the significance of the progressive primary victories

Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appears to have lost a primary to Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal:

This is part of a significant trend: relatively conservative incumbent Democrats in relatively safe Democratic states and districts are falling to more progressive newcomers, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.-14), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.-07), and Marie Newman (IL-3). These insurgents are more diverse and younger than the incumbents. To be sure, a majority of progressive primary challengers have lost, but the net shift is toward a larger bloc within the Democratic caucus.

We should now see assertive progressive caucuses grow in the US House and in many city councils and state legislatures–mirror-images of the House Freedom Caucus on the right. They should and will help to maintain and expand Democratic Party control of as many legislative chambers as possible, while acting as the sharp, leading edge of Democratic majorities. (Jamelle Bouie made this argument in the New York Times.)

The country is becoming more diverse, and people of color tilt heavily toward the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democrats are about to cease being a white-majority party, although many of their national leaders still are white, especially in the Senate.

In 2016, half of the voting delegates at the Democratic National Convention were people of color. These delegates were not appointed as a gesture to symbolic representation or diversity. They were elected by their own power bases. When a party that elects these delegates wins national elections, white dominance is at risk. That is potentially a shift of global significance, bookending 1492 and 1619.

But the party’s leadership must represent its own electorate better. A 58% white Democratic House caucus is a bit too white for a 54% white party, and the party is getting more diverse. The main opportunities to diversify the caucus are districts with Black or Latino majorities. (The Senate represents a bigger problem.)

If you’re not as far as left some of the progressive insurgents, I still think you should welcome their voices in government. The national deliberation is enriched by their ideas, experiences, and agendas. A legislature that excludes such perspectives lacks legitimacy.

What if you were a Bernie voter in 2020? Do a few primary victories offer a disappointing consolation prize? I think not. Electing progressive Democrats in left-leaning districts was always a more promising strategy.

I’ll acknowledge that if you are a democratic socialist, you should have voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He is, after all, a socialist. I didn’t vote for him because my political philosophy–for whatever that’s worth–does not fully align with his. At the same time, if you are a democratic socialist, you would have fundamental reasons not to expect the Sanders campaign to carry your agenda forward. You should be primarily interested in the path that AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and others represent.

Although socialist thought is vast and varied and mostly beyond my personal knowledge, I have never heard of a socialist theorist or strategist who believed that capitalists would back down in response to an individual politician who won a majority vote in a national election. Just because actual socialism would cost the ruling class trillions of dollars, they would be expected to resist it with all their power. That is why socialist strategists have often emphasized strong unions linked to a broad-based left party with internal democracy and ideological discipline (a hard pair of principles to combine), plus a left version of the mass media. Once you build that combination, you have a chance at a more-than-symbolic political campaign.

Michael Walzer writes:

Socialist politicians usually emerge from powerful social movements like the old labor movement or from political parties like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democrats in Germany. Sanders does not come out of, nor has he done anything to build, a significant social movement. That wouldn’t be an easy task in the United States today; in any case, it hasn’t been his task. He has, moreover, never been a member of a political party—not even of the Democratic Party whose nomination he is now seeking. He has never attempted to create a democratic socialist caucus within the party. For all the enthusiasm he has generated, he has no organized, cohesive social or political force behind his candidacy. If he were elected, it is hard to see how he could enact any part of his announced program.

One response is that Sanders is not a socialist in a significant sense, and therefore socialist theory would accept that he could have won the election. He just needed to play his cards a bit differently and receive more help from people like me (and millions of others) who resisted him.

As I once noted, Sanders’ platform is less radical than Harry Truman’s was in 1948. In that sense, Sanders stands in the mainstream of the 20th century Democratic Party. Richard Wright puts Bernie Sanders in the tradition of Victorian moralizing socialists, like William Dean Howells (who voted Republican) or Frances Willard. This is a highly mainstream American tradition, and Bernie’s only difference is the “socialist” brand. To explain socialism, Sanders sometimes cites Denmark, which the Heritage Foundation ranks very high on measures of business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. I like Denmark’s social contract but would describe it as liberal.

Sanders has never passed any socialist legislation but is part of Chuck Schumer’s leadership team in the Senate. In the 115th Congress, Sanders and, e.g, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) agreed on 90% of their votes–all their rare divergences relating to Trump’s executive branch appointments, plus H.R. 2430, “a bill to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” and H.R. 3364; “A bill to … counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea.” You could argue that if Sanders is a socialist, so is Merkley and most of the Democratic caucus.

