This blog is a defense of progressive politics. A writer named William L. Anderson criticizes progressives as bad governors in a piece, “Why Progressives Are So Bad at Governing.” The noted economist and author Paul Krugman leads off my rebuttal, saying, essentially, that conservatives are not that great with governance, either. Indeed, ever since the ancient Greeks, people have been considering at least three main issues: the problem of knowledge, the problem of conduct, and the problem of governance. If Americans aren’t getting it right, it says much about our political system, but it also speaks to fundamental challenges and liabilities inherent in the human species as they try to organize and get along. I make some points and then share some quotations about progressive politics to bolster my position.
William L. Anderson was writing for the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, and criticizes progressives from the perspective of governance. He begins with, “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Paul Krugman declared that the Bush administration failed in its response to the flooding of New Orleans because the administration consisted of people, according to Krugman, who didn’t “believe in government.”
In 2005, Krugman, in the piece linked above, raises a pointed question:
“There will and should be many questions about the response of state and local governments; in particular, couldn’t they have done more to help the poor and sick escape? But the evidence points, above all, to a stunning lack of both preparation and urgency in the federal government’s response.”
The noted economist and author (Krugman) is saying, essentially, that conservatives are not that great with governance, either. In fact, ever since the ancient Greeks, people have been considering at least three main issues: the problem of knowledge, the problem of conduct, and the problem of governance. If Americans aren’t getting it right, it says much about our political system, but it also speaks to fundamental challenges and liabilities inherent in the human species as they try to organize and get along.
I see Mr. Anderson’s vision, and he marshals some fair points to provide support. There is a bit of hyperbole and it comes across as more like a screed than a piece of writing that sets out to determine how progressives envision modern government (admitting that there is a lot of diversity in how a group as large and diverse as “progressives” does). In the distant past, “capital-P” Progressives had some things right (e.g., improving workplace conditions in factories owned by über-capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie), but they also dabbled in eugenics—whichis never good for one’s résumé.
But tone aside, there are many issues with his premise and offered evidence. They can be generally categorized as “pro-progressive points of view” and “anti-conservative points of view.” Actually, “anti-extreme-ideological-conservative points of view” might be fairer, since political conservatism began to morph under Ronald Reagan and reached a level of critically cronyistic and incompetent under George W. Bush.
For example, in the “anti-extreme-ideological-conservative” column, Bush appointed a guy named Brown to head FEMA shortly before New Orleans was crushed by Hurricane Katrina, which is part of the reason FEMA fumbled so badly. It really is a stain on Bush’s legacy. It demonstrates cronyism and the “starve the beast” mentality that conservatives have largely been in favor of for a long time now. Brown’s resume was topped with “Owner of Many Fine Race Horses” when Bush elevated this plutocrat to a position of high power. I believe that Brown was one of Bush’s super-donors—the Rangers or the Pioneers or some such noxious group of individuals.
“I don’t represent the big oil companies, the big pharmaceuticals, or the big insurance industry. They already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need representation.” ~ The late Senator Paul Wellstone
Certainly the Koch brothers are examples of folks who want to shrink both the SIZE of the federal government and—purposefully or inadvertently—reduce its COMPETENCE. Why? Their motivation has something to do with their ideology and their philosophical position, but also much to do with simply neutering the only entity that can realistically have any power over the wealthy individual: the United States federal government. It’s about liberty to these individuals, and liberty is roughly and crudely translated as: The IRS is taking money I earn in my capitalistic endeavors(and often, schemes) under the guise of “taxation” for use in dubious social programs (and, sometimes, they object to military spending as well).
It’s as though conservatives often fail the people by making sure government does NOT work well (even if we grant the dubious proposition that progressives are too ham-handed to make government work well). This is aptly called “Starve the Beast“, and it’s cynical and obnoxious. “Progressive” means positive change. Pediatrician Benjamin Spock sums the vision up beautifully and succinctly: “Can we make a better world for our children? I believe we can, if enough people are concerned and get involved in changing what is wrong with society.”
