Adolph Reed, Jr., has a dispiriting essay in the current issue of Harper's on the "long, slow surrender of American liberals." He argues there is no longer a "dynamic left" and charts the decline of a forceful alternative progressive vision over the past half century.
Reed is right in many ways, of course. The late 20th century saw the worldwide end of socialism and, here in the United States, the de facto end of trade unionism, shifts that moved politics to the right. But Reed's piece also has a dated feel. Fifteen years ago, when Clinton was in office, I used to both read and write a fair number of words on the fall of liberalism. That was before I got caught up in the day-to-day work of, well, creating a new "dynamic left." Today, the left feels stronger than at any moment in my political consciousness, which began roughly with Ronald Reagan's election.
One piece of tangible evidence that there is a robust alternative left vision for America can be found in the annual budget plans of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. With 71 members, the CPC is the largest caucus within the Democratic Caucus, and so you can't dismiss it as a tiny fringe.
You also can't accuse it of "surrender," as its latest budget proposal makes clear. Here are the key big ideas that the budget proposes:
- Mounting a sweeping New Deal-style attack on unemployment, including expansive public works.
- Overhauling the tax code to raise taxes on the wealthy back to levels that were the norm in the early postwar period, including a 49 percent top bracket, a new financial speculation tax, and making it much harder for corporations to evade taxes on foreign profits.
- Enacting a public option and other changes that would begin a much-needed next phase of health reform that builds on and improves the Affordable Care Act.
- Putting a price on carbon to decrease the use of fossil fuels and incentivize a shift to renewables, while also whacking all subsidies to oil and gas companies.
- Reducing Pentagon spending.
- Providing funds to publicly finance election campaigns.
- Actually increasing Social Security benefits.
Oh, and the plan would also reduce the deficit more than many other budget plans out there.
It's worth noting that most of the ideas in the CPC budget have been extensively fleshed out elsewhere, by a progressive policy infrastructure that is far larger today than it was 15 years years ago. The plan is also rooted in an overarching critique of rising inequality that rank-and-file progressive activists can deliver on cue, compared to the 1990s when the left was more a collection of individual causes without a macro argument.
I know that good policy proposals don't add up to political power, and that historically the left has counted on powerful social movements to make big strides. But we're much further along than we were just 15 years ago. We have a vision. We have detailed ideas. We have a rising labor movement. And we have 71 members of Congress who are putting forth an agenda that is pretty damn bold.
One other thing: the left has also basically won the culture war, freeing up resources to focus on economic equity. That's huge right there.
People like Adolph Reed should stop writing obituaries of the left and start paying more attention to how big progressive ideas are being pushed into the mainstream of American politics.