Although Sanders made major economic proposals, they had little chance of passage, which made him sort of a notional or symbolic socialist. Yes, if Bernie had won in a landslide–carried to the White House by a wave of grassroots enthusiasm and activism for the substance of his agenda–he could have passed his bills. But the primary campaign showed no evidence of a dramatically new electorate. A capable Democratic administration pressured skillfully from a growing leftwing caucus can do much more.

See also three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; Bernie Sanders runs on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform; and democracy is coming to the USA

the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).

the neo-feudalism thesis

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’ve superficially encountered the terms “neo-feudalism” and “refeudalization” and read a few relevant works, e.g., Jodi Dean’s “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” in the May 12 edition of the LA Review of Books and Robert Kuttner’s “The Rise of Neo-Feudalism” in the March/April American Prospect. I know my Habermas (who proposed a thesis about neo-feudalism in 1962 that still attracts attention). Years ago, I made a somewhat serious study of actual feudalism as I tried to understand and assess Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But I have missed everything else in this debate–so caveat emptor.

The basic idea is that capitalism has not continued as such, nor has it transformed into socialism, as the Marxian left predicted. Instead, it has morphed into a new system that resembles feudalism in important respects. If this is true, it means that the left should stop opposing neoliberalism or late capitalism, because those are not the reigning systems of the day. And the center-right should stop defending capitalism, because it’s gone.

Definitions would be helpful. I start with these:

A market is any venue in which individuals choose whether or not to exchange goods or services that they own for things that other people own. Markets seems almost ubiquitous–for example, they are found in communist states, inside bureaucracies, and in a huge range of cultures. Market choices are never without constraint and necessity. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to doubt the genuine experience of choosing whether or not to exchange what you own for something you want.

Feudalism–at least in its European medieval version–was a political/economic system in which land represented the vast majority of wealth and was not actually understood as marketable. Although people sometimes traded land for land or land for goods, such exchanges were frowned upon and made difficult. Most people were born with an inalienable link to a specific place. Whether you were a peasant, a lord of a manor, a higher lord, or a sovereign, you had both obligations and rights with respect to particular acres. Your name even incorporated that place: you were from it if you were a commoner, and of it if you were gentry. The gentry did not own demesnes as they owned carpets and tables; they held their places as their “seats.”

Rights and obligations were massively unequal; feudalism was hierarchical. However, a peasant had inalienable rights (e.g., to take firewood from the manor’s commons); and even the king had many feudal obligations. Status came in shades and degrees.

Meanwhile, government in the Weberian sense–the legitimate use of violence–was profoundly decentralized. The lord of the manor was a landlord but also the law. The king was a higher law but had very little capacity for governing anyone outside the royal court itself, unless assisted by feudal vassals who had interests of their own. Parliaments emerged as places where sovereigns bargained with local leaders (lords, bishops, and towns) because they could not govern on their own.

Capitalism is a system in which the most important assets are heavily “capitalized”: subject to investments that make them highly productive. Although farms can be capitalized, the classic example is a factory or manufacturing plant. Thanks to concentrated physical, intellectual, human, and social capital, a factory produces an impressive flow of goods. Because it is complex, it requires a bureaucracy to operate. Therefore, a capitalist economy requires firms, not just individuals coming to market with things they privately own.

As a matter of definition, capitalism involves investment in these productive assets. Some people can live from the proceeds of such investments. Other people are paid to work in a capitalized industry. That distinction produces two classes (at least in Marxian theory–in reality, lines may blur).

Capitalism is incompatible with feudalism because feudalism’s refusal to allow a market for land and agricultural labor prevents investment. Also, capitalism cannot operate efficiently when governance is decentralized in the way we see under feudalism, with many independent rulers wielding legitimate force and making discretionary decisions in their various domains.

Capitalism is, however, compatible with a range of political institutions. The US republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and today’s one-party People’s Republic of China have all been capitalistic. Capitalism can certainly co-exist with political systems that involve equal legal rights, democratic elected governments, and even social welfare systems. In fact, some people think that the most robust and sustainable capitalist systems (for better or for worse) are also democratic, liberal, and at least mildly socialistic.