And beyond the vision and the heart, a progressive policy platform has never been as well-articulated as that which conservatives since Reagan have been able to herald. He stated, boldly, amazingly, that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS our problem.” That flies in the face of wisdom, if you ask me (or look at various social, economic, and financial outcomes in the long and clear history of the European “welfare states”).In fact, history has not validated one of Reagan’s key philosophical/ideological hallmarks: “Reaganomics” or “trickle-down economics” or “supply-side economics.” George H. W. Bush caricatured it as “voodoo economics,” and the record has been pretty clear since then: cutting taxes for the wealthy may make the wealthy happy, but it is fairly useless at “trickling down” to the masses. Can you picture one of those old-time political cartoons with “fat cats” sitting at a sumptuous meal, silverware in hand, laughing while talking about the scraps of their feast feeding the hungry masses at their feet? Indeed, the type of financial industry deregulation and tax-cutting and spending increases Reagan instituted have done much harm to the country.
“There is an aspiration that binds us. It is the dream of justice for a beloved community. It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to develop his or her full potential.” ~ Paul Wellstone
Political science professor and self-described fan of “big government” Douglas J. Amy has this to say: “People often express self-contradictory views about government. On one level, they’ll say they’re ‘anti-government.’ If you ask them, ‘Do you trust government?’, they’ll say, ‘No.’ But if you ask them about particular government services, like the EPA, local fire and police, or the FDIC, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. That works pretty well.’ I can often get the conversation to that level, but in the end, people still say ‘I think we should limit government.’”
I have indicated that government must not be starved and kept in a cage and cloistered away from the sanitizing light of day; that is a recipe for the kind of leadership that looks more like a hopelessly dysfunctional bureaucracy (and expensive, in many senses of the word) than a well-run local fire department. Even the United States Army functions pretty well and is largely socialistic in its structure.
The “private sector” is not a panacea, despite what Mr. Anderson would be forced by his claims to accept. Douglas J. Amy again:
“A lot of Americans are very insecure economically. We worry about how we’ll be able to retire, how we’ll afford to send our kids to college, pay for our healthcare, or make our mortgage payments. People are looking for someone to blame for these problems. One of the loudest voices is that of big business, which routinely points the finger at government. They’ve made government a scapegoat to distract people from the real problems, many of which come from the private sector itself. The political right doesn’t want to talk about that.”
Think of society without a functional and powerful federal government. If you are African-American or gay, life will be easier. Remember U.S. marshals shepherding young black kids into schools during desegregation? Imagine the soup lines during the Great Depression. Picture a military in which health care for recruits and veterans is provided for by taxes rather than asking folks to pay for services.
Here is Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren on this point:
“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Paul Krugman’s main point in his critique of the oft-criticized George W. Bush Administration is: “At a fundamental level, I’d argue, our current leaders just aren’t serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.” Thus, we are paying a fair amount of taxes, but our spending priorities are often woeful. Government critics frequently have a point about pork barrel spending, and the exorbitant prices paid to military contractors and for health-care devices and drugs can be outrageously expensive.
I just do not believe that a “free-market, private sector” solution that features a small, irresponsible, cronyistic federal government can possibly place the peoples’ best interests at the forefront of governing. Left to their own devices, the powerful will engage in political lobbying that will disenfranchise the majority. Journalist extraordinaire Bill Moyers puts it this way: “As Congress debates new security measures, military spending, energy policies, economic stimulus packages, and various bailout requests, wouldn’t it be better if we knew that elected officials had to answer to the people who vote instead of wealthy individual and corporate donors whose profits or failure may depend on how those new initiatives are carried out?” Journalist and New York Timescolumnist Bob Herbert adds: “I don’t doubt that they have the best of intentions. But the people at the pinnacle of power in Washington are encased in a bubble that makes it extremely hard to hear the voices of those who aren’t already powerful themselves.”
In general, Mr. Anderson would have us believe that if progressives govern badly, we should leave it to more free market-oriented styles of governing and hope things go well. I believe that Teddy Roosevelt and other capital-P Progressives were so intent on reform 100 years ago because there were massive problems associated with laissez-faire economics and a government that acted more like a lapdog than a watchdog. Clearly, lax government policies—not overly generous or overly regulated ones—played a major role in the Great Recession. It is fair to note, though, that the housing policies that Clinton and others instituted did have unintended consequences. The following statement just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, though:
“Wherever they govern, progressives repeat the same kinds of patterns: (1) Violate the very laws of economics and, as Rothbard says, nature itself; (2) Observe the consequences of their behavior; and (3) Double down on their original declarations and blame capitalism, religious believers, or anyone else serving as a scapegoat.”
Mr. Anderson’s concluding paragraph begins with: “Progressivism is not a blueprint for governing. It is a blueprint for disaster.”
