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Progressives Need to Ignore the Noise and Stay Ambitious

The new Democrats realize they were sent here to signal that they get the urgency of the moment and that they aspire to rebuild the institutions necessary to meet the challenges we face

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent tax on incomes over $10 million is one of many being praised by the party’s progressive wing. (Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent tax on incomes over $10 million is one of many being praised by the party’s progressive wing. (Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The New Green Deal is a 14-page document that exists about 40,000 feet up in terms of abstraction. It will not be passed by this Congress. That’s not just because of the political divide but also because it is not legislation: It’s a set of broad ideas — good ones, from my perspective — to reduce carbon emissions while creating good jobs through investment in green industry.

The Green New Deal isn’t the only such proposal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s estate tax, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent income tax over $10 million, Rep. John B. Larson’s Social Security expansion, jobs programs from Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Ron Wyden, universal health coverage plans from every Democratic senator running for president (which is itself a sizable subset of the party’s caucus). None of these ideas will become law through this Congress because that’s just the political reality of divided government.

So what’s the point of offering them?

All these proposals elevate vital alternatives to the status quo, on everything from the economy to the environment to racial justice to the basic functions of our democracy. Those of us who agree with the need for changes can, and should, debate the best alternatives. But we must be careful not to let those debates diminish or shut down their urgency.

One challenge we face is that it’s harder than it should be to recognize the urgency of the moment. Unemployment is 4 percent and, at the national level, job and wage growth appear solid.

But it doesn’t take much to see the cracks in the veneer.

As Kathleen Bryant and I have described, during the 35-day government shutdown, workers with middle-class jobs were seen to be living paycheck-to-paycheck. A 2017 survey by the Federal Reserve found that 4 in 10 adults would be unable to meet an unexpected expense of $400 without “selling something or borrowing money.” The scientific community is in wide agreement that the impact of global warming is already being felt in the increased volatility of temperatures and intensity of storms. Wealth concentration is close to levels last seen in the late 1920s, and need I remind you: That didn’t end well.

The deterioration of democratic institutions should be setting off daily alarm bells, but instead, we feel like things must be working, because Congress appears to have agreed on Monday not to shut the government down on Friday (though the president had yet to agree). Talk about lowering the bar!

Thanks in no small part to an activist, diverse progressive base — populated by young voters anxious to get out of the center-left box, people of color, immigrants and a few dinosaurs like myself — the new Democratic majority is reflecting this urgency and offering up ideas to address the pressing challenges we face.

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Their actions have triggered a typology of responses.

There’s the technocratic response (one with which I’m intimately familiar). Policy wonks, even including those favorably disposed toward these sorts of ideas, point out that taxing wealth demands valuations with which the IRS is unfamiliar. (Warren’s plan recognizes and addresses this challenge.) We note that guaranteeing a lot of people good government jobs would require a massive extension of administrative capacity by a barely functional federal sector. We point out that despite some assumptions embedded in certain Medicare-for-all plans, private insurers aren’t about to “go gently into that good night.”

There’s the histrionic “socialist!” response, one born of fear that progressives are finally catching onto the game played by the oligarchs and the politicians they fund. Watch this CNBC clip of a debate I just had with anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist. When such people claim that progressive ideas threaten to turn the U.S. into the Weimar Republic, you know they’re scared, and for good reason. Warren et al. really are coming after their clients!

Finally, there’s the response that the new Democrats are “overreaching” and thus undermining their potential success. This is a political argument, based on the belief that there exists a significant, heretofore largely silent, majority of the electorate that might lean toward Democrats but will be scared off by an ambitious progressive agenda.

From where I sit, many of the technocratic challenges are off point, insisting on a level of specificity that is unwarranted at this early stage, as when David Brooks asks about the Green New Deal, “Exactly which agency would inspect and oversee the renovation of every building in America?” Obviously, the fearmongering about socialism is just that; it should be quickly dismissed out of hand.

The question of political overreaching may be a good one, though. My theory of the case is there’s a significant swath of the electorate that feels the urgency of the moment — that agrees that when it comes to the toxic combination of wealth concentration and money in politics, climate change and government functionality, it’s well past time for nibbling around the edges. They’re not worried about precisely which agency will implement future plans. They’re worried about the existence of a viable future.

So that means the new Democrats face an interesting challenge: They realize they were sent here to signal that they get the urgency of the moment, and that they aspire to rebuild the institutions necessary to meet the challenges we face. But they must do that under the scrutiny of policy wonks, vicious opponents and the constraints of a complex political process.

I think they’re doing a great job so far. The noise will only get louder, but I urge them to block it out and just keep on pushing ahead.

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and previously served as an economic advisor to the Obama administration.

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