Back from the Dead: Neoprogressivism in the '90s

These days,
you can hear Republican members of Congress touting how much they have spent on
programs for children, bragging about how pro-environment they are, recounting
their efforts to buck the party leadership and pass a higher minimum wage. The
party line, which once emphasized fierce loyalty to the impending conservative
revolution, now tacitly encourages avoiding any party line. Many members who
voted loyally with Newt Gingrich boast about how independent of the speaker they
have been all along. To have at least one vote against a Contract with America
item was once a sign of disloyalty in Republican circles. Now, it's an electoral
asset.

What a difference a year makes. In 1995 when I was finishing a book called
They Only Look Dead, the title was an obvious reference to liberals
being less moribund than they seemed. My conservative friends scoffed at its
prediction of a new Progressive Era. Now, several of them have remarked
mournfully that the title might be taken as a reference to them and to
their people. The current vogue is to be associated with moderation if
not with liberalism. It is to tout compassion more than spending restraint and
to speak of making government work rather than dismantling it or shutting it
down. When Bob Dole said goodbye to the Senate, he mentioned Hubert Humphrey and
George McGovern with some fondness. He didn't mention Newt Gingrich or Dick
Armey at all—not, one suspects, just because they aren't senators.

What's striking about the current period is not just that congressional
Republicans seem to be in some electoral trouble, or that Bob Dole has run—let's
be charitable—a less-than-perfect campaign. It's the extent to which the
conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. Consider:

  • Through at least the middle of 1995, it was asserted universally that
    the most striking characteristics of the Republican Party and the conservative
    movement were discipline and unity. In the summer of 1996, what is remarked upon
    most is how divided Republicans are on taxes, abortion, and all manner of other
    issues, and how chaotic their movement has become.

  • In 1995, the Republicans were widely praised for their "boldness,"
    "honesty," and, at times, "brilliance" in "tackling
    entitlements" and pushing for a balanced budget. In 1996, just about
    everybody says they "went too far" or "were too extreme" or "reached
    beyond their mandate." Even Bill Kristol, the conservative
    intellectual-strategist-editor, has argued that it was foolish for the
    Republicans, who made absolutely no effort in the 1994 campaign to lay a basis
    for Medicare cuts, to find themselves a year later making Medicare the central
    issue in American politics.

  • In 1995, government—described routinely as "too big" or "too
    intrusive"—was said to be the primary (sometimes the only) source of
    public disaffection with politics and politicians. Now (thanks in part, it must
    be said, to Pat Buchanan's primary campaign), public disgruntlement is far more
    likely to be explained by economic unease and the reaction to "downsizings."

  • In 1995, the Republicans had near total control of the public debate about
    environmental and safety regulation. The question discussed routinely was not
    whether to deregulate, but how far deregulation would and should go. Now, that
    project is in jeopardy because the new conventional wisdom has discovered that
    environmental and safety regulations are popular, with support from strong and
    reactivated constituencies. A Republican explained this better than any
    Democrat. Referring to the public's desire for aggressive airline safety
    inspection after the ValuJet crash, Senator Bill Cohen of Maine remarked: "Government
    is the enemy until you need a friend."

You could conclude from all this that you should never take the conventional
political wisdom too seriously—or that you should wait for the result of at
least two elections before doing so. Why take the conventional wisdom of the
summer of 1996 as any more accurate than its earlier incarnation? For all I
know, the conventional wisdom will have changed again by the time you read this.



AN ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION

The alternative view is more compelling: that the conventional wisdom of
1995 was wrong from the start, as some in this magazine suggested at the time.
[See Paul Starr, "Who Owns the Future?"
TAP, Spring 1995, and Robert Kuttner, "Up
from 1994
," TAP, Winter 1995.] Disaffection with the Democrats
rested at least as much on what they failed to do (for example, pass a health
care bill) as on what they did. The voters who turned on the Democrats were not
angry about such internecine arguments as whether Clinton had run as a "new"
Democrat and governed as an "old" one. They were not ideologues. As
Ruy Teixeira has pointed out in his numerous writings on the subject [for
example, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, "Who
Deserted the Democrats in 1994?
" TAP, Fall 1995], the Democrats
lost most heavily among white voters who lacked college degrees. These were the
voters who made the smallest economic gains, or no gains at all, in the early
stages of the Clinton recovery. There is some evidence from polling by Stanley
Greenberg that nonvoters in 1994 were more likely than voters to be
disillusioned former Clinton supporters, many of them lower-middle-income
people. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may also have
been a modest drag on the 1994 Democratic vote, decreasing enthusiasm within the
party's union base while gaining Democrats no measurable ground among the
upper-middle-class voters sympathetic to free trade.