I think this critic of progressive politics would do well to accept that historically it has tended not to be progressives who do things such as simultaneously cutting taxes and raising spending on expensive and elective programs (e.g., the military). It also helps no one to keep millions of Americans without proper health insurance because of the role the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries have played inlobbying elected representatives. If one were to examine which presidents and Congresses stewarded the economy better, or contributed more to the federal annual deficit and the national debt, it would be fairly clear and unambiguous that conservatives since Reagan have not been better providers of government for the people. Indeed, many of the happiest and most functional countries in the world are social democracies, not the kind of austere free-market capitalist structure that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan lobby for (or that individuals like Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell have brought about). “That extreme capitalism fosters moral corrosion is not a new message. Teddy Roosevelt said as much a century ago,” notes the author of the book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan.
Barack Obama, ever the person capable of incisive rhetoric, notes this: “I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago—to murder and mayhem in the streets, to unsubstantial schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.”
Here is “starve the beast” in vivid color:
“Meanwhile, back at home, the Bush administration was also quietly slashing veterans’ benefits over the next decade by nearly $29 billion, leaving them to languish in a system that demands that they wait weeks or months for mental-health care and other appointments; fall into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months; and hire help from outside experts just to understand the VA’s arcane system of rights and benefits.” (Political science professor and author, Eric Alterman)
Progressives are right to feel that never has a true leftist government been put in place in the history of this country. This has much to do with the power of those on the Right to influence legislators and policy with money. Think about it: Which CEOs of major corporations are liberal? How many presidents have lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment or health care for all citizens? If you want to see the effect of money and power on government, look to see how many corporations and wealthy individuals paid $0 in taxes in 2018. It’s shocking.
Progressives do have the right recipe for good government more often than not. Their philosophy, by and large, is a good-hearted and aspirational attempt at improving the lot of the constituents in a community or state. Politicians are politicians, though, and the media is what it is. It’s worth noting that often progressives feel similarly to conservatives in that they both believe that modern government has become a mockery of what it should be, and that the “mainstream media”—which is owned by just a half-dozen huge corporations—sells out the liberal and progressive agenda at least as much as it does the conservative. And I alluded to Clinton making mistakes, such as the push for low-income housing policies that went awry, as well as the 1994 crime bill, which is almost uniformly lambasted now. (Well, by everyone but Joe Biden, it seems.) Many things about Barack Obama can be criticized by those on the Left, too. (And most liberals wouldn’t even really say that Obama was the “true-blue progressive” he is sometimes painted as.) The point is that often progressives lament the government that big money, greed, and a massive country (geographically and population-wise) has wrought. We think that Citizens United, Vallejo, and McCutcheon are horrific laws passed by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
When Anderson writes…
“Unfortunately, progressives have a different worldview. They claim that they can rejuvenate an economy by imposing confiscatory tax rates, regulating business decisions, and create a ‘fair and just world’ by putting into law the latest pronouncements from the Sexual Revolution and enforcing those laws with an iron fist. That these things, as Rothbard puts it, violate human nature, then progressives must change human nature, and by force, if necessary.”
…it is clear that this is polemic. True, the Soviet Union and Cuba can be seen as dysfunctional and authoritarian regimes. When the leaders of a country are both far-removed from the effects of laws and policies, and when military force is used to institute and enforce unpopular approaches to governance, things will go awry. But look at theorists such as Noam Chomsky. As a left-libertarian (in his words), he is in favor of decentralized power, and is very cautious about the legitimization of power. Hewould bemuch more in favor of a worker-owned business than a gulag. The one thing that always marks Communist regimes (compared to progressive countries such as the Nordic nations, much of Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) is that the people don’t tend to be empowered to make their own decisions. And I think it is self-evident that democracy is better governance than a top-down, militaristic, oligarchic form of government.
Take for example the fact that Americans have been languishing under an inadequate education system indicates, I think, that if more Americans were better educated, they would be less likely to wear the yoke of massive corporations on their necks—and this would push them toward social democracy and “the welfare state.” This kind of diffusion of power scares the rich and powerful oligarchs, such as the Koch brothers, because if they could not enact laws and policies that were preferential and favorable to their interests, they might be just another Joe trying to make a living. It is one of the great tricks of powerful conservatives that they have been fairly successful in convincing millions of low-income and middle-class Americans that they should cast their lot with them, not with similar individuals on the other side of the political spectrum.
