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By Richard Kirsch, originally published on Next New Deal

The rise of a 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.

Read more about the next New Deal below the fold.

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 walk-outs 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.

The long-simmering pressure for raising the minimum wage is now becoming a national political force, with Democrats embracing the issue. The passage of a $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, outside of Seattle, will be a harbinger of more local actions to define a minimum wage in ways that make sense for people’s lives, not some political calculation about what’s possible.

In New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s reluctance to support paid sick days, siding with the business community, destroyed her support among the progressive base, paving the way for the election of Bill de Blasio, who rose both on his progressive platform and as the result of a decades-long base-building project in the city. These contests will continue to escalate, as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, where a Democratic mayor has twice vetoed a paid sick day ordinance approved by the City Council. As they do, Democrats who take the Quinn route will find themselves on the sidelines with her.

Cultural and demographic trends are encouraging, too. While the progressive politics of the growing numbers of the young, single women, and Latinos have garnered notice, another hopeful trend is that among non-college-educated whites, one of the most conservative groups in the country, the young are much more progressive than their older counterparts. Pope Francis has become an instant hero not just by easing back on his church’s focus on sex, but by directly challenging trickle-down economics.

In all this, history will look at President Obama as a transitional figure. He has pledged to make income inequality the defining issue of the day, but he still chooses a low-wage Amazon warehouse as a venue to address the issue. He still seeks to reconcile the destruction of the middle class with the rise of Wall Street.

Wall Street and K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all greasing the system while stoking resentment of “the takers” and people of color, in a nation with a deep “it’s up to me and my family alone” streak, remain huge obstacles to building an America that works for all. The change we are making will take time.

What gives me hope is that, for all its flaws, we still live in a nation where popular will can make change. And we have a history of creating change from below and then electing leaders who, like FDR, drilled into the deep well of hope that has given life to the best of America, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society.

Earlier this week, on the last day of 2013, I called up Mike Konczal and asked him to reflect on Edsall’s dark conclusion. Here’s what he told me: “I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote that piece two years ago. People are agitating, building new infrastructure. Issues like the minimum wage are gaining prominence. We’re seeing mobilizing among non-traditional workers like day-care workers.”

It is up to us to make history. Let’s get to work in 2014. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.


Originally posted to Daily Kos Economics on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 11:15 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Certainly, Progressive Democrats are beginning (6+ / 0-)

    to regain some leverage in the Party as consciousness about income inequality increases, decades-long attacks on organized labor are increasingly seen for what they are (an attack on the working class) and a new conversation about the value of the social safety net.

    The one thing, however, that is going to have to change is how Americans view taxes. The GOP has largely won this fight, and if we're going to expand, not contract our social contract with working Americans--especially the working poor--we're going to have to change our thinking and be willing to pay for it. Taxes must rise, especially on the wealthy. Moreover, we need to continue to drive into public consciousness the fact that while many employers offer low-wage jobs and no benefits, many hard working Americans rely on the government, not their employers for everything from food subsidies in the form of SNAP and on medicaid. If people realized that sub-standard wages are actually a way for employers to maximize their profits at the top by avoiding paying benefits and a living wage, the average American may begin to question the conventional wisdom which has been dominated in this area by the Republican Party and their allies since 1980.

    If we want nice things, we have to pay for them. I don't mind doing my part.

    Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

    by commonmass on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 11:29:51 AM PST

  •  So many Progressive hopes, so much Progressive (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Musial, No Exit, Woody

    agitation has come to naught when they crashed a Congress that is, at best, dysfunctional and, at worst, bought-and-paid-for corrupt.

    The American public is so naive when they overlook the disruptive influence of millions of dollars poured into campaign coffers by special interests. Special Interest Rule No. 1; money spent on political campaigns is an investment that must gain a return. That return is political influence that furthers special interest goals but works against the best interests of the American public. The most grievous example of this: by law Medicare is unable to negotiate  better drug prices. Outrageous! Our elected representatives flagrantly benefited drug companies at the expense of tax payers. And the affront continues because the prohibition against negotiation for better drug prices is still on the books.  

