It’s time to confront the central obstacle blocking a new progressive politics: the Democratic Party’s abject fear of the truth that new taxes are going to be needed if the party is ever to offer–and finance–a dramatic program capable of mobilizing large numbers of working Americans, white, black and brown. The way forward is to go on the offensive by sharply delineating a strategy targeting America’s plutocratic top 1-2 percent elite, plus the corporations they largely own. Changes in income and wealth patterns in recent years make it possible to do this without simultaneously alienating middle-income and middle-class suburban voters.
A progressive program worth fighting for would begin with fixing–improving, not reducing–Social Security; it would move on to prescription drugs, major reform of the healthcare system, support for broad-based college tuition assistance, serious daycare provision, an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Public transportation, environmental and other infrastructure needs are also huge, between $60 billion and $100 billion a year in recent estimates. A serious effort might also add some tax relief for middle- and low-income families.
The first step is to stop compromising at the outset, thus eliminating any hope of offering something powerful that we can mobilize around over the long haul. Progressives must challenge the idea that the United States, the richest nation in the world, must always be the poor sister among the advanced nations–that our nonmilitary public sector, at 29.7 percent of GDP, must always lag behind Britain’s (35.8 percent), Germany’s (43 percent), France’s (44.8 percent) and, of course, that of countries like Sweden, at 50 percent.
Most Democrats have been afraid to demand such a program–and for good reason: They have been unable or unwilling to answer the obvious question of where the money will come from. In the near term, deficit spending is a reasonable, indeed, inevitable option–both to move the economy out of the recession and to solve pressing public problems (beginning with the $67 billion state revenue shortfall). Ultimately, however, progressives must confront the tax issue.
Until recently, the Democratic Party, as a party, has been almost totally silent on taxes–cravenly so: Twenty-eight House Democrats and twelve Democratic senators voted for the Bush tax cuts. For the most part, the party has been on the defensive–reacting, after the fact, to each new Bush tax-cutting initiative. Even as Democrats fussed over how to respond to the last Bush offensive, the Administration has revved up its new campaign for greater elite and corporate tax cuts–and, amazingly, is now arguing that the poor are undertaxed. (Just ignore Social Security taxes, the most regressive part of the system, ignore the huge redistribution of income in favor of the rich in recent years, scrap all thought of capacity to pay as an element in tax policy, etc.)
If Democrats are unable to redefine the long-term politics of taxation, they will always be on the defensive, trying to play catch-up in response to each new right-wing initiative. To be sure, some members of Congress have put together a short-term stimulus package involving tax rebates, and some liberals have urged rescinding the Bush top income and estate reductions. But even if this were done, it would only take us back to where we were when Bush took office–which, in turn, would provide little capacity for Democrats to go on the offensive with a positive, longer-term program capable of exciting the basic Democratic constituencies.