It would appear that a world dominated by Google, Facebook, Apple, Airbnb, Uber, and the like is still capitalistic. It certainly isn’t feudal in the classical sense, with barriers preventing people from exchanging the most important goods and with inherited status prevailing over contracts. But it might have certain features that make it different from high capitalism and might dimly resemble feudalism.

First, the capitalism that Marx and Engels observed involved great masses of people working in the most productive firms. These workers constituted the proletariat. Today, the most powerful companies in the world don’t employ many people. Google has 118,000 employees and about $1 trillion in market capitalization (measured before the current downturn). That approaches $10 million in capital per employee.

Imagine that Manchester, England, had become the powerhouse of the British Empire with cotton mills that employed … a few hundred workers in total. Engels would have needed a different theory.

To put it a different way, in 1850 it seemed as if most people were being recruited into the “armies” of workers who labored for the most important firms in the world. In 2020, a minuscule proportion of the world’s labor force is employed by the biggest companies.

Second, we are “governed” (in the full sense of that word) by a whole set of overlapping and decentralized rule-makers. Nation-states make rules, but so do companies. They establish and enforce elaborate terms that regulate their employees, contractors, and customers. Kuttner provides examples:

Gated residential communities, such as Disney’s Celebration, are privately controlled municipalities that make and enforce their own laws. Private mercenary armies, such as Blackwater (now rebranded as Academi), are hired by the Pentagon so that their “soldiers” will be less accountable for what might otherwise be war crimes. Eminent domain, the inherent public prerogative to claim private property for a public purpose, has been commandeered by private developers. And courts—the ultimate embodiment of law in a democracy—have been privatized by the vast expansion of compulsory arbitration.

Speaking for myself: I am OK with polycentrism, with layers and overlapping Venn diagrams of power. I believe very strongly in pluralism or a mixed economy, in the sense of a society that incorporates different kinds of institutions, with different logics and incentives. I am not a statist socialist, because I observe that systems in which the nation-state monopolizes power simply enrich the rulers and their families; they do not deliver the equity they promise. It is no coincidence that the sons of Chinese revolutionaries are now capitalist princelings.

Therefore, the very fact that centers of governance have proliferated doesn’t bother me. But one question is whether centers of governance have actually consolidated instead of ramifying. Whereas millions of firms previously established law-like rules within their own domains, now Google makes rules for billions of people. From a global perspective, the fact that most of the world’s most powerful organizations have headquarters on the coast of the USA between San Jose and Seattle is also a worrying sign of concentration. These firms may compete, but their cultural capital, norms, and social networks overlap.

Another question is whether we have preserved robust forums in which to debate whether power has been allocated appropriately. (Surely not.)

A world with consolidating centers of power and a weak public sphere doesn’t sound to me like feudalism, but like something new and bad.

See also: the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model); why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2); Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Picketty; the gentry as caste and class; when chivalry died; China teaches the value of political pluralism; and how a mixed economy shapes our mentalities

Elizabeth Warren in a tradition of radical American progressivism

A lively and valuable debate is underway about whether Senator Sanders or Warren should carry the flag of the left. Considering that Sanders calls himself a “socialist,” and Warren says she’s pro-“market,” it’s worth thinking about what each means by these words and how their words relate to their policies and their political strategies or theories-of-change. For instance, if both use the New Deal as a positive reference point–Sanders to illustrate socialism and Warren to show how capitalism can be saved–then maybe the difference is merely semantic. Or maybe not.

I would contribute one observation. Elizabeth Warren may belong in a specifically American tradition of progressive politics that is distinctive from socialism and that lacks a crisp name of its own, so far as I know. But it has these features:

  1. Enthusiasm for truly competitive markets that are free of monopolies. Competition is supposed to lower profits to minimal levels and make companies accountable to consumers and prospective workers. For instance, Louis Brandeis argued in 1912 that “our people appreciate better than they did before, the great economic truth which was embodied in the Sherman Law”: “the value of competition.” “The Democratic position … is that private monopoly in industry is never permissible; it is never desirable, and is not inevitable; competition can be reserved, and where it is suppressed, can be restored.”
  2. An understanding of the public as consumers. In 1912, the Progressive thinker Walter Weyl wrote that the office of “consumer is most universal, since even those who do not earn wages or pay direct taxes consume commodities. In America to-day, the unifying economic force, about which a majority, hostile to the plutocracy, is forming, is the common interest of the citizen as a consumer of wealth” (The New Democracy, New York, 1914, pp. 248-50)
  3. Related to the last point, a preference for universal identities over special interests and particular identities.
  4.  An ideal of the government as the protector of consumers. Robert M. La Follette said in 1906: the “welfare of all the people as consumers should be the supreme consideration of the Government.” Often this is extended to workers as well.
  5. Related to the last point, a defense of democracy (with reforms like referenda and publicly finance campaigns) as the system that makes government most accountable to all the people, not to special interests.
  6. A theory that citizens should mainly monitor their own rights and choose leaders and officials to protect them. For their part, prospective leaders should offer detailed proposals for solving problems. “I have a plan for that” is exactly this approach.
  7. A belief in transparency and access to information as tools of reform, captured in Brandeis’ famous line that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Brandeis also wrote that the Sherman Antitrust Act would remain inadequate without stronger enforcement, better “administrative machinery,”and “comprehensive, accurate, complete knowledge” of the behavior of businesses (mandatory transparency).

Note that this is not socialism. That word can be defined in many ways, but surely it would stretch the term to use it for a political philosophy that prizes competition and consumer identities.

But it can be radical, and it’s a deeply American tradition. Roger Taney, while Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, said, “it is proper that [banking] should be open as far as practicable to the most free competition and its advantages shared by all classes of society.” A century-and-a-half later, Ralph Nader also championed deregulation of selected industries, consumer rights, transparency, and popular sovereignty.

To illustrate Senator Warren’s adherence to this tradition, I would cite (for example) her interview with Franklin Foer in The Atlantic:

I believe in markets and the benefits they can produce when they work. Markets with rules can produce enormous value. So much of the work I have done—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, my hearing-aid bill—are about making markets work for people, not making markets work for a handful of companies that scrape all the value off to themselves. I believe in competition.

Or consider her endorsement of school vouchers in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (2003):

Warren’s specific position on vouchers has changed, but not her deeper philosophy.

Her stance deserves very serious consideration, and a case can be made that it is the best path forward for the American left. But I would raise these questions:

Should the consumer identity satisfy us? What about criticisms (cultural, environmental, and spiritual) about consumerism? Would it be better to see us all as producers? And what about other identities that differentiate Americans, such as race and ethnicity?

Should the implicit role left for citizens satisfy us? Is our job to critically evaluate candidates’ plans for solving our problems, or must we take deeper action?

Do competition and transparency work? (I think Warren herself would say: only sometimes.)

(Most quotes from my book The New Progressive Era. See also: citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?; transparency is not enough

the Green New Deal and civic renewal

Here’s a short case for a Green New Deal:

  1. We face a climate emergency.
  2. Government spending must be part of the solution. Even if we passed a robust carbon tax, we still need coordinated action that can’t be accomplished by individuals and firms that are trying to minimize their taxes. For example, building a new power grid, shifting some traffic from a national network of highways and gas stations to a more sustainable transportation system, and subsidizing basic research are goals that need coordinated solutions. Note that most actual work will still be done by companies (that’s true in Europe as well as the USA); the question is who should plan and pay for it. I suspect the payer must be the government, borrowing at currently low rates and using tax revenues to finance the debt.
  3. If we are going to spend trillions, we must spend it equitably. That means not just distributing the resources fairly but using them to combat accumulated injustices. Jobs and profits must go to the people who deserve and need them most. Deciding who those people are requires a theory of justice; and in my view, such a theory requires attention to racial injustice as well as class differences.
  4. Politically, the way to pass a major economic reform is to ensure it serves many interests. Although it may offend purist notions of good government and detract from the cost-effectiveness of our response to climate change, we’re probably going to have to make a big spending package a bit of a “Christmas tree,” with some additions that address legitimate concerns apart from the climate and some that just help get the bill through Congress.

Meanwhile, we also face a sustained decline in certain aspects of our civil society, with fewer Americans associating, organizing, and exercising power. This is one reason that our political system fails to address issues like climate change and racial injustice.

The original New Deal supported civic life in at least three ways.

First, the Civilian Conservation Corps added an explicit civic education curriculum to its public works projects, striving to teach the participants to be responsible and effective citizens.