I have tried to demonstrate that progressive government is not, by and large, excessive or foolish. Perhaps Mr. Anderson is correct in his piece that leaders such as Mao and DeBlasio (in New York City) are ideological in the extreme; however, the progressive vision has been successfully implemented in many countries in which democracy has held much greater sway than in America. Far from a progressive utopia, the United States’ history has been marked by rugged individualism, dissension between ethnicities, and which has become the wealthiest nation in history due to the kind of capitalism that Franklin Roosevelt and his canny Vice-President Henry A. Wallace decried.
Like the inspired author and political pundit Robert Reich, I worry that we have painted ourselves into a figurative corner: “The essential challenge is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind the control.” If Mr. Anderson is casting his lot with conservatives in positions of political power – as a governing philosophy, in fact – then he is aligning himself with the kind of selfishness, myopia, and greed that helped to put us right where we are today. And where we are today is, by most measures, nothing to be proud of.
Indeed, I think conservative governance (the extreme version) has led us down the path we have trodden for decades now: riddled with dysfunction, problems, and decay. What we need is a responsible, progressive philosophy and vision undergirding a more democratic and “horizontal” kind of government, not more of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan. Progressive taxation, a public healthcare option, the “Green New Deal,” and overturning Citizens United, might have some risk, but continuing with the status quo will likely bankrupt this country – both morally and financially.
I would imagine that Mr. Anderson is not in favor of polical corruption, so this is a positive sign for progress. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt inspires me with this wording:
“Inveighing against corrupt politics is something of an American tradition. Sometimes, the politicians are simply trying to win votes. Other times — such as after the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s — the country really has tightened the rules. I hope the reaction to Trump helps usher in real change.”
Economist Joseph Stiglitz writes:
“Everyone possesses self-interests in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest ‘properly understood’ is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, to the common welfare— is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.”
Stiglitz notes that Tocqueville referred to this spirit of thought as “a mark of American pragmatism.” He hits it out of the park with this communistic viewpoint: “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Often, however, they learn it too late.” He also points out that there are two visions of society, and he believes that “this second vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and our values.” The first vision is about “the haves” and “the have-nots,” one of gated communities and working poor. He refers to the alternative with the following:
“The other vision of a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ actually mean what they seem to mean….”
I will end with a couple of dozen relevant quotations that will provide some support for my points:
We must repair our old ship Liberty with some new sails and masts, starting with the public funding of our elections and thereby the removal of special-interest campaign donations. We must stop our laws from being sold to the highest bidder, and our Congress from turning into a bawdy house where anything and everything is done for a price. ~ Doris Haddock
The achievements of liberalism were everywhere visible: the robust growth of the American economy, stabilized (at times at least) by the active use of Keynesian policies; the gradual expansion of the New Deal welfare and social insurance system, which had lifted millions of elderly people (and many others) out of poverty; and beginning in the early 1960s, the alliance between the federal government and the civil rights movement, an alliance that most white liberals believed gave liberalism a powerful moral claim to accompany its many practical achievements. ~ Alan Brinkley
When Americans are asked what the country’s biggest problem is, the answers vary a lot by political party. Democratic voters say they are more concerned about income inequality, climate change, and Donald Trump. Republicans mention illegal immigration, terrorism and the deficit. But there is at least one subject that members of both parties — and independents, too — consistently cite as a serious problem: corruption. ~ David Leonhardt
It is not that humans have become any greedier than in generations past. It is that the avenues to express greed have grown so enormously. ~ Alan Greenspan
Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled. ~ Jane Addams
Some people say that the current [fiscal] crisis is unprecedented, but the truth is that there were plenty of precedents, some of them of very recent vintage. Yet these precedents were ignored. And the story of how ‘we’ failed to see this coming has a clear policy implication—namely, that financial market reform should be pressed…. ~ Paul Krugman
While the past decade represents a veritable cornucopia of examples of conservatives’ forgoing their commitment to small government in order to reward their political friends and allies, the 2003 Medicare overhaul will stand forever as a monument to the exploitation of taxpayer-funded largesse. ~ Eric Alterman
Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
