Sunday, May 29, 2005

Progressive and Strong. A Winning Combination for Democrats?

Can Democrats find success in a forcefully progressive agenda? Co-editor of The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner, thinks so. In his recent editorial, Kuttner constructs a strong argument for why a move to the left could be the key to Democrat’s return to power.

The key points, as I see them are:

• “There is a latent liberal majority, if liberals can once again learn to do politics.”

• “Most [Americans] actually want more from government -- to ensure health insurance that can never be taken away, to give ordinary people a fair shake in the workplace, and to keep large corporations from pillaging the environment. Most still value traditional Social Security. All this reflects the residual strength, enduring values, and recent gains of liberalism, even if the liberal label is in disfavor.”

• “Democratic candidates will shed their temporizing not when a linguistic expert gives them better packaging but when voters demonstrate that a muscular progressivism that addresses the plight of the common American is a winning politics.”

It would be imprudent to dismiss Kuttner’s argument in the same way it would be imprudent to dismiss the fact that, in this great nation of wealth, many Americans are still struggling. But is a more liberal governing philosophy the answer? That depends entirely on what “liberal” means.

Kutner is more interested in convincing his fellow liberals to be bold in their progressivism more than he is interested in defining what this progressivism entails. If all he wants is a return to Great Society paternalism, then I think he’s wrong. More handouts and more controlling government programs are old ideas that many now recognize to be failed public policy.

But if Kuttner is actually arguing for a brand new kind of progressivism, he may have a point. In a nation where the vast majority of us not only have food on the table but a television in the living room and a cell phone in our pocket, economic desperation is no longer widespread enough to build a political movement on the objective of alleviating it. But economic insecurity is all too common. A political ideology based off the ideal of ensuring robust opportunity for all could inspire a lot of Americans.

But I don’t think such an ideology is leftist. An Opportunity Society can be created using the ideals of individual responsibility first and foremost with government power used not to provide handouts but to help remove unfair barriers. A progressivism built not on the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but on the first President Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt could teach us a lot about personal responsibility coupled with a government more concerned with the people’s interests than special interests.

But that form of progressive thought comes straight from the vital Center and not from the left. I seriously doubt this is Kuttner’s vision. But it is one the Democrat’s could embrace and, I think, ride to real success.


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