Second, programs like the WPA not only employed Americans to do important work but also empowered them to make creative decisions about what work to do. The WPA’s artists, architects, engineers, craftspeople, and laborers contributed their talents and ideas, thus gaining a sense that they (not the government) were rebuilding America.

Third, Roosevelt explicitly supported unions, which not only increased workers’ take-home pay but also recruited them into powerful, autonomous, durable groups.

Could we do this again? One component would be big employment programs that provide civic and workforce education for the people who insulate houses or build public transit. That was already the proposal of Van Jones’ 2008 book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. His chapter four is entitled “The Green New Deal.” It almost goes without saying that most federally supported jobs should be unionized jobs.

Another component would be support for civil society groups. Rural electric cooperatives own 42 percent of the distribution lines in the US and serve 12 percent of the population. They have already shifted somewhat more to renewables than the energy industry as a whole (even though they are disproportionately based in conservative states). At the same time, they provide opportunities for Americans to participate in governing significant assets–for instance, at their required annual public meetings. They should be favored along with urban analogues.

A third component would be lots of support for innovative solutions by smallish groups– for-profit startups as well as nonprofits. If you invent a company that has a positive impact on the climate, you are doing public work.

Fourth, people should have more and better ways to influence and even create policy, at all scales. The traditional means include formats like public meetings, which devolve into lines of angry citizens who each get 30 seconds to yell at the decision-makers. Check out Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger’s book Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015) for better ideas.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, to address social justice, we need an account of what justice requires. That is a contested matter, appropriately so. It involves conflicting goods, from the intrinsic value of nature to the principle of liberty to concerns about past injustices. We won’t reach consensus, because these issues are complex and we differ in our values, identities, beliefs, and interests. But we can have a better or worse conversation about justice at all scales, from neighborhoods to the US Congress. Better conversations require better institutions, from neighborhood centers and listserves to broadcast news.

It would be important not to detract from the ranked priorities of (1) combating climate change and (2) remedying injustice, but a thoughtful approach could use civic means to accomplish these goals. In fact, civic engagement can strengthen the environmental benefits. For example, although it takes time to involve the public in designing a new transportation system, the chances are then greater that people will use the system. And unless they use it, it does no good for the climate.

I would not go so far as to argue that civic engagement always makes programs work better. Engagement can be done well or badly. There can also be tradeoffs between good engagement processes and efficiency. The most difficult challenge for environmentalists may be that active citizens resist directing resources efficiently to climate issues, because their agendas are broader. But I do think it’s worth investing in civic engagement to maximize the advantages for (1) climate, (2) justice, and (3) civic life.

See also national service in the stimulus; empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent; public engagement in the stimulus: Virginia’s example; an overlooked win for civic renewal: federally qualified health centers; work, not service. And see Harry C Boyte, “Populism or socialism? The divided heart of the Green New Deal.”

a better approach to coalition politics

Sometimes people view coalitions instrumentally and transactionally. You know what you believe, but unfortunately you don’t (yet) have enough support, or seats, or votes, or dollars to get what you want, so you must join with other people who either share roughly similar beliefs–close enough to settle for–or who will support your agenda in return for your help with theirs.

We see this approach most clearly in parliamentary systems, when parties come together to form majorities. The center-left party will form a government with the Greens if they need the Greens’ votes, but will drop them if they don’t. We also see it in US logrolling politics: Democrats from rural districts vote for HUD; urban Democrats vote for the Farm Bill. And we see it in social movements, when participants advocate for a “big tent” or invoke a “bird that flies with two wings”–clichés that usually mean: “Include me in your coalition or you won’t win.”

Some circumstances–such as parliamentary votes of confidence–require a transactional approach to putting together coalitions of 50% plus one. But it is possible to view a coalition in a different way: as a network of valuable relationships among people who trust and respect one another.

Brad DeLong, a self-proclaimed “neoliberal” and “[Robert] Rubin Democrat,” recently announced his support for a coalition led by people to his left. Speaking of his own faction within the Democratic Party, he wrote:

Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition. We blame cynical Republican politicians. We blame corrupt and craven media bosses and princelings. We are right to blame them, but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.

