Before I start, let me say that I could just as easily write a long essay on the successes of liberalism. And there are many. But I have come to believe that, at this time in history, it is imperative for liberals to take a long hard look at not just what we got right, but what we got wrong.
I actually began calling myself a progressive over 20 years ago, long before it became popular to do so. I did this because I saw a distinction, in terms of policy prescriptions, but more importantly, in terms of philosophy, on how best to use government to secure a healthy and prosperous society for all citizens. And I saw the liberal establishment, to a great extent, abandoning its roots of economic populism. I saw this clearly before Thomas Frank wrote "What's the Matter With Kansas" or Kevin Drum wrote "Why the Democratic Party Has Abandoned the Middle Class in Favor of the Rich".
These writers observed that as liberals focused more and more on so-called cultural issues, they began to exclude bread and butter issues that affect the vast majority of working class Americans. I saw this too. But I saw something more -something I can only describe as the complete collapse of the economic left. What I mean by this is not that there weren't advocates for populist ideas like protectionist trade policies, defending progressive taxation, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, or public works programs. There were. What I mean is that these voices had become almost completely invisible, not only in mainstream political discourse, but among the liberal left as well.
This was, and is, in large part due to a total blackout of anything resembling economic populism in the establishment media. The effect of this cannot be overstated, and it was left out of the above mentioned works. But it's an important part of the story.
I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen someone advocating raising tariffs on television in the last 10 years. Indeed, the censorship of progressive economic ideas that were commonplace in our national discourse only 30 years ago is so extensive that one may rationally suspect that one of the primary functions of the establishment media is to censor progressive economic ideas.
So after a while, what we ended up with was the rise of a "New Liberal" media establishment that is TV friendly and knows the rules. Talk all you want about identity politics, prayer in schools, and other cultural issues. You can even talk about poverty, jobs and outsourcing. But don't ever talk about raising tariffs. That's "protectionism." Don't talk about taxing the hell out of the rich. That's "class warfare". Don't talk about using the government to hire the unemployed for public works. That's "socialism."
These rules have been in place a long time. And sometimes people do break them. Especially lately as the outrage of the Wall Street Bank Heist has risen to a fevered pitch. I suspect our censors realize it's better to let the left vent in a nice controlled fashion than risk an all out revolt.
But despite these aberrations, or bursts of rebellion, or maybe even progress, I still see a liberal left establishment in America that is lacking the ideas, vision, even the vocabulary to fight what is being done to our country. Liberals are able to articulate so well on issues of race, gender, gay rights and scores of other important issues. But on economics, corporate hegemony, and global financial capitalism, liberals are largely, tragically speechless.
So the New Liberalism, otherwise known as neoliberalism, otherwise known as right wing, laissez faire capitalism, goes largely unchallenged by the serious liberals, and even to some extent among netroots liberals, as we retreat to defend the old, familiar orthodoxy of liberal social policy - welfare, after school programs, planned parenthood - from budget cuts.
Believe me, in one sense I am and have always been thankful for programs such as these. They help a lot of people. But I am also aware that they are merely band-aids on a hemorrhaging, collapsing society.
And this is the crux of what I want to address here. While liberals have been working tirelessly to rescue society from the ruins of a failed, sociopathic, economic philosophy, wouldn't it have been wiser to defeat the failed economic philosophy instead?
After many years of studying public policy as it pertains to the government's constitutionally mandated task of promoting the general welfare, I have concluded that the vast majority of liberal social programs should be entirely unnecessary.
Yes, let's do end the welfare state. If, we were to simply create a massive, public works program that gave every single American who was willing and able to work a decent, living wage job, we could transform American society in one generation.
Think what such a program would do to society. Aside from dismantling a primary rallying point of the right, it would cause everyone's wages, even those in the private sector, to rise, even without appropriate trade protections. It would rapidly create a new working class that could afford to buy homes, send their kids to school, and generally reverse much of the societal collapse we are experiencing now.
You want to see a reduction in teenage pregnancies, high school drop-outs, spousal abuse, divorce, drug addiction, illiteracy, inner city crime, and suicide rates? Put America to work. There are correlations of varying degrees between every one of the social problems I just listed and poverty.
Families with stable, secure incomes are happier, healthier, more productive, and much more able to deal with problems than families on the edge or over the edge of economic collapse. This isn't rocket science.
