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Can Progressivism Offer a Politics of "Meaning?"

David Callahan
The left has gotten its mojo back in recent years, rediscovering its populist roots to take on Wall Street and -- through a revived labor movement and other attacks on inequality -- returning to its central project of creating a just economy. 
But something is still missing from the progressive pitch: A higher sense of meaning. And according to new research, that element is crucial for engaging the millennials, the largest generation in U.S. history. It's also important for lots of other Americans. 
Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker wrote in the New York Times this weekend that: 
Social psychologists define meaning as a cognitive and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact. . . . a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.
The most successful ideological movements tap into people's quest for meaning -- and, indeed, may emerge out of that quest. But a starting point for this broader agenda of purpose is to think beyond who gets what. To be sure, who gets what matters a whole lot -- especially at moments like today, when just a sliver of people at the top of are getting too much, both economically and politically. That's deeply screwed up, and attacking this imbalance can both fire people up and change their lives. 
But there are obvious limits to a who-gets-what agenda and a materialist focus on creating more economic security. Namely, it doesn't have much traction during good times and may not even have majority appeal in bad times. Polls over decades show that Americans don't tend to worry about economic inequality and fairness when the economy is strong. And recent experience shows how can it be hard to galvanize a majority for economic change even in bad times: for example, whipping up alarm about the unemployment crisis has been tough when that crisis mainly affects less educated workers; unemployment for college grads is, like, 3.5 percent as I have noted here. 
To the extent that a majority of Americans aren't experiencing insecurity, getting through with a security message can be tough. Another example: universal healthcare was such a heavy lift over decades -- and remains so -- because most Americans do have health insurance that they like, so why rock the boat.
Progressives have made big gains with a populist economic message in recent years. But what's going to happen to the movement if good times return in a few years and people forget all about how Wall Street blew up the economy?
Advancing a higher meaning is needed to create a sustainable progressive politics. And this is especially true when it comes to capturing the hearts of millennials. As Smith and Aaker write:
Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness. They report being less focused on financial success than they are on making a difference. A 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”
Over fifty years ago, JFK appealed to Americans to serve others and engage in a loftier civic enterprise. We hear some of that same language today from liberal leaders -- as helping the poor resurfaces as a major focus on the left -- but it's not enough. Progressives still need a sharper focus on advancing the common good, as Michael Tomasky famously wrote in 2005. 
If they can find it, they'll lock up the biggest generation in history, a cohort that already leans progressive in a big way.