Note that DeLong is not renouncing his own beliefs or exiting public life in defeat. Instead, has has reached an all-things-considered judgment that people who disagree with him on some important matters should lead a coalition that he will support. It’s their time.

In a Vox interview, he adds:

while I would like to be part of a political coalition in the cat seat, able to call for bids from the left and the right about who wants to be part of the governing coalition to actually get things done, that’s simply not possible as of now.

We shouldn’t pretend that it is, or that it’s going to be. We need to find ways to improve left-wing initiatives, rather than demand that they start from our basic position and do minor tweaks to make them more acceptable to their underlying position.

DeLong wants to contribute, but he thinks the left should lead. His role is non-coercive persuasion: offering market-based suggestions that the left can accept or not. He doesn’t suggest that his support will be conditional on their agreement. He is in, but he wants to retain his voice. His explicit renunciation of a claim to lead should engender some trust from the left. It’s an example of the general principle that Danielle Allen defends in Talking to Strangers. Our task is to become “political friends” who demonstrate “reciprocal goodwill”; and to get there, often the first step is to make an explicit sacrifice.

In turn, if the left were to lead the Democratic Party, it would become the main source of energy and ideas. Progressives would earn the voluntary support of a broader spectrum. They would not view leftover neoliberals as enemies to be rooted out but as fellow members of the coalition who can be inspired and persuaded. They would take seriously their own capacity, opportunity, and moment to lead. They would see themselves as better leaders if people like Brad DeLong continued to follow them. They would value not only the votes of such moderates but their insights.

They would also care about the condition of the coalition. Is it sufficiently attractive to a broad range of people? Does it offer entry-points for newbies and youth while also honoring the folks who have been working hard for a long time? Is it nimble but also principled? Can it manage dissent? How does it handle disagreement? You can’t answer those questions well if you are always thinking about whether your own policy goals will prevail. You must also care about the coalition as a community.

I am not saying that the currently insurgent left is failing to act this way. So far, so good. I am just offering a way to conceptualize leadership that doesn’t reduce a coalition to a pure means for accomplishing the leaders’ goals. I’d argue that valuing the coalition is a path to wiser strategies and more influence.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); saving relational politics; and the value of diversity and discussion within social movements.

an agenda for the dignity of work

Sen. Sherrod Brown’s theme of the “dignity of work” is powerful and important, for these four reasons:

1. A basic cause of unacceptable inequality is the worsening position of workers versus the owners of capital. That shows up in statistics on the share of income …

… and also in less tangible ways, such as a growing cultural and spatial distance between workers and investors and the rising deference or obsequiousness to the rich

2. Work, in the broadest sense—making things of value—is one basis of a good life for human beings. It is spoiled when work is alienated (split between decision-makers who don’t actually do anything and laborers who make no decisions) or replaced entirely by automation and AI. The availability of good work is probably shrinking and is certainly threatened by the next wave of automation.

3. The dignity of work can be a unifying theme. Yes, who has dignified work depends on gender, race, class, and age, so addressing this issue requires attention to inequality and difference. But people in very different social positions share a sense that dignified work is threatened.

4. Workers who are organized (in unions or the functional equivalents of unions) gain countervailing political power along with dignity. I’m of the school that it doesn’t matter much which policies Democratic candidates endorse, because their policy options are highly constrained once they’re in office. It matters how power is distributed. Strengthening workers’ organizations addresses the third level of power (“Who decides policies?”) rather than the first or second levels of power (What do particular people get? and “What policies are in place?”).

[For related arguments, see Harry C. Boyte, “The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work: An Unanticipated Civics Lesson, Courtesy of President Trump” (The Nation, Jan 29) and Albert Dzur, “Teaching Citizenship” (The Boston Review, Jan. 30).]

Sen. Brown has a plan entitled “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America.” I think it’s an important contribution, but it’s mostly about raising pay per hour and improving the bargaining position of unions. We could add to his agenda, recognizing that some people just aren’t going to be unionized, that AI threatens employment for all, and that work faces crises of quality as well as pay and hours.

