Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No, Slate, Progressives Haven't Abandoned Economic Liberalism

Two weeks ago, Slate ran a piece by Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick with one of the most slate-pitchy titles I've seen recently: "What’s Left? Have progressives abandoned every cause save gay marriage?" If they have, that's certainly news to me, seeing all of the petitions I get each day from progressive groups covering a range of issues, and reading about advocacy around economic justice, climate change action, reproductive rights, and peace/anti-militarism---to name a few.  Friedman and Lithwick contend, "While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights, they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed."  In making their argument, they talk about reproductive rights, the death penalty, separation of Church and state, gun control, and poverty.  Friedman and Lithwick claim that, over time, each one began dropping from the definition of what it means to be a "progressive" in American political culture.  After reading the article, I was quite confused by what Friedman and Lithwick meant by the word "progressive."  Are they thinking about particular politicians, thinkers, or activists?  Church-State separation, granted, isn't a big organizing issue among progressives, relatively speaking.  However, insofar as progressivism entails a firm commitment to public education, it involves an opposition to vouchers.  Likewise, insofar as progressivism entails a commitment to inclusiveness and diversity, it involves an opposition to the dominance of any one religion in the public sphere.  A politician or individual who is anti-choice, pro-death penalty, anti-gun control, and anti-welfare should not be described as a progressive.  The concern for poverty and economic justice, especially, is what separates progressives from the Democratic party leadership and the Third Way/DLC ilk.

Economic justice has always been the central issue of the Left, and that hasn't changed. The increased focus on economic issues separates the Left not only from the party leadership but also from many rank-and-file Democrats who do not pay as much attention to politics.  Take, for example, the recent polls that showed that Democrats largely think that the Supreme Court is ideologically a-okay.  That's right: we're talking about the Supreme Court that votes lockstep with the Chamber of Commerce.  However, since the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act and overruled part of DOMA, such individuals will think it's doing well, ignoring all of the cases that don't get nearly as much attention but have far-reaching impacts. However, I wouldn't refer to such individuals as "progressives" or "members of the Left."

Eric Alterman discussed the piece on the Center for American Progress website last week and rephrased the central question: "Have progressives abandoned economic liberalism in favor of an exclusive focus on social liberalism?"  Alterman then proceeds to ignore that question entirely and to focus on how the mainstream media ignores the problems of widening inequality in the country.  He mentions that the mainstream media largely ignored a recent report by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, which showed how much the growth in CEO pay has outpaced that of average worker pay.  He notes that conservative donors have been funding "research" to show that inequality is either unimportant or nonexistent.  He also cites studies and documentaries about the languishing American middle-class, abandoned by the political class and the media.  However, nowhere in his 'think piece' does he address progressives' relationship to social liberalism or social justice.   He simply ends by saying that progressives need to pay attention to economic issues---although he never directly claimed that they were not.

Moreover, Alterman's question--"Have progressives abandoned economic liberalism in favor of an exclusive focus on social liberalism?"--is itself a misreading of the Slate article.  Friedman and Lithwick claim that progressives have abandoned most of social liberalism as well; they only spoke about economic issues in the end of their piece.  They claimed that progressives abandoned all social issues other than gay marriage--and tossed all economic issues out the window as well. Again, who knew?

However, I want to focus on the economic issues here. I will look at politicians, thinkers, and advocacy groups in the progressive sphere to see if they have abandoned the cause of economic justice as the Slate writers claimed.


There is a lot of action on the state and local level (There's a great run-down on the former each Saturday here on DK); however, I will focus on national politics here.  The best way to identify the members of Congress who consider themselves "progressive" would be to look at the membership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

During the 112th Congress, both the Senate and the House passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which wrote the looming dagger of sequestration into law.  The legislation also enacted $917 billion of cuts over the course of the ensuing decade ($21 billion of which were applied to the FY12 budget). The legislation also established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction ("supercommitee"), tasked with coming up with $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.  If Congress failed to meet such a deficit reduction goal, then the sequestration cuts ($1.2 trillion) would take place.  The "supercommittee" failed (as we all knew it would), and we now have the indiscriminate cuts of sequestration.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 was an undeniably anti-progressive piece of legislation.  If we claim that "progressives" are those focused on economic justice--concern for economic mobility, robust public services, alleviation of poverty, etc., then they would oppose such legislation.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 passed the House 269 to 161.  The Democratic Caucus split 95 vs. 95.