…for much of the 20th century, total taxes on the very wealthy were much higher than they are now. Before World War II, the average rate hovered around 70 percent. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, the average rate was above 50 percent. It’s really no mystery why the rate has declined: The federal government has cut tax rates on the rich. The top marginal rate has plummeted. Taxes on stock holdings have declined, too. Perhaps nothing has mattered more than the erosion of the estate tax, through a combination of a lower rate and an increased threshold for paying the tax. These policy changes have turbocharged economic inequality. ~ David Leonhardt
In all these ways, the affluent exert inordinate power over the lives of the less affluent, and especially over the lives of the poor, determining what public services will be available, if any, what minimum wage, what laws governing the treatment of labor. ~ Barbara Ehrenreich
It was not so long ago that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower imagined, planned for, and successfully executed enormously complex relief initiatives. Their administrations would not have tolerated the pitiful and impotent efforts of the last year, nor would their followers have tolerated the lack of morality that plagues the government today. ~ D. C. Montague
At their best, markets have played a central role in the stunning increases in productivity and standards of living in the past two hundred years. …[b]ut government has also played a major role in these advances, a fact that free-market advocates typically fail to acknowledge. On the other hand, markets can also concentrate wealth, pass environmental costs onto society, and abuse workers and consumers. ~ Joseph Stiglitz
The Democratic leadership seems somehow unable to grasp the huge gap in outrage between them and their base. Go anywhere, talk to people who are Democrats or, poor souls, progressives, and the sheer fury of everyday people, if it could be harnessed, would solve this winter’s upcoming energy crisis. People are not only enraged; they are also deeply worried. ~ Susan Douglas
Everyone has values, but ours are much better than theirs, not only because our values stand for far, far better things, but also because we really try to live by them, as much as we can. ~ Michael Parenti
The minds of men are in confusion, for the very foundations of our civilization seem to be tottering. People are losing faith in the existing institutions, and the more intelligent realize that capitalist industrialism is defeating the very purpose it is supposed to serve. ~ Emma Goldman
A close examination of why the pay of top executives of large corporations has soared in recent decades and why the compensation of managers and traders on Wall Street has skyrocketed even further has less to do with any supposed surge in the value of their insights or skills than with their increasing power to set market rules that enrich themselves. ~ Robert Reich
When white people and brown people and black people vote together, that’s when we make social progress in this country. ~ Howard Dean
In the United States, we have socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Why has corruption become such a big issue in voters’ minds? The main reason is economic. Most Americans are struggling with slow-growing incomes and stagnant net worth — while the affluent continue to do very well. Americans have come to think government is corrupt because the economy’s outcomes look decidedly corrupt.” ~ David Leonhardt
Capitalism is unethical at its very heart. I don’t think it has to be; I don’t think it’s been developed enough. I do believe that if we put our great minds together, we could develop, perhaps, a kind of ‘higher level capitalism’ that does not thrive on the abuse of people, and that does not put profit over people. ~ Jan Phillips
Over the past decades, there has been a tide in the affairs of men and women. People in many places have risked their lives for recognition and respect. Governments may lag, and complications will arise, but still they will march. And, in the long run, we should be glad they do. ~ David Brooks
Progress is not made by the cynics or doubters. It is made by those who believe everything is possible. ~ Carly Fiorina
It is not that people don’t want to change the [current money-dominated political] system, they do. The problem is that the majority of people are convinced it will never change, that big money will always run politics. This sense of powerlessness corrupts. What could be accomplished is never attempted. The challenge is to mobilize millions of Americans from all walks of life to participate actively in a historic movement to restore our democracy. We need to invite ordinary citizens back into American politics to work for what is right for our nation…The only thing that can beat money politics is a revitalized citizen politics. ~ Paul Wellstone
No, we will not balance the budget on the backs of working families, the elderly, the sick, the children, and the poor, who have already sacrificed enough in terms of lost jobs, lost wages, lost homes, and lost pensions. Yes, we will demand that millionaires and billionaires and the largest corporations in America contribute to deficit reduction as a matter of shared sacrifice. Yes, we will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending at the Pentagon. And, no we will not be blackmailed once again by the Republican leadership in Washington, who are threatening to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States government for the first time in our nation’s history unless they get everything they want. ~ Bernie Sanders
Congress, in its wisdom, has decided that all climate legislation should be sent to a committee chaired by Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who has declared that global warming is “a hoax” and added that those who demand action remind him of the Third Reich. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that it doesn’t consider carbon dioxide a pollutant – it’s as if the Food and Drug Administration announced it didn’t consider wheat a food or the Coast Guard declared that the Atlantic Seaboard was really not a coast after all. ~ Bill McKibben