Here’s What the Progressive Movement Should Stand For

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 3 2013 11:06 AM

What’s Left? (Part 2)

Our progressive—and popular—wish list.

Students clap after Kathy Duritza, a pre-school teacher at the North Hills KinderCare Learning Center, is surprised with the Early Childhood Educator Award and a USD 10,000 check from Knowledge Universe on September 26, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Preschool students in Pittsburgh

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

On Monday we set off a tiny firestorm by asking what is left for the progressive movement after the gay rights victory at the Supreme Court. We wanted to provoke a conversation: What should progressives be for, both to make the world a better place and win elections?

We have our own thoughts—you’re about to get a taste—but the object of the exercise is to ask for yours, too. Send them to us at progressiveideas2013@gmail.com.

We believe there should not, and does not have to be, a choice between being progressive and winning elections. This country once loved a challenge; it aspired to greatness (rather than just bragging about it), even—or especially—when it meant personal sacrifice. Progressivism is just the idea that working together, often with and through government, we can make the world a better place. It once attracted sensible people across party lines, as forward-thinking agendas will do. Franklin Roosevelt was progressive in this way, but so, too, was his Republican cousin Theodore. Harry Truman was definitely progressive, but so—shockingly so in some ways—could be Richard Nixon. The country stopped being progressive somewhere between the malaise of Jimmy Carter and the self-absorption of the Reagan era. 

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Today, it’s progressive to care for our children while enabling their parents to be productive members of the workforce. Child care—safe, socializing, affordable, educational child care—should be readily available to anyone who needs it. It doesn’t matter if it is public or private or a public-private partnership, tax credits, whatever.  People will support it because affordable child care is good business and good for families, too.

It’s progressive to educate kids to be productive members of society. Forget the old, tired, tendentious debate about whether it is a federal or state responsibility (it’s both), whether it’s money or teachers that matter (it’s both), whether minimum standards are necessary to achieve threshold levels of learning or squelch curricular creativity (it can be both). No one thinks our educational system is working; hammering the point that the United States is losing in the global economy because of it should attract support for fixing what is broken. Let’s dedicate the next four years to doing for education what Congress and the president did for health care.

It’s not just educating our kids, but our adults, too. Those Rust Belt jobs and others on the slow boat to some developing country aren’t coming back. The technological revolution is remarkably like the industrial revolution of a century earlier; the Progressive movement of the 1920s was born of the first revolution. Today’s progressives can and should reboot themselves by embracing the reality of this one. 

Indeed—and here is a radical idea for what it means to be progressive—it’s time to admit that four-year colleges are not for everyone. Remember vocational schools? The departed Rust Belt jobs that unions mourn weren’t sexy, but they provided a solid income, enough to raise a family in a real middle class. Today many young people need not a degree from a pricey institution but training in booming areas like health care and tech that will allow them to raise their own families. We need to train people for jobs that exist. Training and jobs are things people can agree upon.

Immigration is justifiably a cause progressives have stuck with. It’s a crackpot notion to think that by locking down our borders and checking identification every time someone parallel parks, we can keep jobs from fleeing overseas. We also should quickly and dramatically reform our red-tape-filled work and tax laws, so ordinary households can employ immigrants and see they get the Social Security they deserve.

Also progressive: getting off the bandwagon of trashing our liberties in the name of security, which has steamrolled once-cherished parts of our Constitution like the Fourth Amendment. The recent disclosures about the National Security Agency spying are only the latest in a long line, proving yet again what the Framers of our Constitution knew so well: that the people in power cannot be trusted to tell the truth or respect citizens’ fundamental liberties. Each revelation of government spying clearly hits a national nerve, but then we are scared back into submission by threats that are not revealed. Certainly, no one explains how the spying is really helping catch the bad guys. The Constitution is not a suicide pact; we should do what we need to protect our security. But it is progressive to insist that government officials be forced to prove it to us, not simply talk in super secret generalities.

It’s also time for the federal government to back off and let states choose to legalize marijuana. The Hundred Years War on Drugs is a failure and a national embarrassment. Fighting it has caused us to throw away other parts of the Bill of Rights while incarcerating or pinning criminal records on tens of millions of Americans. We’ve made a worthless weed so valuable that entire governments south of us cannot maintain basic civil order because of the terrorist tactics the profits to drug cabals fuel. And for what? The data suggests the country has spent a fortune, destroyed countless lives, and failed to reduce drug consumption. If some states want to, shall we say, experiment, they should be allowed to do so. It’s called federalism. It can be popular, too.

Relatedly, we need to reform a prison system that warehouses and often brutalizes a population of young men, filling the pockets of those who build them and securing the jobs of those who work in them. It makes no sense that in the land of the free, one of the things we do best is incarcerate people.

The gap between the rich and the poor in America grows every year. It’s a new Gilded Age in which Americans work harder than ever and earn less money. Progressivism followed the original Gilded Age. Occupy Wall Street was an inspiration, one that we regret didn’t go further. We’re all for the incentives provided by the capitalist system; they’ve made this country great. But we’re equally well aware of the perils of market dysfunction and rampant greed. Drastic, breathtaking inequality—inequality that even many wealthy today regret—has never been a prescription for long-term social success. Progressives should make the case for addressing this without looking to alienate the upper reaches of the income scale.

It’s also progressive to care for a planet. This is about committing to protecting scarce resources, even if it means slowing our rabid consumption. We should stick to a green strategy, rather than tucking tail and running as soon as Republican candidates argue that drilling for oil is what America does best. We need to do so much more than we are doing to protect an environment degrading before our eyes.

Progressives should understand that race is as fraught and complicated in America as it has ever been (notwithstanding our first African-American president and to some extent because of him). The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is wrong: We are not past race in America. Progressives can push for a color-blind future without blinding ourselves to the reality that we’re not even close yet.

Progressives also respect women by recognizing that violence against them in the military, in the media, in the workplace, and at school is pervasive and unacceptable. Before we condemn Africans and Egyptians for their treatment of women, we should ask ourselves why we can’t do better here. 

Finally, there’s voting. We’ve been headed in entirely the wrong direction. This includes state laws that make it too difficult to establish one’s right to vote, the disenfranchisement of too many people for possessing drugs, and an outdated machinery for running elections that leaves us constantly on the brink of confused outcomes. This is a democracy; voting should be our priority.

There is much more. This list is just a first cut. Although plenty of you “liked” our first piece about what’s left on Facebook, it made some people angry, including our friends. That’s OK, because we’re angry as well. We tried to make clear that gay rights was a worthy cause and that we admired the people in the trenches who’ve been fighting for the longtime left agenda. But the country needs a broader agenda to aspire to, one that can make people feel greater than themselves.

And we think elections can be won this way. Build it, and people will come.

Like we said, those are our thoughts, but we really are curious about yours. So over this holiday weekend, sit with your kids and friends, read the Declaration of Independence, and come up with your own ideas to send us. We’ll be back after the holiday to report in.

Barry Friedman is the Jacob D. Fuchsberg professor of law at New York University School of Law and the author of The Will of the People.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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