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Toward a Popular Progressive Politics

Author(s): Theda Skocpol


Source: The Good Society, Vol. 7, No. 3 (FALL 1997), pp. 22-23
Published by: Penn State University Press
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^
SYMPOSIUM
^^^B
two-thirds of each house of
Congress."
A Balanced
Budget
Amendment would be a nice
complement
to
this,
but not a
necessity.
Of
greater
use,
would be a more
stringent
version of
my proposal
that would limit the federal
government
to 15
percent
of
any
house
hold's
income,
from all
types
of taxes. This would
prevent
our cre
ative
politicians
from
imposing
a national sales tax or a value-added
tax to
keep
Leviathan's stomach full. Leviathan would
try
to
print
money
and
preserve
its
corpus by
inflation,
but that has its natural
limits,
as the 1970s demonstrated.
Would Leviathan wither and die?
Unlikely,
but it would have to
cut off some
appendages
and set
priorities.
No more
phony plans
to
balance the
budget
in X number of
years,
with no real cuts in out
lays,
as our
Congress
now "balances" the
budget.
The central defect of American
democracy,
in sum, is that
Leviathan's
appetite
consumes too much of the lifetime and
produc
tivity
of
every
American. Its tentacles must be loosened and our
energies
released. We must feel that we
are,
once
again,
in control of
our lives. The
remedy:
head off Leviathan at the
trough by amending
the Sixteenth Amendment.
Ellen Frankel Paul is
Deputy
Director
of
the Social
Philosophy
and
Policy
Center and
Professor of
Political Science and
Philosophy
at
Bowling
Green State
University.
Endnotes
1. Life
expectancy
for Americans at birth in 1900 was 47
years;
in
1995,
it was 75.8
years.
2. That
is,
claims
by
states of the
right
to
nullify
federal laws.
3. The United States's first income tax was levied
during
the Civil
War and was in effect between 1862 and 1872. An income tax
passed
Congress
in 1894 but was overturned
by
a
Supreme
Court decision the fol
lowing year.
4. These calculations from the Tax
Foundation,
a
Washington,
D.C.
think
tank,
include the
family's
share of federal and state
corporate taxes,
which could be considered a debatable
inclusion,
under the
assumption
that all taxes are
ultimately
borne
by
individuals.
(The
median
family,
thus,
faced a tax burden of about
$22,000
on income of
slightly
over
$53,000.)
The U.S. Census Bureau's calculations of "Historical Income Tables:
Experimental
Measures"
massages
the
figures
in the
opposite direction,
and with a whole set of far more dubious
assumptions, trying
to show that
the median
family,
after taxes and
government
transfer
payments, hardly
loses
anything
in the
bargain.
Toward
a
Popular Progressive
Politics
Theda
Skocpol
Public life in America is now so dominated
by
the clash of nar
rowly organized, privileged groups
that we are
evolving
into a
"democracy"
in name
only.
The
problem
is not
simply
the role of
big money
in electoral
politics, although
that is a
key symptom.
More
broadly
construed,
we now have a
system
in which
centrally
organized
interest and
advocacy groups
clash
among
themselves in
national centers of
power?Washington
DC,
New York
City,
and a
few
major
centers in the West and Southwest?without much incen
tive to communicate with
anyone
else. Some of these interests are on
the
right,
and advocate tax cuts and
deregulation
for businesses and
the rich. Others are
supposedly
more toward the
left,
and advocate
narrow measures to
promote
elite careers in
government,
universi
ties,
and
non-profit organizations.
Left and
right
each have moral
causes, too,
advocated
by
staff-dominated
single-issue groups.
Apparently,
there is a wide
range
of difference of
opinion.
But no
one is
really speaking up
for the
security
of families of modest
means.
Over the
past
several
decades,
so much of the focus of the left has
been on issues of racial and
gender equity
that we
may
have lost
track of the
major
trend in this
period?toward separating
off the
most
privileged
Americans,
businesspeople
and
managers
and elite
professionals
alike?from
everyone else, including
most of the mid
dle class and
working
class. The
top
fifth of the
society
lives differ
ently
and relates
politically very differently
from
everyone
else. Not
just
the
poor,
but those in the
middle,
are
losing ground
economi
cally.
And
they
are
increasingly objects
of
manipulation by
media,
political,
and economic
elites,
who have no incentive to mobilize
broad
popular participation
or shared communication in
public
affairs.
What to do about it? As
Stanley Greenberg
and I
argue, along
with a dozen
others,
in our new book The New
Majority:
Toward a
Popular Progressive
Politics
(Yale University
Press,
September
1997),
the Democratic
Party
needs to be revitalized and reformed
from within
by popularly
oriented
progressives willing
to
champion
the needs of
working
families of
ordinary prospects. Building
on
unions, religious congregations,
and
community groups, progres
sives need to break out of cause or
identity politics
and find
ways
to
link
up
with broad alliances of
working-aged
adults,
especially par
22 The Good
Society
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^
DILEMMAS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
ents
striving
to raise children in an
increasingly unforgiving
econ
omy
and
individualistically
libertine culture.
