Progressive Politics and What Lies Ahead

By Unger, Roberto M.; West, Cornel | The Nation, November 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Progressive Politics and What Lies Ahead


Unger, Roberto M., West, Cornel, The Nation


Americans seem to be experiencing a kind of political schizophrenia. Our economy is strong, we are told, and yet insecurity and inequality continue to gnaw at the fabric of our society and at the hearts of many of its members. Picking up our "First Principles" series, Cornel West and Roberto Mangabeira Unger argue that "rigid ideological grids often overlook the complexity and experimental impulse of American life." What we need, the authors insist, is a politics of progressive "tinkering ... improvisational reform, of jazzlike public action," for which American citizens have demonstrated a genius in the past.

--The Editors

The oldest element of American life is the religion of individual and collective possibility: the belief that citizens can remake themselves and their society, that they can make everything new. The American dream includes a middle-class standard of living for everyone, with economic independence and security, as well as opportunities for children to achieve what their parents failed to accomplish or obtain.

Today, however, at the apogee of the country's world power and in the midst of a thriving economy, most working Americans feel more squeezed than ever and are convinced that life will be harder for them than it was for their parents. Even politically active and educated elites feel incapable of addressing, much less solving, many of the basic problems of the country, from inadequate healthcare and education to the social and racial apartheid of inner-city poverty; from increasing inequality of wealth and income to abstention from the vote and indifference to politics. The practical consequence of this national failure is that Americans despair of collective solutions to their collective problems, and alternate between resenting the incapable politics of their country and blaming themselves for failure to succeed at a game that so often seems rigged against them.

At the same time, faith in the power of the individual to better his or her life--against all odds--is the most prominent element in the American religion of possibility. That religion also includes something more basic and ambitious: a belief in the unlimited potential of practical problem-solving and a faith in democracy as a terrain on which ordinary men and women can become strongly defined personalities, in full possession of themselves.

The United States is a country of tinkerers. To believe in the American religion of possibility is to hold that each of the problems that oppress, weaken and frighten us as individuals can be confronted, problem by problem, through human effort and ingenuity. Americans resist seeing particular problems as manifestations of hidden, hard constraints. They believe that the terrors of vast problems yield to the effects of many small solutions.

Motivated, sustained and cumulative tinkering with institutional arrangements is an indispensable tool of democratic experimentalism, of improvisational reform, of jazzlike public action. Americans, however, have been willing to use this tool only under the extreme pressure of crisis and catastrophe. There have been three great periods of institutional innovation in American history: the foundation of the Republic, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the New Deal. In each, national leaders won support for institutional experiments from an energized majority. Nonetheless, ever since the first of these three periods of collective creation, the country has been attracted to the idea that it came close to the natural and necessary form of a free society. There were ordeals to undergo--the terrible burden of slavery and its aftermath, a massive economic failure and the outbreak of war in Europe--and crisis might require adjustment. But such innovations as were needed would result mainly from the independent initiative of people in their businesses or the voluntary association of individuals in their communities. …

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