The rise of new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.
Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece in late December by saying, “Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.”
Edsall’s bleak prognosis raises the biggest question facing not only progressives, but the future of our democracy: Is the political system in the United States capable of responding to the escalating crisis of stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, dissolving economic opportunity, and disappearing hopes of living anything that resembles the American Dream?
It is a question I ask myself every day. But I reach a different conclusion than Edsall, because for all his powers of observation, he misses the role that people play in changing history. I see a growing movement of Americans organized by progressives who are not waiting for the social order to break, but are instead forcing the political system to respond.
Edsall reaches his conclusion by way of two commentators, my colleague Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute and Harvard economist Ben Friedman. Konczal’s analysis of the quandary is cogent, as he provided “a two part description of the liberal state” in a 2011 post:
#1 you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power, and #2 you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks… I think it is safe to say that liberals have abandoned #1 and doubled-down on #2… Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.
Friedman’s contribution is to point out, as Edsall summarizes, that “during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving.” Friedman says that when people are squeezed economically, rather than identifying with those still worse off, they “enter a period of retreat and retrenchment.” That is certainly what we are seeing now, with the government cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a much larger swath of the safety net in a shrinking budget.
On the other hand, Friedman says times of broadly-shared prosperity encourage “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”
When we look at the big periods of progressive change in the 20th century through this lens, we can ask, are we more similar to the soaring post-World War II middle class that led to the Great Society, or to the wrecked economy that led to the New Deal? After the Great Recession, that’s a no-brainer.
So is Edsall then correct in concluding that the only way to get to the next New Deal is waiting for another disintegration of the economy like we saw after the Great Depression? Or is even that a misreading of New Deal history, in which decades of building a movement of working people laid the groundwork for the New Deal laws that established the right to organize unions, fair labor standards like a minimum wage, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation?
If we have to wait, we’re in big trouble, because as we saw in 2008, we are much less likely to see another collapse like the Great Depression thanks to the progressive accomplishments of the 20th century. The aggressive use of the Federal Reserve and banking regulations prevented a total collapse of the financial system. The safety net – food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – and the social insurance programs of unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare prevented widespread destitution. These measures allowed us to have a Great Recession rather than a second Great Depression.
But the Great Recession also deepened the three-decade-long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages, eroding benefits, and the rising costs of gateways to opportunity. As a result, we are seeing an escalation of the path to the next New Deal: organizing people to demand that we create a 21st century economy of broadly-shared opportunity and prosperity.
The past year saw the explosion of organized fast-food workers, from a handful of community-supported walkouts demanding higher wages a year ago to actions involving thousands of workers and supporters in some 130 cities in December. The growing movement earned national as well as local news coverage.
Less visible, but deeper, is the emergence of new forms of worker organizing, taking place largely outside of traditional unions and the national labor law, known generally as the workers’ center movement. Domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Union, have won passage of laws giving them new labor protections in California and New York. Tomato pickers in Florida, under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have won higher wages by building consumer pressure against the supermarkets and restaurant chains that buy the crops they pick. Immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, at workers’ centers that are part of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, have resisted wage theft and won basic protections in day labor and construction. The examples go on and are analogous to the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.