Magazine article The Progressive

We Cannot Buy Golden Opportunities with Tin-Cup Budgets

Magazine article The Progressive

We Cannot Buy Golden Opportunities with Tin-Cup Budgets

Article excerpt

From the beginning of this century, the progressive movement sought a better society and better government. The movement, and this magazine, advocated laws to shield workers and consumers from unchecked industrialization and corporate monopolies. They fought for open and honest government and to broaden popular participation. And they advanced the ethic of improving the human condition.

We have so come to rely on what they accomplished that we take their achievements for granted. Progressives led the fight for child labor laws, the eight-hour day, tax reform, old age security, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage, occupational health and safety, and health insurance. Progressives gave us the universal right to vote, the direct election of Senators, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

The progressive movement also manifested a confident belief in the affirmative development of society. Many progressives strove to build "The Beloved Community," a corner of God's kingdom right here on Earth. We need to rededicate ourselves not just to progressive policies and programs but to progressive values, to a conception of public life that is democratic and fulfilling.

People are still looking for progressive change. It's time to reclaim our confidence. The mid-term elections were a lesson for Republicans. Voters told Congressional Republicans that they did not want to hire 535 private eyes and prosecutors. Congressional Republicans failed to show how they would advance the interests of working families. Most Democrats showed that they cared about bread-and-butter issues--education, health care, and Social Security. Because they fought for progressive goals, Democrats benefited as in no other midterm election in memory.

But the elections were a lesson for Democrats, too. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington, D.C., Democrats think the lesson was: Our message was better, so we won, end of story. But it's not about "message"--a word that describes the shallow incrementalism of the Clinton era.

In the long run, Democrats cannot inspire voters' imagination and regain power merely by appealing to whichever group of swing voters this year's consultants make fashionable.

In the long run, the success of a political movement depends on doing something of consequence. Progressives must step to the plate with real proposals again.

For years now, Democrats have been downsizing our policy agenda. Instead of universal health coverage, Democrats have focused on patients' protections. Instead of recruiting the vast new corps of teachers our schools desperately need, Democrats have settled for a modest 30,000 new teachers. Democrats risk becoming conspirators in support of the status quo.

Democrats should find no reassurance in winning half of the votes cast by the 37 percent of voters who turned out in November. It was great to see such progressives as Wisconsin's Russ Feingold and California's Barbara Boxer win elections. But don't lose sight of the 63 percent hole in the electorate nationwide. When almost two-thirds of eligible voters choose not to vote, something is seriously wrong. The nonvoters are telling us they are disillusioned with their choices. They are saying that no one speaks for them.

The election's lesson was not just that the Republican Party should wake up, but that Democrats should, too. Vast majorities of the electorate found no reason to vote for the status quo. Both parties ignore that lesson at their own risk. If they continue to ignore it, third-party victories like Jesse Ventura's populist surprise in Minnesota will become more frequent.

As the Irishman Charles Stewart Parnell said a century ago, "No man has a right to say to his country--thus far shall thou go and no farther." Democrats need to return to their progressive roots, to an agenda promising real change with real positive consequences for working families. …

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