Thursday, January 19, 2012

On the Lack of a Progressive Agenda

Francis Fukuyama produced an excellent article for Foreign Affairs titled The Future of History. His chosen subtitle is more revealing as to the content: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class? Fukuyama points out that with the growth of income inequality and the recession caused by the abuses of the current economic regime, the intellectual and populist energy seems to be coming from the libertarian right, instead of from the liberal left. He sees a similar trend in Europe where the left seems on the defensive against a resurgent right.

The great debate between the far right and the far left dissipated after the war when the growing middle class deflated the contentions of both extremes. A convergence of economic and social trends has led to a hollowing out of that middle class, and is disrupting the basis of the socio-economic bargain that has been in place for the past half century.

"....the relative size of the working class stopped growing and actually began to decline, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, when services began to displace manufacturing in what were labeled ‘postindustrial’ economies. Finally, a new group of poor or disadvantaged people emerged below the industrial working class -- a heterogeneous mixture of racial and ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, and socially excluded groups, such as women, gays, and the disabled. As a result of these changes, in most industrialized societies, the old working class has become just another domestic interest group, one using the political power of trade unions to protect the hard-won gains of an earlier era."

Fukuyama sees these social and economic changes as being tremendously important. In his view, society is in need of a new approach to governance. He says the left has been largely absent from serious debate as it has focused on reminiscing about returning to the better times of the past rather than confronting the future.

"....the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society."

Fukuyama suggests the basis for a viable liberal philosophy.

"Politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimate anew government as an expression of the public interest. But the agenda it put forward to protect middle-class life could not simply rely on the existing mechanisms of the welfare state. The ideology would need to somehow redesign the public sector, freeing it from its dependence on existing stakeholders and using new, technology-empowered approaches to delivering services. It would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics."

Progressives should pay heed to Fukuyama’s advice. While it is arguable about how much of past ideals are applicable to the future, it is not arguable that the left lacks a defined agenda with a set of goals and a viable path to attaining those goals.

The left has publications and media outlets, but much of what emanates from them seems to be focused on recreating the past. Yes it would be good if the rules weren’t rigged against forming employee unions, but would more unionization really solve the broad problem of income inequality? Yes it would be good if some of the outsourced jobs could be brought back home, but would that do more than raise prices a bit and create some minimum wage jobs? How does that address inequality?

Fukuyama, correctly, tells us that we have a current society and a current economy and those must be the starting points for wherever we wish to go. The world and humanity have changed considerably since the 60s. It is not possible to go backward to recreate that era.

What created the great prosperity and the social progress that emerged in the middle of the past century was the sense of community that grew out of the general suffering exacted by the Great Depression and World War II. People remembered the hardships and it became a moral imperative to ensure that they would not return.

Moral arguments are no longer as compelling as they once were. Most people are rather comfortable, and are more concerned with protecting what they have. The administration tried to sell healthcare legislation based on the moral issue of providing coverage to 40 million people who lacked it. No one cared. It was barely passed under the banner of "it won’t hurt anybody."

If one is to construct a progressive agenda, one must begin with economics, because it is the economy that must fund the path to whatever goals one wishes to set. The economy cannot be considered a kitty to be raided in order to redistribute wealth. Redistribution is a vital goal, but it has to be performed in the context of improving the economy or fixing some aspect that will lead to future problems—such as ever growing income inequality.

Robert Reich made a stab at constructing a new economy consistent with progressive goals. It was based on the assumption that the economy was inevitably weakened by increasing inequality because income distribution was becoming so skewed the majority could not create sufficient demand to support growth except through borrowing. By creating a more equal distribution through a more progressive tax system, a massive extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a number of other initiatives, Reich argued that the economy and society would be in a stronger position and all would benefit. Reich had some very good ideas, but did anything come out of his exercise?

Much of the discussion on the left consists of people of like mind reaffirming their existing views—or criticizing their progressive-minded president for accepting small practical gains instead of failing on great ideological leaps forward. If a progressive agenda is to take hold it must be argued nationwide. It must be compelling enough to attract the attention of those who are truly independent in their voting preferences. It must be able to convince non-progressives that there is something for them to gain by embracing it, or something to lose by rejecting it. Most of all it will take time. One does not change political beliefs overnight.

Progressive goals must be placed in an economic context and they must be argued with those of differing views. They must be argued long, and they must be argued loud enough that people take notice. Progressives need a few champions to credibly convey their message. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren’s entry into politics is a first step. Perhaps Paul Krugman will wish to become involved. Why not have the cable networks stage economic debates instead of the insipid political ones that we have had to endure.

Fukuyama shares with progressives the fear that we are on an unsustainable course. If the progressives can’t get their act together and initiate changes—who else will?


FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.


  1. I enjoyed your post. (I'm glad I stumbled across your blog)

    I agree with what you've written, but does Fukuyama go into any more detail for his viable liberal philosophy? It seems like the only way to end interest groups domination of politics is to make them less interested


  2. No, he doesn't. It is easier to identify a problem than to solve it.


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