Two of my favorite writers on legal subjects, Dahlia Lithwick and Barry Friedman, wrote a piece for Slate earlier this week wondering if the progressive agenda hasn't been exhausted by the victories on same-sex marriage. "While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights," they argue, "they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed." I share their sense of frustration, but I interpret the landscape differently. To me, the problem isn't the lack of a robust progressive agenda. The problem is that progressives generally lack power. Last week, I saw strong defenses of progressive values at every level of politics—from ordinary citizens to the highest offices in the country. In a brief window of time, you saw heroic opposition to barbaric attacks on the welfare state in North Carolina and reproductive freedom in Texas, President Obama's climate change speech, and eloquent defenses of equality by Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. The problem, of course, is that much of this came in the wake of defeat; even the stirring victory in Texas is likely delaying the inevitable.
Still, an extensive progressive agenda is out there. It's worth trying to define some of the most important issues that the American "left," broadly construed, should be trying to address. I do not claim originality or an exhaustive list; my intent is to generate discussion and thought about what problems to focus on and how to move forward.
Any discussion of the current progressive agenda must start with the issue that dominated Obama's first term: health care. I have no patience for progressives who deny that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a major achievement. Nonetheless, passage of the act did not end health care as an issue. Implementing the ACA successfully will take a great deal of progressive energy. In particular—thanks to a reactionary Supreme Court—implementing the ACA's crucial expansion of Medicaid nationwide will be a major struggle in many states. The offer of federal money will put progressives in the happily unusual position of having leverage in trying to implement health-care policy. But this is just one source of leverage; it doesn't make conservative states taking the Medicaid money an inevitable outcome. Progressives will have to put pressure on state officials.
Beyond implementing the ACA, progressives also need to stay focused on the fact that while the law is a major improvement over the status quo, it still leaves the United States with a disgracefully inequitable and inefficient health-care system. Compared with other liberal democracies, the United States will still be spending far more to cover fewer people with worse results (and more financial burdens and risk on individuals). While progressives should never give up, it is admittedly difficult to imagine a circumstance in which Canadian-style single payer would be politically viable at the national level—with the exception-that-proves-the-rule of abolishing slavery, major social reform in the United States has generally involved buying off entrenched interests. But at a minimum, a Swiss-style model based on non-profit insurance seems like a viable long-term goal. Progressives need to see the ACA as the beginning, not the end.
Mass Incarceration and the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs
Ludicrously high American rates of incarceration are a civil-rights scandal. Whether or not one agrees with Michelle Alexander's analogy of mass incarceration to Jim Crow, there can be no disputing Alexander's argument that mass incarceration has been particularly devastating to racial minorities. Reducing many types of sentences and decriminalizing many nonviolent drug offenses altogether should be major progressive goals. Some of the recent successes on marijuana policy at the state level will hopefully spread to other states and put pressure on the federal government. There's at least some room for hoping for an alliance with conservatives on this issue.
Last week's ruling decimating the Voting Rights Act was a powerful reminder of the Republican Party's commitment to voter suppression—and a decision that made it easier for some states to do just that. But progressives have shown the capacity to respond with the best available tool: voters themselves. Voter-suppression laws will make this harder but not impossible, and the backlash should facilitate voter registration efforts. At the congressional level, Senate Democrats should try to pass an updated Voting Rights Act with a new preclearance formula and dare Senate Republicans to mount a Strom Thurmond-style filibuster against it, force the House to vote against it, or force the Supreme Court to strike it down. Getting a new VRA through a case brought to this Supreme Court intact will be enormously difficult, but at a minimum Republicans have to be forced to pay a political price if they stop it. Fatalism is exactly the wrong approach here.
President Obama's speech was a good start, and properly focused on what can be done with existing regulations (given than legislation combating climate change is a non-starter with denialist Republicans controlling the House). But Obama not only needs to implement new (and good) regulations before leaving office, he needs to get more aggressive about appointing federal judges who won't limit the proper authority of the federal government. And when the legislative context changes, a strong push for action against climate change is immensely important, unless you like the idea of most of Miami being underwater.
The draconian regulations that were filibustered to death in Texas last week are just the tip of the anti-choice iceberg. The Supreme Court's Casey decision gave states broad discretion to regulate abortion, and state after state (not all of them in the South) have used this leeway to make abortion increasingly inaccessible for many women. Fighting and repealing these restrictions to the greatest extent possible is crucial. Moreover, with three of the five pro-Roe justices unlikely to be on the Supreme Court ten years from now, even the constitutional protection on bans of pre-viability abortions isn't etched in stone. Expanding the ability of American women to control their reproductive health (with access not only to safe, legal abortion but to contraception and decent, affordable medical care) is an ongoing struggle that should remain a high priority.
Labor and Economic Inequality
In a sense, most of the above issues are just a subset of a larger issue—increasing inequality in America. Not only has this meant appalling levels of poverty, but it has created a political economy that is self-reinforcing, with the increasingly wealthier 1 percent making it even harder to address issues affecting the poor. In this context, the argument that labor is some kind of anachronism couldn't be more wrong. Labor organizing, and legal protections for labor, need to be a much higher priority than they've been. The decreasing power of labor has both depressed wages for American workers (while those of the wealthiest skyrocketed) and made it harder to solve other social problems.
Last Wednesday's Supreme Court opinions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and denying the standing of California's same-sex marriage ban are a reason to celebrate. But, the decisions are cause for a nice mid-priced New York Riesling more than a bottle of Dom Pérignon. We shouldn't forget that, as of now, most Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is illegal. The strong trend in public opinion favoring same-sex marriage is important, but it doesn't mean that a national right to same-sex marriage is at all inevitable—many transformations that seem inevitable turn out to be anything but. Chief Justice Warren Burger thought that the Supreme Court had permanently ended the American death penalty by striking down existing statues in 1972; by 1976, a majority of states had them again, with Supreme Court approval. American politics favors inertia—not only can many states hold out against trends in national opinion, but public-opinion majorities don't guarantee legislative results. The Republican fundraisers who pressured marginal Republican legislators to pass same-sex marriage legislation in New York aren't going to be similarly pressuring lawmakers in Utah and Alabama anytime soon. The Supreme Court might create a national right to same-sex marriage, but it might not (it has, after all, already passed on one opportunity to do so). Until it does, we should be clear that extending same-sex marriage rights is going to be a long struggle that will experience a lot of setbacks. Liberals who live in more progressive jurisdictions shouldn't be complacent about the greater number of Americans whose rights go unrecognized. To paraphrase the sportswriter Bill James, if a national right to same-sex marriage comes, it will be not as day follows night but as a marriage follows a wedding. A lot of work is ahead, and nothing is inevitable.
And, of course, there are any number of issues (some of them, admittedly, where there's less of a consensus among the American left) I could have also mentioned: the national-security state, day care, immigration reform, gun control, and many more. There are many important ongoing struggles and problems that need to be solved, and there's a good agenda being advanced by many citizens and lawmakers to address them; we just have to do what we can to implement them and make them work.
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