I can only offer vague thoughts because I am insufficiently informed, but I would consider:

  1. Federal support for associations of workers who would have a very hard time unionizing. Domestic workers are the prime case, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance is the leading example. When organized, domestic workers can advocate for favorable government policies, but they can also provide education, training, insurance, and other services for their members and speak to a range of audiences. In practice, they use their voice to advocate for their patients and clients as well as for themselves, and they demonstrate a concern for the quality of work as well as pay. I am not sure what federal policies would help them most, but possibly they should be eligible for grants for their service functions to subsidize their organizing efforts.
  2. A new look at accountability policies in a wide range of fields, from teaching and policing to medicine, to ensure that the drive to measure inputs and outcomes doesn’t ruin the quality of professional work. Often these accountability measures are driven by federal policy.
  3. A new look at the federal civil service, with an eye to making the jobs that are directly controlled by the national government as rewarding and substantive as possible.
  4. Funding for R&D that uses new technology to enhance and expand work (not to replace work).
  5. Federal programs modeled on the EPA’s now-defunct Community Action for a Renewed Environment CARE) that support a range of stakeholders who work on common problems. Typically, some of the stakeholders are paid to work full-time on these problems; others use some of their paid time to help out; and others are volunteers. For instance, in an environmental project, some participants may be government regulators, some may be local business people, and some may be unpaid activists. It’s important to see and name them all as working.

the state versus petit-bourgeois white America

Citizens experience the state in the form of people–teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses and doctors. These may be public employees or just subsidized by public funds, as when doctors get reimbursed by Medicare or professors get some of their salary from federal financial aid and grants. They help, serve, and protect; they also advise, cajole, assess and select, and discipline.

If we expand distributive justice (taxing richer people and spending the money on “government”), then relatively needy people will be confronted with human representatives of the state. These interactions will be friction points, sites of cultural conflict and resistance.

This is a well-known problem that has been discussed for a century. Traditionally, it has a strong class dimension: the state sends mostly college-educated people to both help and discipline working-class people. The state represents norms and ways of life embraced by the dominant social class. (I think this was even the case in the USSR.) In the US, the friction also has a racial dimension, even though white people have always been recipients of government support and surveillance in the US.

I think four strategies have often been proposed to reduce the friction:

  1. Make the state more demographically representative of the people it relates to. For instance, work to enhance the racial diversity of public school teachers, especially when their students are people of color.
  2. Design programs and laws–also train the “street-level bureaucrats” who deliver services–to minimize unnecessary moral superiority, reduce patronizing attitudes, and shift the balance to helping people versus disciplining them. For instance, educators are taught to be sensitive to their students’ backgrounds; social workers have norms against being judgmental.
  3. Organize or train the recipients of government services to stand up for their own rights and values.
  4. Expand cash transfers and other detached forms of redistribution that don’t involve monitoring and changing behavior (as education, policing, public health, and social work do).

None of these strategies has ever been fully successful. But we now see a new dynamic. A significant segment of the population identifies strongly as middle class and culturally mainstream. These are white, Christian people who may have attended college (often without completing BA degrees) and who may own small businesses or work in white-collar settings. They live in smaller towns, exurbs, and rural settings that represent a vision of respectability.

Traditionally, they identified with the state, particularly since they were very well represented in Congress, the state legislatures, and the military. Their typical question was whether or not to spend money on the government, which might waste their tax dollars but might also protect their national security, might genuinely help them without a lot of lecturing (think of agricultural extension workers or locally-controlled public schools), and would discipline other people.

Now this class—white, non-urban, Christian, and petit-bourgeois rather than working class–is in trouble. Obesity, opioid abuse, and suicide are rising to the point that their life-expediencies are falling. In some cases, their communities are losing population. Their traditional economic roles are in peril, and they’re told that their children must live and learn differently to retain their class position.

“Mortality by Cause for White Non-Hispanics Ages 45–54,” from Anne Case & Angus Deaton, PNAS December 8, 2015 112 (49)

The very bad trends depicted in this figure are concentrated among white people without college experience, but those with some college show increasing mortality. It’s only people with BAs or more who have escaped that pattern.

The state arrives to tell them to eat different foods, not to smoke, to raise their children differently. It may seem that the state disagrees with the messages that they hear in church, which they attend to live good lives. The state tells them to send their kids to the state university if they want to stay in the middle class. Their taxes and tuition dollars will pay for people who relate to them as the state has traditionally related to the poor and working class. Professors and student-affairs workers will steer their kids into a new culture that the coastal bourgeoisie has created. From the same universities come the k-12 teachers, nurses, and others who lecture them back in their own communities about food and exercise and carbon emissions. (Here I am indebted to Kathy Cramer, among others.)