    Perhaps most painful of all is that there is an obvious solution to this governmental corruption. The solution is the public financing of political campaigns. Never would taxpayer money be spent in such a good cause. Public campaign financing would take power away from the special interests and their paid lackeys, the lobbyists, and restore it to the citizenry where it rightfully belongs.

    •  it would sure be a step in the right direction... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 05:33:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  local victories aggregate (0+ / 0-)

    nationally, as did FDR starting in NY, or the end of slavery starting with John Quincy Adams in Massachusetts. The gathering voter revolt as to slavery extension won an electoral mandate for Lincoln. FDR had a supermajority mandate. The new party system post Buckley v. Valeo is constrained from producing reformist supermajorities, given billionaire-funded sectional divisions and the big money veto. During an earlier era, issues leaders formed new parties quite often, the Whigs, the Free Soilers, some Dems became GOP to focus on what were basically non-partisan issues of national survival. Given the existence of the republic is now threatened, much as if it had been invaded, patriotism is an issue. The question is whether those active in solving the plethora of breakdowns caused by the electorate's enemies, in health care, education, housing, jobs, environment, poverty, etc. can unite as decisive swing voters on the single overriding issue of restoring democratic elections, by electing officials who will get money out of politics. Whether by this strategy or another, the failure to restore democracy in its original homeland would be an act of betrayal against the Constitution and those who defended it.

  •  Part of the problem is the two-party system. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    No Exit

    I would like to have a system where instead of voting for one person, we assign priorities to different candidates.   I can vote for a progressive candidate as my first choice, but then if that candidate is not among the top vote-getters, my vote can be reassigned to my second choice, or if my second choice is also eliminated, to my third or fourth choice.  

    With that system, we wouldn't have to start out settling for the compromise (or should I say compromised?) candidates that we have to support now.  I suspect that many times, an unlikely progressive candidate will come out on top, and mostly, the result would be a big improvement over what happens now.  

    •  there are so many simple improvements that could (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      deepeco, Woody, Mokurai

      be made to the system that vested interests resist… d and r.

      mandatory voting, weekend voting, mandatory vote by mail on the weekend voting…

      paid time off for voting, just to show those damn corporations their place in the scheme of things…

      public finance.

      equal time rules.

      shorter election cycle.

      impartial boards to draw districts.

      ranked choice voting.

      never mind all the repuglican voter purges and gerrymandering on top of an undemocratic senate.

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 05:42:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  You are talking about ranked-preference voting (0+ / 0-)

      which is widely considered to be too complicated. A simpler alternative is approval voting, where you get to vote for more than one person, but you don't put them in an order. There is a substantial literature on both, and both have been used in real elections.

      Ceterem censeo, gerrymandra delenda est

      by Mokurai on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 11:16:29 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  If we're going to talk about a NEW New Deal (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DaNang65, Ishmaelbychoice

    it's important that we have some idea about the legacy of the first one. Here's a list of projects of the New Deal.

    Form follows function -- Louis Sullivan

    by Spud1 on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 07:38:20 PM PST

  •  Increase employment protections (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ishmaelbychoice, unclebucky

    I spent a few hours today trying to help a man who was recently fired.

    For 22 years (yes, twenty-two) he worked in a large laundry.  Last month, he got sick.  He missed his 4:00 am shift but didn't call in until later that day.  Then, the following day, he also missed his 4:00 am shift and didn't call in until later that day.  He was fired.

    I had to explain to him that, not only can his employer do that, his employer could do much worse.  His supervisor could have fired him because he didn't laugh at her jokes.

    I also had to explain to him that, since he was fired for cause, he probably wouldn't get unemployment benefits.  And, if he got employment benefits, his employer could get those benefits reversed so that he would have to pay back what he already received.

    Unions are a bogeyman to many independents as well as conservatives, but simple common-sense protections like giving someone a little more protection for getting sick is not even a liberal idea.  

