Retilting the Playing Field

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years.

Lewis Powell’s memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is widely credited for its role in shaping the modern conservative movement and prompting the development of a conservative communications and policymaking infrastructure. But another group was arguably more influential in the intellectual molding of modern conservatism: the John M. Olin Foundation. 

Disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars over more than half a century, the Olin Foundation enabled the rise and normalization of the law and economics discipline in universities and law schools across the country. Olin Foundation grants supported research and writing by figures like Allan Bloom and Dinesh D’Souza, endowed numerous professorships and academic centers, and provided large streams of funding for think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and institutions like the Federalist Society. 

This grant-making power ultimately served to tilt the playing field toward the wealthy and the powerful. It created a widely shared assumption that increased equality would result in lower efficiency and slower growth, an assumption at odds with academic research, empirical data, and the actual performance of the U.S. economy. But the creation of that conventional wisdom helps explain the reason that progressive politicians, despite the extraordinary rise in income inequality over the past 30 years, are timid in proposing solutions. 

That is why it is critical for progressives to support an intellectual community in studying the long-term consequences of income inequality, the relationship between equity and growth, and how different kinds of public investments affect the labor market. This empirical foundation is essential if we are to put the middle class back on an equal footing with the richest among us. 

While there are more influential progressive think tanks working today than ever before—including the Center for American Progress, which I am proud to have founded—we must not neglect the need to drive foundational academic research in economics and other fields and build the case for shared, sustainable prosperity. The Center for Equitable Growth at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Institute for New Economic Thinking have both recently begun supporting such research through fellowships and grants, but much more remains to be done. 

The second major project for progressives involves increasing democratic participation and promoting new forms of organizing. We face two serious challenges on this front. First, our constitutional system is overrun by largely unchecked and unlimited amounts of money driving public policy to favor the wealthy and well-connected. Second, key progressive constituencies—primarily communities of color, low-income workers, and young people—face increasingly aggressive voter-suppression efforts from right-wing groups and the Republican Party.

The combined effect of these strategic efforts by the right is to disproportionately shift public discourse and resources to the top strata of society, further reducing the ability of diverse, less well-off, and more progressive voices to determine policy priorities. There are several efforts under way by progressive organizations to try to address the issue of special-interest money in politics through legislative and constitutional actions. Although these efforts are important, they have to be viewed as long-term. Conservatives will not sign up for steps to reduce their own political power. Until they are soundly defeated at the ballot box, we will not diminish the role of money in politics. 

A more fruitful near-term strategy, in my view, is for progressives to focus their efforts on expanding democratic participation to build truly representative institutions and political parties that embody our values. The only way to beat conservative money is to have more voters, more unity, and more passion in shifting our nation’s politics. 

Beyond stopping conservative suppression efforts as they arise and fully protecting the right to vote and participate, we must also expand access to the ballot box to those who may not be able to get to their polling place on Election Day. By supporting alternative voting and registration methods like mail-in voting, early voting, and online voter registration, progressives can ensure that the largest possible share of the electorate is heard. 

Progressives also need to better connect our equitable economic agenda to a sustainable coalition of working- and middle-class voters across racial and ethnic lines. Working America and other progressive faith and economic-justice groups have been doing tremendous work on this front. But a more concentrated blueprint and institutional overhaul will be needed to fully stitch together this coalition over time.

We must not underestimate how challenging this organizing task will be. The share of white working-class votes going to progressive candidates has steadily trended downward over the last three decades. The fluid nature of modern employment, the declining percentage of unionized workers, and the increasing segregation of our communities and neighborhoods along socioeconomic lines present real structural challenges to establishing a broad and like-minded coalition. But such a coalition—of African Americans, Latinos, young people, women, and other working-class whites, united in their desire for a government that supports economic and social opportunity for all—will be enormously powerful, if it can be well organized. 

Similarly, existing progressive institutions and the Democratic Party must embrace the rising diversity of American society and do much more to develop leadership, candidates, and activists among women, gays and lesbians, working-class whites, and black, Latino, and Asian communities. By expanding the ownership of and participation in the progressive coalition, we can better ensure that our democracy gets input from the majority of Americans and not merely those with the financial resources and motivation to use government for individualistic purposes. 

The strategic projects for progressives are clear and vital: Create a robust economic model based on equity and growth; connect this middle-class economic vision to the lives of real American communities and voters of all stripes; expand the franchise by making it easier to vote; and solidify this economic vision and diverse coalition into a powerful political force.

Read the other pieces in this series:


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