A Better Third Way
Both of us agree with some of the New Democrats' original critique of liberalism. In the early 1990s Teixeira worked for the Progressive Policy Institute and Kahlenberg worked for Virginia Senator Chuck Robb, one of the original New Democrats. Third Way advocates not only helped restore the credibility of progressives on crime and national defense, they have put progressives in better sync with the values of average Americans through their emphasis on work over welfare and equality of opportunity over equality of result.
This had the salutary effect of defanging the conservative critique of "amoral, big-government liberalism." But none of this justifies New Democrats' support for a needlessly draconian welfare reform bill that failed to guarantee jobs or for an increasingly repressive and ineffective "drug war." Moreover, on central economic issues, Third Way proponents have always tended to ally themselves closely with powerful business interests and have increasingly downplayed the traditional progressive concern for the underdog (or even the "middledog"). We take issue with New Democrats' contention that "outdated appeals to class grievance and attacks on corporate perfidy only alienate new constituencies and ring increasingly hollow to the modern work force." And we believe that the emphasis on fiscal responsibility, while a reasonable part of the progressive program, has been taken to an extreme.
Indeed, today progressives are not united behind the need for major new initiatives to promote greater equality. Faced with a surplus unimagined just a few years ago, many have embraced policies heavy on debt reduction and light on investment in enterprises like education. A New Liberal approach would be quite different.
First, we believe that the New Liberalism, unlike New Democrats, would recognize that "you get what you pay for." There's just no way the common problems of middle- to low-income voters can be adequately addressed in this country when such an overwhelming priority is put on paying down the national debt.
Take the issue of education, generally the number-one concern of voters in the country today. Families want to be assured that their children receive a quality education, even as they worry about the financial and time pressures involved in juggling children, school and work. New Liberals would therefore advocate a substantial expansion of federal investment in education, including: (1) a major teacher pay increase, to address the need to attract talented men and women; (2) the support necessary to open schools early, keep them open into the evening and make them available during the summer; (3) universal access to preschool, including fully funding Head Start; and (4) a generous income-contingent college loan program, where students' repayments are pegged to their actual earnings after they leave school, to make college education a reasonable option for many who now see the associated debt burden as too high. Combined with needed educational reforms like public-school choice, outlined below, these major investment initiatives would go a long way toward both improving access to good education and easing pressure on working parents.
Second, we believe the New Liberalism would be strongly committed to growing the new economy, but also to rectifying inequality and equipping everyone to prosper in this rapidly changing environment. Fast growth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the kind of improvements working families need. For example, New Liberals would be committed to expanding world trade but also to underpinning that trade with reasonable labor and environmental standards. And New Liberals would recognize the need to temper the process of globalization with strong provisions to stabilize the world financial system and promote balanced development in poorer countries. At home, New Liberals would support substantial increases in the minimum wage to soften the sharpest edges of inequality. And major campaign finance reform is an essential ingredient of insuring that politicians spend less time on cutting estate taxes and more on the needs of average voters.
Third, we believe the New Liberalism would emphasize universal programs that disproportionately benefit those of middle to low income and education, across all races, rather than race-based programs. We take our cue from Robert Kennedy's belief that "poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color," and that "we have to convince [blacks] and poor whites that they have common interests."
Such a universalist stance obviously includes preserving Medicare and Social Security, as the Democrats emphasized in the 2000 campaign. But, while defending social insurance must remain a bedrock commitment of Democrats and progressives, it is difficult to argue that it constitutes a convincing approach to the unfolding problems of the new economy. For many working families, the Democratic program may have failed to excite for precisely this reason. New Liberals advocate a more forward-looking approach that focuses on the new economy in critical areas like education, training, childcare, work-family stress, scientific research and, of course, universal health and pension coverage.