Now, believe me, I know first hand that being middle class is no guarantee that a family will be happy. And I am fully aware of high incidences of drug addiction among the middle and upper classes. Public works is not going to create a nation of Ozzie and Harriets.
But were not talking about "dysfunctional" families, or families with "issues". We're talking about families in a state of emergency. We're talking about homeless or close to it. We're talking societal collapse, i.e. Detroit style.
Liberals, it seems, have a program to solve every social ill known to man except the one poor people really need: lack of money. Why is that? Most liberal academics and policy advocates know full well the correlation between unwanted pregnancies, premarital sex, and poverty, and yet they devote their whole life to getting rubbers in schools (a policy prescription that has costs a fortune in political capital) instead of fighting for economic reforms.
Perhaps playing social engineer is more interesting than giving people living wage jobs and then leaving them alone to live their own lives. Or maybe really getting at the root of the problem requires taking on the elite liberal establishment of Harvard and Wellesley.
Whatever the reason, it has failed and has to change. We could reverse the societal collapse that is accelerating across our country with just a few simple changes.
FDR put over 10 million people to work with big fat government jobs and did more social and mental health of society than all the liberal programs combined. They didn't call it a depression for nothing.
If the American left doesn't fight head on the neoliberal/conservative economic pillaging underway, and reclaim the economic mantle for all Americans, even the smelly, redneck ones, then you can kiss this country good bye. Cause every year, the economic sociopaths become more and more entrenched.
We need to stop burning up our political fires on tweaks and fiddles. The flaws in our economy are fundamental and require fundamental reform. The working people of this country are under attack. And if the left isn't willing to defend them, to fight for them, then who will?
We need to stop allowing the establishment media to set the limits of debate and advocacy.
We need to stand up for the progressive policies we already know are right.
-Rebuild America with a public works program funding jobs. Think how many jobs we could have created with the $12 trillion shoveled out to the banking mafia.
-Wipe out our almost $1 Trillion annual trade deficit and the hemorrhaging of jobs by withdrawing from the anti-labor trade agreements and restoring trade tariffs the way China does.
-Create a national, single payer health insurance program for all Americans. Not a national health care system. An insurance system. Return health care back to doctors where it belongs.
-Raise the minimum wage to at least $12 per hour.
These aren't pipe dreams. These are policy prescriptions that were mainstream only a decades ago.
These simple steps alone would transform American society in a single generation. Slowly but surely, we would see our schools get better, our streets get cleaner, our people become happier (remember the pursuit of happiness), our families get more stable, violent crimes get less frequent and something else that never gets talked about.
Rebuild America would make Americans feel like they're part some something important again. They would start to take more pride in their communities. They would sue each other less, resent each other less, and cherish our diversity more.
This is not a theory. This is precisely what would happen as we slowly began rebuilding our country and our society from the ruins. Slowly the dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, mental illness of the right wing would slip away. It's hard to overstate how much the right wing, self first, live and let die, disease has left people feeling on their own, alone, and isolated.
We need our democratic government of, by and for the people to unite us again as Americans. There is a difference between nationalism, and national spirit. We need to restore our sense of community. The sense that we are all in this thing together. Government is not the enemy. It is the gift of those who fought and died defeating an oppressive monarchy to allow, for the first time in history, the people to govern themselves. And it is the instrument by which we as a people work together to solve national problems, and protect the needs and interests of our citizens.
This is not socialism. It is democracy. And we must never allow limits to the power of the self-governed to use our democracy to protect our common interests from the tyranny of the few.
This is what we are fighting against. The radical right movement, which permeates not only Republican politics, but the corporatist, neoliberal movement as well, is not just about "smaller government" and "individual liberty", it is about attacking our right and ability to self-govern. It is about attacking the foundations and institutions of democracy.
Liberals need to learn to counter this attack. But we also need to rethink some of the axioms of social policy that have made liberalism such an easy target.
Government, especially at the state and federal level, should be a powerful instrument, but it should also be a blunt instrument. We need to understand its strengths, but also its limits. And we need to focus on these strengths. Defining these strengths and limits is something I will address in a later post. But in closing, I want to stress that we need to be all about the money. That is what our people really need, above all else. And that comes in the form of good, living wage jobs. Period.