When I was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, the American left found itself in the wilderness. George W. Bush’s approval ratings topped 80 percent. Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, and the Clinton administration felt like a distant memory. Far from debating whether we thought of ourselves as “liberals” or “progressives,” most Democrats were debating how to win an election and become relevant again.
Our congressional sweep in 2006 and President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 raised questions we’d put off during the Bush years: What does it really mean to be a Democrat? What is the Democratic vision for the country? The Obama years, for all the gains they produced, did not definitively resolve those tensions.
They did, however, clarify the ideological landscape in important ways. Some argue that Democrats should chart a “liberal” as opposed to “progressive” course for the midterm elections and beyond. Anyone tempted to take that advice should consider recent history.
Marriage equality, long championed by progressives and once opposed even by Democrats such as President Bill Clinton (who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996), is now the law of the land. The progressive-led opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, formerly considered irresponsible by would-be guardians of “serious” liberal politics, has been vindicated. Progressive ideas once treated as unrealistic – the need to more strictly regulate big banks, for instance, another area in which Clinton was on the opposite side — are now largely treated as common sense.
These examples are not as disparate as they may appear. For progressives, the central questions of public policy revolve around who has power, why they have that power and how it can be more fairly distributed. Progressives do not believe anyone should have the power to deny an adult the right to marry the person they love, the power to wage an expensive and destructive war under false pretenses, or the power to destroy millions of lives through economic greed and irresponsibility. We also question the system that granted anyone those powers in the first place, and ask whether a better way of doing things is possible. Anyone who agrees with this approach is more of a progressive than they may have imagined.
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Power comes in many forms — economic, cultural, political — and in our view, too few people have wielded power throughout American history. This imbalance has hurt millions of hard-working families who haven’t gotten a raise in years. It has also hurt our neighbors the old American political consensus ignored or forgot about — and let’s not forget, they work too and also haven’t gotten a raise in years. Any politics that accepts such harmful power imbalances, or denies some Americans their full rights in the name of moving cautiously, is not “liberalism.” It’s conservatism that doesn’t want to admit what it is.
Lyndon B. Johnson was right to sign the Civil Rights Act and enforce desegregation even though it made people uncomfortable and brought political consequences. Those were progressive acts. Anyone looking at today’s political landscape should consider whether they would have had the same courage. The alternative for Democrats, at the time, was suggested by Johnson’s “liberal” critics such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y), who wrote a now largely debunked 1965 report blaming African American poverty rates not on discriminatory policies or deeply rooted economic disenfranchisement but on single parenthood. Moynihan’s report, which confused symptoms for causes and suffered a lack of rigorous scholarship that has only become more apparent over time, became a foundational text of the victim-blaming mythology now popular on the political right.
Where conservatives, broadly speaking, consider most forms of government activity excessive, and where the non-progressive left is often content to sand down the rough edges of the status quo, progressives often seek deep systemic reforms. Waiting for a broken power structure to right itself is a recipe for failure. Our recent focus on economic fairness, an approach dismissed as “populism” by conservatives uncomfortable with questions about capitalism’s imperfections, is a case in point.
It’s worth remembering, especially with President Trump in the White House, that the richest 1 percent in this country hold about 38.6 percent of all privately held wealth — more than is held by the “bottom” 90 percent, otherwise known as the vast majority of Americans. This is not just a wealth imbalance. It’s a power imbalance that threatens our way of life. Progressives are hardly alone in this view. Dating back to the 1980s, voters of all political stripes have consistently said that wealth distribution in the United States is unfair.
It’s no accident that progressives today are at the forefront of campaigns for a higher minimum wage, for stiffer bank regulations and government anti-monopoly crackdowns, and for single-payer health care, an idea now supported by more than half of Americans after facing years of condescension even from many liberals. If Democrats take nothing else from our moment of self-reflection, we should remember that on issue after issue, what was once pigeonholed as the “progressive” position has since become the popular position, or become law, or both.