This is not to reduce the Republicans' victory to economics alone. It's
quite clear that the Republicans were helped by the activism of Christian
conservatives, by social and "values" issues, and especially by the
intense feelings against the assault weapons ban among gun owners. The
Republicans were also helped by the deep personal hostility to Clinton in
conservative quarters (these voters wanted to vote Republican early and often)
that was unmatched by any sort of devotion to him among moderates or liberals.

But
this did not make 1994 an ideological verdict. On the contrary, this election
was like so many other American elections, especially those characterized by "throw
the bums out" sweeps. The Republican sweep was built on "anti"
voting, not on the endorsement of a particular agenda, notably the Contract with
America whose provisions were mysterious to most voters and barely remarked upon
by most candidates. If the contract had any important electoral effect, it was
as a critique of Democrats who had failed to keep their promises to reform
health care, welfare, the political system, and job training. The Republicans
were saying that their promises were real, that they, like Ross Perot, would get
under the hood. Paradoxically, then, the implicit message of the explicitly
antigovernment contract was that Republicans would preside over an energetic
government oriented to action.

The election was also a powerful commentary on the political agony involved
in deficit reduction. If there was one promise Clinton did keep—and spent a
lot of political treasure in keeping—it was his promise to cut the deficit
in half. Clinton did so mostly by restoring a progressive edge to the tax code
and by holding down spending increases, even in areas where he had promised bold
action. Deficit reduction meant that there were few new programs that Democrats
could tout to voters who wondered what the federal government did with all their
money. (Welfare reform was one early casualty of the deficit fight: Spending
designated for the training and education of welfare recipients was slashed at
the last minute before Clinton presented his first budget.) Clinton and the
Democrats gained almost nothing politically for their efforts. Deficit hawks
were not won over; they repeatedly assailed Clinton for doing too little about
the deficit. Voters only noticed that deficits had not been eliminated. For all
the pain involved, the Republicans could still use the balanced budget issue for
their own purposes—and denounce Democratic tax increases at the same time.



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THREE REPUBLICAN MISTAKES—AND THEN A FOURTH

Thus did Republicans win their great victory. Almost immediately, they made
three big mistakes. First, they assumed that they could govern the country from
Congress. As a result, they publicly took responsibility for all that went on in
Washington. Newt Gingrich supplanted Bill Clinton as the city's most important
news maker. President Clinton was now, in the famous word, irrelevant. Second,
the Republicans assumed that Clinton would roll over and let them do what they
wanted, on the theory that doing so was in Clinton's interest and that he would,
in any event, lack the will to fight. Third, the Republicans assumed they had a
broad and durable popular mandate for a strongly antigovernment program. In
particular, they assumed that government was now so unpopular in the abstract
that it would be possible to roll back regulation and to make substantial cuts
in the growth even of popular programs such as Medicare. They also assumed that
the antigovernment mood would save them from paying a heavy price for shutting
the federal government down, if a shutdown was what it took to bend Clinton to
their will.

In retrospect, it's easy to see some of the tactical inconsistencies within
this approach. For example, with Republicans asserting publicly that they now
controlled Washington, it was almost inevitable that they, not Clinton, would be
blamed for the shutdown. There was, moreover, a profound inconsistency lurking
in the standard Republican arguments about Clinton. The Republicans were
asserting that Clinton was unprincipled, uninterested in anything but his own
re-election, easily rolled. At the very same time, they were preparing to argue
that if the government shut down, the collapse should be blamed on Clinton's
intransigence. It may be theoretically possible for someone to be unprincipled
and intransigent at the same time. But making the two arguments at once created
a certain cognitive dissonance. It proved a hard sell.

The Republicans also underestimated Clinton's ability to work his way toward
a successful strategy. A good case can be made that Clinton got to a politically
brilliant endgame almost by accident. The administration itself was fiercely
divided over how to deal with the Republican Congress. Clinton, by the account
of many in his administration, was uncertain. In retrospect, Clinton did the
politically clever thing by accepting one half of the strategy offered him by
Dick Morris, his friend and a one-time consultant to Republicans, and rejecting
the other half.

