At his inauguration in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that “government is not the solution—government is the problem.” The election of 2016 will tell us whether the American people are ready to overthrow the tyranny of that reactionary proposition. I know it’s possible—but only if the Democratic Party finds the courage to embrace a serious left turn.
The 2016 election is not actually about personalities. It’s about ideas—big ideas for governing that, win or lose, can change the country for better or for worse. Republicans are stuck in the past, still longing for the return of their dead president and his trickle-down Reaganomics. Left-liberal and progressive Democrats are prodding their party to reverse the Gipper in major ways by doing big things that would benefit millions of people—like expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them. So despite the media’s trivial pursuits, I expect the 2016 election will ultimately pivot on ideological conflict, powered by the great social and economic dislocations that have shaken society’s self-confidence. Dozens of right-left governing issues are already in play, setting up an emotional clash between bleeding-heart optimism on the left and nostalgic resentments on the right.
The most significant of these collisions may be the reemergence of an old and familiar argument about reforming Social Security. This time, left-ish Dems want to expand its benefits and protections and raise the payroll tax on top-level incomes to pay for the expansion. The herd of GOP candidates is once again promising to cut Social Security benefits and maybe turn the government system over to private enterprise (that is, the financial system that wreaked havoc on US prosperity). Veteran campaign reporters evidently think it’s boring, since they seldom mention the issue.
But don’t be surprised if the fight over this old New Deal program emerges next year as a crucial battlefront between the parties. In fact, it may provide Democrats with a great opportunity to change the shape of the American electorate and reconnect with disenchanted working-class voters who feel the Democratic Party abandoned them.
Social Security is arguably the federal government’s most popular program, more efficient and responsive than most. It is valued by overwhelming majorities across party lines, age brackets and even income levels. It’s supported by Republicans (81 percent) and by Democrats (94 percent) and by independents (91 percent), from Baby Boomers to Generation Xers and to millennials. What is most relevant is that strong majorities in all sectors—even 62 percent of Republicans—think the government should consider increasing the benefits. So why don’t media see the story?
The distorted politics surrounding Social Security is itself a scandal. It demonstrates how gravely representative democracy has been eviscerated during the last generation by the political elites and financial interests who claim Social Security is dragging the country to financial ruin. Again and again, high-minded experts in the academy and Washington think tanks issue “Chicken Little” forecasts and mobilize well-financed campaigns to persuade politicians (if not citizens) that Social Security must be pruned back substantially in order to reduce federal deficits.