Of the 77 voting members of the Progressive Caucus in the 112th Congress (Eleanor Holmes Norton, sadly, cannot vote), 60 voted against the bill, 15 voted for it, and 2 were not in attendance.  The Progressive Caucus, thus, provided the bulk of Democratic opposition to the destructive legislation.

Back in February, the Congressional Progressive Caucus offered its Balancing Act as an alternative to sequestration.  The Balancing Act would have closed tax loopholes for corporations and high-earners, cut waste from the Pentagon, and invested in job creation. To my knowledge, it never got a vote.

In March, the Caucus put forth its Back to Work Budget, which contained job creation measures (infrastructure and education spending, aid to states, etc.), higher taxes on the rich and corporations (including a financial transaction tax), no benefit cuts, and carbon pricing--among other provisions.   When the CPC budget was put to a vote on March 20, 84 Democrats voted for it, and 102 Democrats voted against it.

10 members of the CPC voted against it: Bonamici, Cicilline, DeFazio, Frankel, Horsford, Kaptur, Kuster, Loebsack, Polis, and Thompson.  Rosa De Lauro and George Miller were not there.  The other 62 members of the CPC voted for it.

From that number of CPC members who voted for the CPC budget, subtract those who voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011: Bass, Brady, Clay, Davis, Fattah, Gutierrez, Jackson Lee, Johnson (TX), Johnson (GA), and Rush.  That leaves us with 52 (or 54, to include DeLauro and Miller) members of Congress who voted for the Back to Work Budget and against the Budget Control Act (so long as they were able).  That's not a lot of the caucus or the House, but it's not non-existent.

In the Senate, you could easily include Bernie Sanders, the only Senate member of the CPC. Tammy Baldwin, a former CPC member, voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a member of the House. Elizabeth Warren would also easily count as an addition to the progressive forces in the upper chamber.

Members of the CPC, led by Rep. Keith Ellison, recently began a "Raise Up America!" campaign, a nationwide tour designed to highlight the problem of low and stagnant wages for American workers.  The campaign is focusing on raising the minimum wage, protecting the right to organize, and encouraging the president to sign an executive action requiring private businesses contracting with the government to pay a living wage.

You may question how effective the CPC is, but you can't just ignore it because you want to argue that progressives have abandoned economic liberalism.


The Center for American Progress, for which Alterman wrote the above piece, certainly abandoned the cause of economic liberalism over the past few years.  Only last month did CAP drop its support for a Grand Bargain and realize that austerity is bad policy.  CAP had praised the granny-starving Simpson-Bowles plan and had also endorsed the adoption of chained CPI to cut Social Security benefits--all to please the "confidence fairy," of course.  I recommend Larry Mishel's take on CAP's complicity in deficit mania.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also been shilling for chained CPI.

However, not all of the left-of-center think tank world jumped on the austerity bandwagon. The Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Demos, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Institute for Policy Studies have all been resolute opponents of austerity and champions of egalitarian economic policy.  Dean Baker of CEPR even laughed at the Alterman piece while linking to it on Twitter: "This is great fun -- a debate among intellectuals as to whether progressive economists exist."

You also have your Nobel-prize winning anti-austerity champions Joseph Stigilitz and Paul Krugman.  You can find Stigilitz's writings in The Guardian or in the New York Times.  You could read his latest book The Price of Inequality.  You can find Krugman's writings in his The Conscience of a Liberal Blog on the NYT website or in his regular opinion pieces. You could also read his recent book End This Depression Now.

I'd add former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to that list as well. You could find his writings on his website (or in The American Prospect, the Huffington Post, and other sites).  You could also check out his latest book Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it.