Morris
argued, against liberals and congressional Democrats, that Clinton needed to
accept the basic Repub lican premise: The President could not be seen as
blocking a balanced budget. But he could profit politically from standing
against the Republicans' way of reaching balance, especially if the President
made the defense of popular programs—Medicare, Medicaid, environmental
protection, and education—the cornerstone of his position.

This turned out to be good strategy because the theoretical principle of a
balanced budget was broadly popular with the electorate. Large deficits had
become the symbol not of a conscious federal policy (something many editors of
this magazine might defend), but rather of a federal establishment gone out of
control. Liberals inside the administration also came to realize that by setting
the goal of a balanced budget in seven years, Republicans had given the
administration ample room to push the most severe cuts out well beyond the life
of a second Clinton administration. The Republicans could reasonably attack the
administration for proposing a "fake" balanced budget. But their
authority to do so was undercut by their own budgets, which also included deep
cuts in the "out years."

Still, Morris turned out to be wrong in his other calculation: that the
President's political interest lay in reaching agreement with the Republican
Congress. Even here, Morris helped the President by sending out signals to his
Republican friends that Clinton wanted a deal. This was a disinformation
campaign without the disinformation—Morris believed he was accurately
representing the President's position, and Clinton seemed to believe this for a
time. But as the Republicans suffered under Democratic assaults, especially on
Medicare, Clinton concluded that the reaction against an increasingly unpopular
Republican congressional leadership would be the primary instrument of his
resurrection. This militated against any deal. The Republicans could not be cast
as "extremists" if Clinton was willing to make a deal with them. And
the country would not hanker for the protection of Clinton's veto pen if the "extremist"
label didn't stick.

Here, the Republicans made their fourth big mistake. Clinton's own proposals
gave them ample room to strike a budget deal that would have taken large chunks
out of federal spending, including Medicare. Republicans would not have paid the
Medicare price, yet they could still have claimed an abstract desire to cut more
than Clinton would allow. The President's effectiveness in confronting the
Republicans meant that the "intransigent" charge no longer seemed so
silly. And in reaching agreement with Clinton, the Republicans would have split
the Democratic Party. It is hard to imagine a majority of the congressional
party, especially Democrats in the House, going along with a deal blessed by
Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.

Maybe it's a tribute to the Republicans' fierce philosophical consistency
that they missed this chance. Whatever the reason, they did. They held their
ground, their poll ratings collapsed, and Clinton dug in.



THE BIG MISCALCULATION

But something more was going on than tactical politics. The Republicans'
budget proposals forced the country to come to terms with what it really thought
about sharp cuts in the deficit. Not deficit reduction in the abstract. Not "waste,
fraud, and abuse." Not whether it would be nicer to pay lower taxes. Not
whether "the era of big government" was over. If you wanted to end the
deficit and also wanted rather substantial tax cuts—the political balancing
act between Republican supply-siders and deficit hawks required both—you
could not get there without cutting very popular programs, especially the health
programs. It is possible to accuse the congressional Democrats of some
demagoguery on Medicare (about proportional to Republican demagoguery on the
Clinton health care proposal) and still conclude that the country knew exactly
what it was doing in moving against the Republicans' budget design. American
voters may not like government or particularly trust it, but (and this is the
big fact the Republicans missed) neither do they fully like or trust what the
market produces when it is unconstrained by government. The anxieties of the
elderly and their children over the effects on health care from the withdrawal
of fistfuls of future federal dollars were not the invention of any propaganda
campaign. The Republicans did not answer these worries effectively because they
simply couldn't make the case that the big changes they proposed in Medicare
were necessary to "saving" the program. They also wrongly calculated
that generic opposition to "spending," "taxes," and "entitlements"
would push them over the top. And so they lost the budget fight.

The
final lesson about the Republican revolution came during this year's Republican
primaries. If the basic problem facing the country was, as the Republicans
claimed, too much government, then the Republican congressional program should
have been wildly popular this year, especially among Republican voters. But
during the primaries, the two candidates who dominated the argument were Pat
Buchanan, who lashed out at "corporate butchers" for mass layoffs, and
Steve Forbes, who pushed a flat tax to promote higher growth rates. On paper,
Buchanan and Forbes were the most improbable presidents in the Republican field.
Yet they became Dole's main adversaries—and beat him in several primaries—by
campaigning against Washington and Congress almost as if both were still in
Democratic hands. For Forbes and Buchanan, the central issue before the voters
was not government as such, but the state of the economy. For Buchanan, the
election was about the decline of middle-class jobs. For Forbes, the election
was about achieving higher growth rates. Dole won the nomination, but Buchanan
and Forbes defined the debate.



