The billionaires may be trying to hijack the presidential election, but they have failed to stifle the creative ambitions of progressive leaders. Amid the toxic fumes of big-money politics, the people Paul Wellstone once identified as the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” are pursuing an audacious goal with characteristic optimism: to re-elect Barack Obama, then reset his priorities.
The challenge is forbidding and doubtless sounds naïve to establishment politicians. But the risks of failure are huge. Faced with the growing fear that Obama will pursue a “grand bargain” with conservatives after the election, further compromising core principles, leading liberal-labor forces are toughening up their tactics. They see the prospect of re-election as a great opportunity to coax or push the president toward the fundamental economic reforms he ducked in his first term— a source of great disappointment on the left.
Cynics may sneer at part of the strategy for renewal, but it’s a novel approach, and I think it may represent a meaningful turn in the road. Instead of bombing voters with hyped-up TV messages, progressive leaders are going for big ideas. They are rolling out a meaty agenda of economic reforms, giving voters a firm grasp of the issues that affect their lives and charting a path toward a prosperous, more secure future. The ultimate goal is long-term and larger than Obama: reviving small-d democracy and rebuilding the left by helping ordinary people regain their power as citizens. Is that still possible in our dysfunctional system? We are going to find out.
Organizers say Americans are hungry for liberal alternatives to the austerity agenda. People everywhere are tired of manipulative rhetoric. They want to hear serious proposals for how to restore prosperity and an equitable society. Trouble is, neither the president nor the Democratic Party much wants to talk about solutions that sound suspiciously liberal. Mitt Romney is mocked for not having a coherent plan for economic recovery, but Obama doesn’t have much of one either. “Fairness” is not a governing strategy. Frequent factory visits are not going to bring back manufacturing jobs.
So a cluster of progressive organizations, notably including the AFL-CIO, decided to launch a more meaningful conversation. To that end, they encouraged Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics, to produce a comprehensive blueprint that, they hope, will stimulate broader discussion and mobilize working people to advocate for their interests. The seminal document, titled “Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All” and written with Nate Loewentheil, was released on July 31. It was simultaneously endorsed by the labor federation’s executive council, the Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Change, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Council of La Raza, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Strong on clarity and free of rhetorical excess, the paper dismantles the key myths of austerity economics and lays out an alternative agenda based on what Hacker calls “the three pillars of shared prosperity”: growth, security and democracy. “Prosperity doesn’t just ‘trickle down’ from the top,” Hacker writes in the introduction. “It depends on the common investments and sources of security we agree on as members of a democracy, on institutions—especially unions—that ensure that gains are broadly shared, and on a healthy democracy that can sustain sound economic policies and prevent today’s economic winners from undermining the openness and dynamism of the economy.”