To hear quality journalism on economic justice, you could tune into Democracy Now with Amy Goodman or Moyers & Company with Bill Moyers.  You could also check out The Nation.  Greg Kaufman has a regular column on poverty in America, and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has been a strong critic of austerity both in the Nation and in her columns in the Washington Post.  You could also read In These Times, Alternet, or Truthout. If you read those sites, you won't get the impression that the Left has abandoned all of its issues save gay marriage. You certainly wouldn't get that impression reading the Daily Kos either.

Economic liberalism is still alive and well among progressive advocacy groups.

MoveOn regularly campaigns against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  It has campaigned against cuts to education on the state and local level and Wall Street regulation on the national level.

If you go to the website for the Progressive Change Committee,  founded by former MoveOn organizers, you'll see campaigns to protect the safety net, support Elizabeth Warren's student loan bill, and fight corporate money in politics.  Last election cycle, PCCC raised funds for progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Mazie Hirono, and Tammy Baldwin in the Senate and Alan Grayson, Keith Ellison, Donna Edwards, Mark Pocan, Raul Grijalva, Mark Takano, and Hakeem Jeffries in the House.

CREDO currently spotlights petitions on Keystone XL, fracking, human rights/workplace safety in Bangladesh, Warren's Student Loan Fairness Act, NSA surveillance, immigration reform, and reproductive rights.  In recent months, CREDO has campaigned against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and campaigned for tax fairness and government investment to create jobs.

Campaign for America's Future has been campaigning to end tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, to restore funding for Meals on Wheels, to strengthen Social Security, to oppose all benefit cuts, and to repeal sequestration cuts.

USAction/True Majority has also been consistently fighting against cuts to Social Security and Medicare and against wasteful Pentagon spending as well as for tax fairness and government investment for job creation.

These aren't all of the advocacy groups of the left; however, they definitely show that progressives aren't the ones who abandoned economic liberalism. Rather, they're often fighting the efforts by the Democratic leadership and the DLC/Third Way wing of the party to abandon it.

Locating the Straw that Makes the Strawman

Progressives--whether politicians, economists, journalists, or activists--have maintained a strong focus on economic issues even while campaigning on social issues as well. However, pinkwashing--covering up negative policies or practices by invoking friendliness to the LGBT community--is alive and well in the Democratic Party and among many American corporations.  Politicians like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg can get credit from liberals for their support for marriage equality while they also seek to destroy equality in education through school closures, privatization, and other variants of corporate school reform and profiteering. Companies like Starbucks, Google, and Apple can gain a liberal sheen for their support of LGBT issues while pushing austerity, evading taxes, and eroding privacy rights. However, they are not part of the "left" or the "progressive community."

I think one of the best examples of this would be Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. When Cuomo shepherded marriage equality through the New York legislature, he was widely praised as a progressive hero. Rachel Maddow, in an interview earlier this year, even referred to Cuomo as a "proud progressive."  Yes, the same Cuomo who compared his opposition to the millionaire's tax to his father's principled opposition to the death penalty.  Yes, the Cuomo who authored austerity budgets. Blake Zeff has accurately described Cuomo as the epitome of the SPEC (Socially Progressive, Economically Conservative) wing of the Democratic Party--a far better character appraisal than Maddow's.  Chris Hayes has also torn into Cuomo for his abandonment of progressive economic policy--and even the state Democratic policy itself.  Sorry, Rachel, Cuomo may be proud, but he's no progressive.


As I see it, progressivism marks an attempt to harmonize the wisdom present in liberalism, socialism, and democracy.  From liberalism (Liberté), we get the protection for civil liberties (freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, privacy, right to a trial, etc.) and the rule of law.  From democracy (égalité), we get an emphasis on voting rights, electoral participation, campaign finance reform (i.e., getting money out of politics), and deliberative, consensus-driven policy-making both in the legislature and in the workplace. From socialism (fraternité), we get an emphasis on the robust provision of public goods, universalistic welfare programs, alleviation--and eradication--of poverty, and economic policies designed to reduce inequality and promote full employment.  They must be harmonized in order to respect and uphold the dignity and equal worth of all persons and to try to make that worth borne out in reality. Progressivism cannot be reduced to a single issue or to social issues alone.

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