A PROGRESSIVE ERA?

The lesson of the battles of 1995 and the early primaries of 1996 was
essentially the same as the lesson of both 1992 and 1994: that a large and
restive segment of the electorate, the Anxious Middle, is indeed unhappy about
the state of the country and, yes, about government. But its unease runs deeper
and its concerns are more subtle than the standard anti-Washington,
antigovernment sloganeering would suggest. Public anger is rooted in distinct
but overlapping crises involving the economy, politics, and morality.

The economic crisis needs little comment: It is created by the transition to
a new economy, the ferocity of global economic competition, and the impact of
this competition on wages, working hours, and health and pension coverage. This,
in turn, creates a political crisis. The global economy substantially reduces
the autonomy of national governments and makes it harder for politicians to keep
their promises on such basic matters as levels of economic growth, taxation, and
regulation. In the postwar period, the industrial countries all pursued, under
various names, what Walter Russell Mead has called the "social democratic
bargain." Economic decisions remained in private hands, but governments
used the tools at their disposal to spread prosperity more broadly, to create
social benefits, to protect workers' rights, and to take the edge off economic
downturns. The current political crisis is the crisis of this social democratic
bargain.

Finally, there is the moral crisis, which liberals have been reluctant to
address. In the United States especially, conservatives attribute the moral
crisis to the counterculture of the 1960s. As Newt Gingrich put it, "We
have to say to the counterculture: Nice try, you failed, you're wrong."
Voters do see the moral crisis at least in part in the terms set by
conservatives: in high crime rates, high levels of family breakdown, the poverty
of Hollywood values, a coarsening of the culture. But the moral crisis is also
experienced as a problem for those who, as Clinton has noted repeatedly, "work
hard and play by the rules." In the new economy, it's not clear what the
rules are. It's not obvious that hard work is rewarded or that loyalty to
employers is ever requited. Conservatives have profited from talking about the
first set of problems without necessarily offering any solutions. Progressives
have only begun to grapple unapologetically with the fact that the moral crisis
is as real and tangible to voters as paycheck politics—and that their task
is to demonstrate the links between the two without denying the importance of
either.

It is this end-of-century intimation of a great transition that undergirds
the increasingly widespread view that the United States is ripe for a new
Progressive Era. "There is," wrote the political scientist Hugh Heclo,
"something familiar in the Progressives' deep worry that, despite living in
an era of relative peace and prosperity, something had gone seriously wrong in
the internal life of the nation."

The word "neoprogressivism" has arisen as a 1990s counterpoint to
the "neoconservatism" of the 1970s. If the neoconservatives reacted to
the failures—both real and perceived—of 1960s politics, the
neoprogressives are the product of failures from 1980 onward. Virtually all
neoprogressives share an allergy to an endless reprise of either 1960s cultural
politics or 1980s antigovernment politics—or worse, a continuing battle
between the two. This leads to two other unifying insights: that the solutions
to the current crises will require active government; but that the social and
economic disruptions of this era also require a strengthening of civic and
community institutions outside of government.

The neoprogressives cover a wide spectrum. Both the Democratic Leadership
Council and the pro-labor forces at the new Campaign for America's Future
recently issued manifestos pointing to the powerful parallels between this
period and the reformist wave that began with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow
Wilson (pushed along, it might be added, by Eugene Debs). They agree that the
internationalization of the economy demands new approaches to maintaining
middle-class living standards, achieving higher growth rates, and preventing
large increases in inequality that would undermine the social bargains on which
democracy rests. Both documents also speak of the declining loyalty of employer
to employee, of the impact of the new economy on families, of the need for a
revival of the sorts of international economic institutions that did so much to
spur expansion after the Second World War. President Clinton himself now speaks
regularly of the early Progressives and of how their task of writing new rules
for a radically new period is now our own.



THE NEOPROGRESSIVE CHALLENGE

But there is far more agreement on the need for a progressive departure than
on the contents of a new progressive program. This uncertainty is reflected in
the caution of the congressional Democrats' "Families First" agenda
and in the exquisite care taken by the writers of this year's Democratic
platform to avoid any controversial commitments or challenging propositions.
(The most controversial line in the platform, a repetition of Clinton's
declaration that "the era of big government is over," is less a
challenge than a rhetorical capitulation to the other side.)

