a tool for self-determination and empowerment. Finally some are starting to acknowledge that people have sex, young or old, whether for reproductive purposes or not, and with or without adequate information and resources. We have to provide them with comprehensive information and resources to make smart decisions and prevent any undesired outcomes. But then last week Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius overruled an FDA recommendation to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter. Meanwhile, Congress is attempting to increase dedicated funding for abstinence-only-till-marriage education. As Norman Ornstein said in a recent New York Times article, it appears that the Obama administration may be trying to assuage conservative and religious groups with Sebelius's decision. These groups are opposed to the new health reform law that requires health insurance programs to fully cover contraceptives, as they are now rightly understood as preventative medicine. Ornstein argues that the decision was motivated by the desire to create some political balance -- rather than by pragmatism, science, or regard for women's rights or pro-choice values.

This appears to be true for the push for the abstinence-only education as well. Despite the conservative mantra of economic self-sufficiency, pragmatism, and smaller government, their opposition to sexual and reproductive health once again reveals that their beliefs are driven by conservative and religious values. These values are dominating the debate on sexual and reproductive health, and progressives are left defending the vulnerable ground we have gained on this front. With the battle over political, moral, and religious values continuing over women's bodies, we need to make women's rights and sexual and reproductive health a more prominent issue on the progressive agenda and start dominating the debate.

A core progressive value is ensuring social justice through policies that facilitate every individual's ability to make choices in his or her life. This same struggle for equality and freedom of choice is at the core of feminism, to which economic and reproductive rights were and continue to be the main means. Moreover, we have to understand how these rights are intertwined. If women cannot even have bodily integrity, how can they have agency in other areas of their lives? From this perspective, it is even more important to talk about reproductive justice, rather than merely reproductive rights. Reproductive justice is grounded in a social justice framework and refers to everything necessary to have choices in one's reproductive life. This includes not only access to contraceptives and abortions, but more importantly it also demands access to comprehensive sex education and adequate pregnancy-related care, housing, nutrition, education, employment, health care, and social support in order to be able to prevent pregnancy or to have and raise children if one chooses to do so.

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Educational attainment, for instance, is correlated with increased contraceptive use and delayed and reduced childbearing. It is also correlated with increased income, which in turn is fundamental to economic self-sufficiency. That economic self-sufficiency means independence, which allows for women to make choices and have self-determination.

In addition to individual empowerment, promoting gender equality and sexual and reproductive health (or in other words, reproductive justice) is imperative for society as a whole. It contributes to a higher GDP, as a larger and more educated workforce increases productivity and consumerism. Gender equality also encourages women to enter politics in larger numbers, which increases equal representation and may lead to new approaches to the political landscape and policymaking that can promote political stability. Furthermore, gender equality implies investments in women's health, which improves public health. In fact, the maternal mortality ratio is one of the World Health Organization's core indicators in assessing the overall public health of a country. Environmental sustainability also appears to be positively correlated with gender equality, as women's expertise and skills can enhance agricultural and production practices, and women's disproportionate vulnerability to environmental hazards requires them to be more invested in a sustainable environment than men. Finally, preventing undesired pregnancies and STI transmissions means lower public healthcare costs for the taxpayer. It also leads to healthier and more educated, productive, and self-sufficient individuals and communities.

So rather than imposing abstinence-only education and preventing Plan B from being sold over the counter, let's follow the Ad Council's lead in acknowledging reality, trusting people to make responsible decisions, providing comprehensive information and resources, and recognizing the social and economic benefits of respecting women's sexual and reproductive rights. The progressive movement needs to once and for all understand and embrace how these issues are intertwined with all of our other causes and put these rights at the core of its agenda.

Minjon Tholen is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and the Training & Development Specialist at Cook Ross Inc.

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Better Policy for Today, Progressive Leaders for Tomorrow

Dec 9, 2011Bryce Covert

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network may be on over 100 college campuses, working with over 10,000 students, but it started just seven years ago. To celebrate that meteoric success, it put together this video:

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network may be on over 100 college campuses, working with over 10,000 students, but it started just seven years ago. To celebrate that meteoric success, it put together this video:

As Hilary Doe, National Director, says of the motive behind starting the Campus Network, "Young people were asked for their blood and their sweat and their tears, but not their ideas." The Campus Network changed all of that. What does it do instead? As the video puts it, "We build progressive leaders for tomorrow and we build better policy for today."

