The Welcome Arrival of Radicalism

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Progressive Democrats of America holds a news conference to announce the launch of a Medicare for All Caucus at the Capitol. 

The American Prospect has been writing about rising economic insecurity for as long as we’ve been publishing—since 1990. I first addressed the issue well before that, in a piece for the Atlantic titled “The Declining Middle,” published in 1983. 

As economists have now thoroughly documented, the average performance of the economy and the earnings of ordinary people began drastically diverging in the 1970s, as shown in an iconic chart first created by the Economic Policy Institute. Basically, earnings have been flat or declining for most of the bottom 90 percent, while total economic output has tripled.

The divergence widened with the election of Ronald Reagan and the deliberate dismantling of a social compact that had provided equitable allocation of the gains. Fair allocation had been accomplished during the postwar era mainly not by redistribution, but by “pre-distribution.” Thanks to strong unions backed by government policy, as well as wage and hour legislation and decent pensions, most working people had good earnings and there was no need for heroic redistribution after the fact (which is always harder politics.)

But these policies were reversed. And during the same era of flat or declining wages, economic life became more insecure on other fronts: more risk of job loss, less affordable housing, less reliable health care, astronomical college costs. Why did America let this fester for nearly four decades, until the frustration exploded with Donald Trump?

Here’s the point: The remedies needed to address these trends and keep faith with regular Americans were deemed too radical, by Republicans and too many Democrats alike.

And this is why liberals owe a huge debt of gratitude to radicals. By making seemingly radical proposals such as taxing wealth, and raising the top marginal rate back to the 70 percent that obtained during most of the postwar era, and embracing Medicare-for-All, and significant college debt relief, and leashing corporate abuses, radicals like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren have defied conventional wisdom to demonstrate that these ideas are politically popular.

It’s mainly beltway pundits, business elites, corporate Democrats, and of course Republicans who insist that they are political poison. Howard Schultz is a cartoon of billionaire hysteria about such dangerous ideas as universal health care and progressive taxation. The prime Republican talking point lately has been that Democrats have become radicals.

Yes, indeed, and it’s about time. 

Here’s what Matthew Dowd, a former top Republican operative had to say on Twitter: 

The polls bear him out, showing wide majority support for all of these positions. 

But Dowd got one thing wrong. These are radical positions, at least by the recent standards of what’s mainstream.

In December 2001, I wrote a piece for the Prospect titled “Why Liberals Need Radicals.”

I wrote, in part: 

Nearly every great social justice movement was initiated by radicals before it became safe for liberals. This includes the antislavery movement, women's suffrage, birth control, modern feminism, industrial unionism, civil rights, and the movement against the Vietnam War. Even causes that seem fairly tame today, such as pure food and drugs and safe workplaces, were initially the handiwork of such self-identified radicals as Upton Sinclair, Ralph Nader, and Tony Mazzocchi.

Radicals, famously, make the best organizers. They push outward the boundaries of the possible. In a ferociously capitalist society, liberals in government and politics need pressure from radicals. Roosevelt could move left because he had mass popular movements providing the tailwind. The Kennedys and LBJ could finally end segregation because they had the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, CORE, and Martin Luther King Jr., pressuring them, not just from the left but on the ground. Of course, radicals also need liberals—to carry the reforms out.

For another thing, radicals are more likely to appreciate the political dynamics of capitalism as an obstacle to the reforms that liberals would like to carry out. One of the most touchingly innocent syllogisms of neoliberal economics holds that we optimize economic outcomes by letting market forces allocate resources; then if we don't like the distributive result, we redistribute from winners to losers after the fact. Lovely, but who are “we?” It comes as a revelation that winners actually resist redistributing some of their (presumably earned) winnings to losers, who are, after all, losers, and that winners enjoy substantial political power. 

In that era, bracketed by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Democratic radicals were not much in evidence. Today, thankfully, they are ascendant. 

It has been worth the wait. And if progressives win back the presidency, it will be in no small part because radicals have succeeded in putting back on the agenda the radical remedies that working Americans crave—that have so long been consigned to the margins of American politics.

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