There are, moreover, large differences in how the various factions traveling
under a neoprogressive banner describe the challenges of the next decade. The
Democratic Leadership Council manifesto devotes much energy to criticizing
bureaucracy and other "old" approaches to solving social problems. It
is critical of "bureaucratic" solutions and, implicitly, of public
employee unions and their resistance to change. The America's Future manifesto
concentrates much of its fire on the behavior of corporations. It is implicitly
critical of moderate progressives for failing to face up to the ways in which
the social problems the moderates describe are exacerbated by the structure of
the economy. These broad differences point to large arguments to come.

But will these battles cripple the effort to revive the progressive
tradition? They need not, as long as the partisans of various visions admit that
they agree on certain propositions—in polemical circumstances, admitting
agreement can be the hardest thing of all—and find their way toward a
plausible program for the near term. But in the long run, some of the
differences need to be resolved, lest the neoprogressive movement deliver
nothing more than rhetoric.

For
example, neoprogressives of all stripes argue for higher growth rates. This is
not a trivial achievement. Some friends of the environment were once given to
making arguments against growth, on the grounds that continued economic
expansion would threaten ecological balances. Now, many environmentalists argue
that saving the environment may actually require decent levels of growth,
especially in Third World nations. The move within the environmental community
toward the idea of "sustainable growth" is more than a rhetorical
shift. It reflects an understanding that growth is a moral necessity and a
powerful spur to social justice.

But what spurs growth? The Keynesian calls for a less phobic policy toward
inflation from the Federal Reserve or an explicit acceptance of moderate federal
deficits (or both) are now controversial. But they could become less so over
time. On inflation, the evidence will matter. If the continued downward pressure
on wages keeps inflation at bay, the case for lower interest rates to promote
more robust growth will be overwhelming.

On the deficit, the federal government could discover that state governments
have had it right all along: It's reasonable to go into debt for long-term
purposes—the construction of roads, schools, environmental facilities, and
the like—while keeping the books in balance for short-term expenditures.
Thus the arguments from many quarters (including Progressive Policy Institute
Vice President Robert Shapiro) for the division of federal spending into two
budgets: a consumption budget, which should stay in balance except in times of
deep recession, and an investment budget, which can reasonably be financed by
long-term debt.

Neoprogressives agree on the need to invest more heavily in job training
programs, more aggressive school-to-work programs (to create closer links
between high schools and the job market), and other efforts to move workers to
better-paying parts of the economy. On many of these ideas, neoprogressives will
find strong allies in a business community that is often strapped for educated
and skilled workers. This is one area where voucher approaches are promising. In
all likelihood, voucher programs would have the beneficial effect of
strengthening the country's system of community colleges, since evidence from
the past suggests that they are likely to produce the best training and job
transition programs.

But designing job training programs that work is easier said than done. And
with the global labor market creating fierce competition even among the most
skilled members of the workforce, can job training ever be enough? Training and
education are popular because they make intuitive sense, but also because they
raise no large questions about the structure of the economy. Far more
controversial will be the debate over the role and future of the labor movement,
and the debate over how to represent the interests of employees in new economic
circumstances. It is easy to agree that old models of representation need to be
reinvented. Working at Microsoft is different in important ways from working at
U.S. Steel or General Motors. The service economy is different from the
industrial economy. When only one private-sector worker in ten belongs to a
traditional union, it is time to explore alternative means of worker
representation. But it's also true that the labor movement has begun to adapt
itself and is still one of the most powerful instruments available to employees
seeking a voice at work. Thus a modest suggestion: that labor's centrist critics
pause long enough to realize that their main goal, a more equitable distribution
of opportunity, requires a revitalized labor movement; and that labor's
supporters accept, in turn, that there is more than one way to represent workers
and their interests.

Similarly, neoprogressives share an understanding that the global market
creates a need for strengthening international agreements on labor rights and
the environment, and for new compacts to promote economic growth. In the
aftermath of World War II, the democratic countries created a remarkable trade
and currency regime that led to a period of rapid and sustained economic growth
accompanied by an expansion of social justice. There will be much dispute over
how (and even whether) this can happen again. There will be arguments about how
global regulation can be achieved, how broad it should be, and how it can be
enforced. But even to begin this argument—to suggest that it is not, in
principle, impossible to accomplish what the postwar leadership did—is to
suggest that we need not accept slow growth and expanding inequality as
inevitable.