When asked whether the government should “do more” (1 on the scale below) or “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private business” (5 on the scale), white men have traditionally tilted against government. However, they caught up with white women in their support for government between 2014 and 2016, perhaps because they needed it more. We don’t have 2018 data yet, but we know they voted for Trump that year. This is consistent with needing government but not liking it.

The conflict between petit-bourgeois white people and the state is gendered, because many of the front-line representatives of the government are female, and many of the people with the most counter-normative behavior are men. The conflict is also racial in two respects. First, white, middle class people traditionally distinguished themselves from Americans who needed government aid and guidance, whom they viewed disproportionately as people of color; but that distinction is erased if the middle class also needs help. Second, representatives of the state–especially those who appear on TV–look at least somewhat more racially diverse than white communities do. At the very top of the state structure for eight years was a Black man.

I think these tensions are at the heart of current US politics. Focusing on them challenges both the “economic insecurity” and the “racial resentment” explanations of the 2016 election and its aftermath. A somewhat different premise is that lower-middle-class rural and exurban white Americans are now experiencing the state roughly as poor urban people are used to experiencing it. They need it but don’t like it, because it is always telling them they must change.

I’m not saying that most of them are responding appropriately or wisely, but we might want to dust off our tools for repairing the welfare state: make sure the government employs people who talk and look like those it affects, train them for sensitivity, organize those most affected by the state to push back, and try to shift to cash redistribution instead of invasive behavior-modification.

See also: why the white working class must organizeresponding to the deep story of Trump voterswhat do the Democrats offer the working class?

the weakening bond between millennials and the middle class

(New York City) In lieu of a substantive post here today, I’ll link to a post of mine on the Biden Forum (the blog of the Biden Foundation), entitled “the weakening bond between millennials and the middle class.”

I begin:

Americans born between 1985 and 2004, known as “millennials,” are numerous enough that their generation will dominate the electorate for decades to come. Political commentators often depict millennials as egalitarian, activist, and relatively well-educated, and thus poised to support a middle-class economic agenda. But that portrait describes just a minority of the generation. In truth, many millennials are far from reaching the middle class, are skeptical about government, and are disengaged as citizens.

At the Biden Forum, I reflect on what that may mean for politics and policy.

timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

Two years after organizing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin made the following arguments in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” (Commentary, 2/39, Feb. 1965). By calling these points “timely,” I don’t mean that they are necessarily correct; I mean that they are usefully provocative in our moment.

1. Racial justice is impossible without a new economy, because the current economy is too unequal and too limited to accommodate many newly enfranchised people. For example, there are too few decent jobs, and the people who have them will hold onto them unless the supply is expanded.

My quarrel with … moderates is that they do not even envision radical changes; their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.

2. The goal is not to confront racist attitudes (which would assume that, deep down, racists and hypocrites can have benign motives). The goal is to change institutions; attitudinal change will follow from that.

[Meanwhile, a second group] pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy. Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts–by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flaggelants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes–a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions–social, political, and economic institutions–which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let those institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

3. Radical change does not require violence.

[The] term revolutionary, as I have been using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and political structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.

4. But to change institutions does require power.

There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.

5. In a democracy, power requires numbers–indeed, a majority of the whole electorate.

A handful of Negroes, acting alone, could integrate a lunch counter by strategically locating their bodies so as directly to interrupt the operation of a proprietor’s will; their numbers were relatively unimportant. … But in arriving at a political decision, numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.

6. Coalition politics is inevitable, and it implies the right kind of compromise.

[The] effectiveness of a swing vote depends solely on ‘other’ votes. It derives its power from them. … Thus coalitions are inescapable, no matter how tentative they may be. … The issue is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program. Necessarily there will be compromise. But the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones. The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.

7. The coalition must include everyone with reasonably aligned interests so that they can marginalize their real opponents, the Donald Trumps of the day.

It has become fashionable in some no-win Negro circles to decry the white liberal as the main enemy (his hypocrisy is what sustains racism). [Thus] the Negro is left in majestic isolation, except for a tiny band of fervent white initiates. But the objective fact is that [Dixecrat Mississippi Senator James] Eastland and [GOP Presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater are the main enemies–they and opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.