Progressives
need to
realize that the defense of Social
Security
and Medicare as shared
security programs
is vital. The most
prominent policy
trend of our
time is the
pulling away
of elite
people
from
shared,
publicly
funded
programs;
and as soon as
programs get
defined as
"welfare,"
they
can be
gutted
even further.
Progressives
should
worry
less about
avant-guard
values,
and
speak up
for the value concerns of
ordinary
people?about fighting
crime,
protecting
children from
inappropri
ate cultural
messages,
and
improving
the
quality
of education. A
politics
that combines economic
justice
with middle-of-the-road
family
values is what
progressives
should
espouse.
And there must
be a concerted effort to build
majoritarian politics,
to find new
ways
to
engage
millions of
citizens,
even if the immediate
goals
of such
involvement seem
"square"
to
sophisticated
leftists.
As we
argue
in The New
Majority,
the revitalized union move
ment led
by
the AFL-CIO under John
Sweeney
is an
important part
of a new
majority popular politics,
within and
beyond
the electoral
arena. But
popular, progressive
Democrats also need to
engage
family-oriented community
and
religious groups
to build a network
of
engaged
citizens that extends
beyond
unionized industries and
communities.
The United States faces a fork in the road as the new
century
dawns. If conservatives
(in
both
major parties)
have their
way,
all of
our tax and social
policies
will soon be
reconfigured
to facilitate
elite
separation
from
everyone
else. We will have
private,
market
based
opulence
for the
top fifth,
and more and more
private
and
pub
lic
squalor
for
everyone
else. The
popular progressive
alternative to
this must be
boldly
and
comprehensively
conceived to win
majority
support. Progressives
must continue to
speak up
for minorities and
women,
of course. At the same
time,
they
should
pursue
a new
majority politics
centered on the shared values and needs of the vast
majority
of Americans who work for a
living
and strive to raise fam
ilies and build communities at the same time.
Theda
Skocpol
is a
Professor of
Government and
Sociology
at
Harvard
University
and is the author
0/Boomerang:
Health Reform
and the Turn
Against
Government
(W.W.
Norton
paperback
version,
1997)
and
Protecting
Soldiers and Mothers: The Political
Origins
of
Social
Policy
in the United States
(Harvard University
Press, 1992).
Race and the Limits of American
Democracy
at
Century's
End
Linda F. Williams
As the worldwide movement for
democracy
from Eastern
Europe
to
Asia, Africa,
and
beyond
has
gathered
steam over the last
decade,
some
high-level hand-wringing
about the health of
democracy
in its
most oft-cited
paragon,
the United
States,
has been
taking place.
Some
point
to the decline in the ethic of civic
responsibility
and the
winnowing
of civic association. Others wax
nostalgic
about a time
in which local
governments
were more vibrant and
powerful.
In
short,
both
popular
and academic discussions are awash with the
rhetoric of
"reinvigorating"
American
democracy.
Ironically, however,
fewer and fewer
analysts
concerned with
"renewing
and
deepening"
American
democracy
bother even to dis
cuss its most steadfast Achilles heel: the
enduring
crucible of race.
Apparently
in most
high-brow
discussions in the late
1990s,
racial
equality
is not one of the
political
and economic
requisites
for hav
ing
a serious democratic
experience
in the United States.
Yet,
as rec
ognized
at least since de
Tocqueville
wrote
Democracy
in
America,1
the attention one
gives
to race and its
treatment,
perhaps
more than
any
other
factor,
continues to
substantially
influence the
degree
to
which the United States should be considered to be a full democ
racy; just
if and when it became
one;
and how
long
it will remain
one. From the birth of the nation
onward,
America has seemed most
democratic if one avoids the
glare
of race and least democratic if
one
closely
examines it.
Although
the civil
rights
movement was
perhaps
the most ambi
tious and successful social movement of
twentieth-century
America,
today
its achievements seem
ambiguous.
Not
surprisingly,
the
gains
were uneven. For
example,
middle-class
people
of color benefited
more than did
poor
ones. African Americans
gained
more
jobs
in the
public
sector than did Latinos. Middle-class Cubans who fled Cuba
after the revolution and the Vietnamese elites who fled
Saigon
at the
end of the Vietnam War found an America far more
hospitable
than
that encountered
by
the Laotian and Cambodian
refugees
of the
same
period,
the later "Marielito"
immigrants
from
Cuba,
or the
Haitians,
all of whom arrived with
nothing
and discovered an
America
paved,
not with
gold,
but with concrete.2 Yet the
gains
since
the 1960s made a dent in
occupational
and educational
segregation
and advanced democratic
rights
across the board.
Federally sponsored
remedies aimed at
integrating public
schools
and universities and
expanding
access to economic
opportunity
and
political representation
have been
steadily eroding
since at least the
1980s. The
deeply
racialized content of
public
debates about social
welfare and criminal
justice
reveals the failure of conventional
poli
tics to
bring
blacks and whites
together
in a
truly meaningful
sense.
Public
figures
of all
stripes
are
flattening
the historical
landscape
as
they
rail
against
"reverse
discrimination," welfare,
and "law and
order." Political leaders cloak themselves in the
language
of "racial
Volume
7, Number 3 23
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