    Employers like this should be despised, but they are not, Americans tolerate them and their capricious acts because so many Americans feel as if a job is a gift.  A job is no more of a gift than my work is a gift to my employer. There are no gifts, just a contract.  But when one side holds all of the cards, the other side needs a little bit of help to ensure that it is not being taken advantage of.

    One man gathers what another man spills

    by John Chapman on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 07:57:46 PM PST

    •  I don't know all of the details (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      or where you are at, but when mr.u was fired from his job of 21 yrs "for cause" the people at Workforce Services were more than helpful. The employer claimed he did know his job. Workforce said "phooey". The employer appealed and lost. Workforce out and out told us that he was fired for being 57.

      mr. u worked prepress and had over 30 yrs of experience. He was escorted from the building and unable to gather his belongings. He was able to get them later by picking them up from the loading dock. It was shitty, but it worked out in the long run. mr.u got a job within 14 months and that was before 2009.

      Don't give up on the guy you are helping. He should press his case, he was sick and not negligent.

      And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County Down by the Green River where Paradise lay. Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away. John Prine

      by high uintas on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 08:09:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The next New Deal... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...SIX YEARS TOO LATE, no momentum, no political capital, no majorities...

    This should have happened six years ago. If it had, Obama could look forward to being the next new face on our currency. He dithered instead and left it up to Harry and Nancy. Absolutely the worst political mistake of my lifetime, and we are STILL PAYING FOR IT TODAY.

    [cue Obama extremist supporters with every imaginable excuse, not a one plausible or NEW]

    "I feel a lot safer already."--Emil Sitka

    by DaddyO on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 08:02:01 PM PST

    •  You may be right (0+ / 0-)

      but the important question is not "Where did we go wrong?" but rather "Where do we go from here?"

      Republicans proved in October that they are UNFIT TO GOVERN. Don't let the voter forget it. (-7.25, -6.21)

      by Tim DeLaney on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 08:34:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And over 40% of the stimulus was in tax breaks (0+ / 0-)

      I don't know about you, but my neighbors and I did not pool our tax money together to fix the sidewalk on our street.

      Nor have I heard about anyone that received a very large tax break using it for a public works project.

      What was never explained was the legacy that the New Deal projects left, and what they meant and still mean for our country.

      The legacy of the New Deal lasted several generations, and some projects are still being used today.

      The River Walk in San Antonio. The Lincoln Tunnel in NYC. The Oregon State House. Here in Maine, Camden Hills State Park (CCC); the Rockland Rec Center (WPA - where my kids play and we vote); Brunswick High School, which was replaced just a couple of years ago.

      A NEW New Deal could have the same lasting effect.

      Form follows function -- Louis Sullivan

      by Spud1 on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 04:54:35 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  suythr (0+ / 0-)

    my buddy's step-aunt makes $82/hr on the computer. She has been out of work for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $18010 just working on the computer for a few hours. read

  •  The one truth that always makes the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Teabaghead/Republiklan Party froth at the mouth, and make even more foolish statements than usual, is, simply,

    Ever hear one of the right-wingnuts constantly parroting the nonsense that, "The government can't/doesn't create jobs"?  When I do, I would like to bring them into town, for a look at the South Denver Post Office - which was built by WPA labor when I was a boy, watching from across the street in our café.  It's still there, serving a number of ZIP Codes, expanded over the years to now cover the whole block.

    Now, I realize the right-wingnuts would really rather believe it, sort of, "materialized" - in answer to the "prayers" of some Jackass-in-the-Pulpit, or whatever other silly and nonsensical confabulation - BUT!

    And, all over Colorado, and the whole of the Rocky Mountain west as well, the evidence remains, often as the best example of public works - and actual WORK to be found in the area.

    But, long ago, I ceased to expect sane and sensible responses to REALITY from anyone in the Teabaghead/Republiklan camp.  They're too caught up worshiping the celluloid fantasy of the senile old Hollywood has-been ham they managed to foist off on the people some decades ago; and waiting for the "lower people" to be grateful for such "moisture" as their "betters" might choose to pi$$ down upon them.

    A "new NEW DEAL"?  Why not?  America DID IT!  And America can DO IT AGAIN!

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