It's been an exciting seven years, which saw the creation of the Blueprint for the Millennial America, the Budget for Millennial America, the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, and so much more. The next seven years stand to be even better.

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Why OWS is Allowed to Have iPads and Laptops

Nov 30, 2011Brandi Lupo

occupy-journalMany in the movement aren't against a capitalist system per se, but want one that rewards innovation and talent fairly.

occupy-journalMany in the movement aren't against a capitalist system per se, but want one that rewards innovation and talent fairly.

The advent of the Internet has helped define the Millennial generation. The most tech-savvy generation to date has already made a splash in history: we have mastered all things electronic, founded successful Internet start-ups, and are the face of social media. This generation has learned to value, among other things, innovation, creativity, a free exchange of ideas, and ever-expanding networks. Thus, it is no surprise that Steve Jobs's recent passing deeply affected them, including those who are part of Occupy Wall Street.

Some have been quick to call this appreciation "hypocrisy." An iPhone in the hands of an Occupy Wall Street protester, a fancy laptop at the media station, and all things name brand at OWS have been used to characterize the movement as a bunch of hypocritical, spoiled brats, angry about a system they are clearly benefitting from. The clothes they wear, phones they use, and food they eat are all sponsored and brought to them by "the very corporations [they] seek to destroy."

Such a characterization is problematic. To call iPhone-toting OWS protesters "hypocrites" is to essentialize the entire movement as a wholly anti-capitalist insurrection -- an interesting move, seeing as another popular critique is that the group doesn't have a clue what it wants. And while I do not venture to speak for the Occupy movement, there is a large percentage of it that is not anti-capitalist. They are just as valid a part of the movement as their staunchly anti-systemic, anti-capitalist, and anarchist counterparts. In acknowledging this distinction, one need not place a value judgment on any faction of OWS, but rather recognize another voice of the movement that is significant.

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What does this mean? Occupy Wall Street protesters are still allowed to be consumers. Calling this fact hypocrisy is to confuse a call for fairer commerce with a call for the end of commerce altogether. Does this mean they will readily don Jay-Z's "Occupy All Streets" tees? Not so fast -- OWS is not about to comply with such co-option. But it does mean that protesters can recognize the great worth of some of the most successful corporations of our time while still acknowledging the larger problems of unregulated markets: crony capitalism, large rates of income inequality, and the financial collapse of 2008.

Where does Steve Jobs, as one of the wealthiest individuals of our time, fit into all of this? He remains a deeply appreciated, respected, and beloved innovator to be mourned and remembered. Quickly climbing Forbes' Richest People in the World list, most Americans believe that Steve Jobs deserved what he earned through talent, hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. This is not to argue that Occupy Wall Street is saying that all of those other rich people "don't deserve it." Many in Occupy Wall Street do not have much of a problem with rich people per se but with a system that creates income inequality at levels this country has not seen in a generation; a system where working hard does not always equate with receiving one's fair share. In other words, they have no problem with Horatio Alger stories; in fact, they want more of them. Does everyone get to be Horatio Alger? Maybe not. But the top 10 percent controlling 70 to 90 percent of the wealth speaks for itself. There's room for more people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

So don't pack up the lemonade stands just yet. Some of the kids of Occupy Wall Street just might like capitalism. They simply think this Monopoly game needs some reworking. And take it from the Innovation Generation: they might be able to come up with something game-changing.

Brandi Lupo is the Northeast Regional Co-Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a junior at New York University.

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Watering the Grassroots: How a Generation of Doers Can Create Real Change

Nov 29, 2011Alan Smith

Politicians who fail to truly engage with Millennials, rather than simply ask them for money, will inevitably fail.