There will, necessarily, be great dispute over the organization of world
trade. McKinley-era protectionism is not an option, but trade is not now and
never will be entirely "free." Different countries, at different
stages of development, will pursue their own economic policies for their own
reasons. Those pushing to expand world trade will necessarily argue over the
best ways to do so. Should the United States pursue more trade agreements with
Latin America? Or should it turn instead toward Europe, where the political
climate is more hospitable to America's progressive regulatory and social
welfare tradition? What is clear is that without some strengthening of
international standards and enforcement mechanisms, the race to the bottom in
labor and environmental conditions will continue, dragging down with it what is
left of the social democratic bargain.

The
debate over domestic social policy will also be fierce. In principle, all
neoprogressives are open to experimentation and to the reform and reconstruction
of the public sector. All accept the need for strong systems of social insurance
and for expanding rather than contracting programs for the poor. In practice,
there will be great fights over how to change the big social programs,
especially Medicare, to accommodate the baby boom; over the role of public
employee unions; and over how social programs are best delivered. Is the primary
goal of the Progressive tradition to build more responsive public institutions,
or to achieve greater equality of access though voucher-style programs? This
debate will be especially difficult on public education (an area where I, for
one, would dissent from many liberals and argue that voucher experiments for
low-income children should be welcomed).

Still, in most other areas, the vouchers versus institution-building
argument is not a fight over principles. It is simply a debate over means. As
Robert Kuttner has argued, vouchers are usually a "second order question."
The first issue is to decide whether or not to use public resources to solve a
particular problem. If public resources are needed, what is the best way to
deploy them?

President Clinton's decision to sign a deeply flawed welfare bill may be the
most disturbing cautionary tale of all. In principle, Democrats and a large
group of moderate Republicans agreed on what constituted genuine welfare reform:
A new system would embody a commitment to work and family stability. In
exchange, the government would expand, not contract, help for the poor in the
form of education, job training, child care, and guarantees of health coverage.
As David Ellwood wrote recently in these pages ["Welfare Reform As I Knew
It," TAP, May-June 1996], there was a large opening for such an
approach during the first two Clinton years. The opportunity was squandered, not
only by the administration but also by many liberals who recognized neither the
popular pressure for reform nor the urgency of fixing a system that was failing
the poor. This, in turn, opened the way for the deep cuts enacted under a false
flag of reform.

If any good can come out of this terrible bill, it is that the death of the
once noble but now stigmatized word "welfare" may make it easier for
advocates for the poor to overcome the old demagoguery. But the problems this
bill creates are huge; merely restoring the spending it cuts will be difficult.
To make any progress, supporters of practical generosity will need to accept
Ellwood's insight about the importance of work and family stability.

There may be even less consensus on health care. Even among those who
continue to favor national action to guarantee universal coverage, there remain
disagreements over the merits of building on the existing system of private
insurance, of constructing a government-sponsored single-payer system—or of
trying to create, as the Clintons did, a mixed system to harness certain market
efficiencies to a set of government guarantees. The 1996 Democratic platform and
the Families First agenda endorsed only the most minimal of health care reforms
in an effort to evade such questions. But giving up on universal coverage makes
neither moral nor policy sense. And there is nothing wrong with bowing to
political and practical necessity by pursuing this goal in steps (for example,
by pushing first for universal coverage for children). The achievement of each
step would constitute a substantial success, and would reduce the difficulty of
finishing the job.

Merely
to list these disputes over fundamentals is to suggest that while American
voters are eager for a new turn in American politics, there is nothing automatic
about the success of a particular brand of progressivism. Potential allies in a
new progressive project could quickly become adversaries—or, alternatively,
could find agreement on only the narrowest and least-inspiring set of reforms.

Nonetheless, what is clear from the turbulence of the last four years is
that American voters would be powerfully attracted to a political movement
devoted to using government to ease their economic insecurities and to expand
their capacity to take advantage of the new era. They would welcome a debate
focused less on "big" or "small" government and more on "better"
or "more appropriate" government. Inaction did not work for the
Democrats. An antigovernment program did not work for the Republicans. You might
argue that progressive government is the one alternative that hasn't been tried.

America's Progressive tradition has many flaws. At its worst, it could be
excessively bureaucratic, too beholden to experts, too wary of mass political
participation, indifferent or hostile to racial justice, uneasy about the ethnic
mosaic created by immigration. But at its best, the Progressive tradition was
powerfully democratic. It saw free government as the ally rather than the enemy
of liberty, and as an instrument for solving problems that would go unsolved
absent political action. That tradition is not only alive and well; it now has
its largest opening in three decades. Neoprogressives should have their
arguments. But they should not squander their opportunity.



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