Movement building, racial justice, and a recalibration of the progressive movement’s relationship with President Obama is important, as Gara LaMarche and Deepak Bhargava argue, but it isn’t a framework for making progressive ideals a part of actual law, habit, and culture.
The roadmap toward economic security, opportunity, and quality of life must be much more specific – and it must begin and end with the middle class.
Regardless of actual income, over 90% of Americans think of themselves as middle class, upper-middle class, or lower-middle class. As occupants of the middle class, they are the object of an economic assault carried out via income polarization, declining wages and benefits, the hollowing out of public structures like public education, and shifting costs for health coverage and retirement income from corporations to individuals.
So how do we reinvigorate the middle class? First, by recognizing there is no grand shared vision, and there won’t be one for the foreseeable future. This isn’t the Great Depression, when people gathered around the radio to listen to FDR’s fireside chats as he steered the nation. In any case, most of what we want to accomplish won’t happen at the federal level. We have lost that arena.
Some thought we had it under Clinton – an era that looks positively like a panacea compared to now – but in reality, we made many more compromises with conservatism than actual progressive steps forward. We knew we were barred from real change under Bush, but we believed that Obama would open the doors wide. Of course, we now realize he hasn’t, and probably won’t.
So our task is not to follow or trust in President Obama, but to build around him by presenting progressive proposals that raise the bar of discussion and make it impossible for Democrats and the President to accept compromises that diminish middle class economic security.
The place to begin is in our “laboratories of democracy”: our states and cities. The issues to focus are job creation, education, and health care. Our proposals must be expansive and inclusive. As such they will produce disproportionate benefits for low income families. To establish and build political traction, they must not reinforce the separation of low-income people from the middle class. They must be discreet, do-able, and popular building blocks for a democratic narrative.
The policy proposals we create should be expansive, instead of targeting and reinforcing the separation of low-income and middle class interests – though they should produce disproportionate benefits for the former. And they must be couched in terms of a progressive values and a democratic narrative.