When he was sworn into office in 2009, President Obama had an advantage no other president ever had: an e-mail list of more than 13 million Americans who were engaged, excited, and eager to communicate directly with the White House. Remember the first message they sent to that list? I do. It was a few months after the election and I was ready to get to work. My sleeves were rolled up. And the first e-mail… asked me for a donation.

Politicians who fail to truly engage with Millennials, rather than simply ask them for money, will inevitably fail.

When he was sworn into office in 2009, President Obama had an advantage no other president ever had: an e-mail list of more than 13 million Americans who were engaged, excited, and eager to communicate directly with the White House. Remember the first message they sent to that list? I do. It was a few months after the election and I was ready to get to work. My sleeves were rolled up. And the first e-mail… asked me for a donation.

I was thrilled when Barack Obama won the 2008 election, not so much for the legislation he might pass, but for the potential of a community organizer president leading a generation of grassroots builders ready for action. I envisioned Organizing for America as a new millennial organizing tool, carrying on the principles that Obama professed to stand for and serving as a coherent platform for small-scale organizing projects around the country.

When the administration was working on the Affordable Care Act, OFA could have encouraged an army of young progressives to build projects that have real impact on health outcomes in their own communities. When the administration turned to jobs, OFA could have focused a million creative minds on finding local solutions, like community full employment projects or groups working to support local businesses. OFA could have been part of a new online participatory system of democracy, supported by a government that sought citizen’s participation beyond ubiquities requests for financial support. Instead, it became a fundraising tool.

This missed opportunity gets to the root of a very real generational shift in how politics works -- one that will overwhelm politicians who don’t get on board. The Millennial generation is a generation of builders, joiners, and doers. We are also the most ethnically diverse and by far the most technologically advanced generation in American history. To engage with us in a meaningful way, politicians need to be doing more then polling us for ideas: they need to be vesting us with the power to make our own decisions, engaging us as equals, and trusting us to build instead of simply donate. The policymakers who figure out how to engage us will be political winners for decades.

We stand on the edge of one of the inevitable great swings in American political history. As the pendulum heads back to a progressive vision of government that is useful and important, we need to be building progressive systems that support that vision. The left has been out-thought, out-spent, and out-organized for years. The only way to counter that reality is for progressives to find new ways to engage and to become engaged.

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FDR addressed his generation's failures of government with a progressive solution. Governing as a true technocrat, he put people with great ideas into positions within a central government, decentralizing power and empowering those creative minds to come up with real solutions. In 2012, politicians can create a new definition of what it means to be progressive by using the web to create a decentralized organizing tool. By so doing, they can make the case that government is useful and that we as citizens can be trusted and engaged in fundamentally meaningful ways.

To alter the face of a political system that is dominated by corporate interests and fundraising bottom lines, my generation must be builders. We need platforms for sharing information and forums for the local brainstorming that drives so much in our giant, multipronged government. Direct lines of communication can mobilize people around the issues that actually concern them.

Turning an entire network loose on the problems that we face as a nation might not be clean and efficient. It would often be ungainly and probably hard to control. As we learn every day at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, there are many situations in which grassroots networks take you in surprising and unpredictable directions. But, unlike Congress, networks get things done. They build leaders and they build loyalty (two things that the Obama administration could really use right now in the under-35 demographic).

This model would support the political system that nurtures it. There is a "general and longstanding trend" that people who are civically engaged tend to be more involved in electoral politics, according to Matthew Diemer, associate professor of education at Michigan State University. Diemer researches civic engagement among low-income youth, and his recent study concludes they are generally "more apt to vote if they are engaged in political activism and influenced by friends and family."

Today's politicians must realize that if they only turn to us for fundraising, they will turn off many of the young progressives who want to work for campaigns that seek their opinions and engagement as OFA did during the election. But you can't plant a grassroots movement, neglect to water it for three years, and expect it to spring back to life.

There's still a good chance that Obama will win reelection in 2012, but if he wants to make real progress in his second term, he needs to recognize that the age of Internet organizing can be about so much more than filling a campaign war chest. It needs to be more than that for a progressive vision of government to take hold. And speaking for my generation, I say: You can't control us. You might just have to trust us.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Program Director.

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