Issue #25, Summer 2012

The Importance of Philosophy

To read the other essays in the “Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics” symposium, click here.

We live in an age of whipsaw politics. The elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 each saw more than 20 sitting House members lose their seats, more “throwing the bums out” than in any string of elections since the 1940s. Why the volatility? A fundamental cause is the inability of both the right and the left to articulate and stand behind a coherent, plausible political philosophy that offers ideas on how to protect the middle class in an age of extreme economic change.

The right offers trickle-down theories that are increasingly implausible. The basic free-enterprise, lower-taxes philosophy that has been GOP orthodoxy for 40 years continues to appeal to some, especially in the absence of an alternative. But trickle-down is tread-worn. Yet progressives have fared little better on the big ideas front, unable to stitch critical but disparate issues like health care and immigration policy into a larger whole. Many lament the lack of a progressive narrative, a bumper sticker slogan as pithy as “smaller government, lower taxes.” But the problem is much deeper than that: We don’t have the long answer either for Americans worried about how we will be able to live decent lives at a time when technology and globalization are driving tectonic shifts in the economy.

The next 12 years will be critical in determining the basics of the twenty-first century American economy. Will we prosper or flounder in the increasingly globalized world? Consider: In the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for men will decrease to 68 percent as the population ages (it’s 73 percent now). Wages are expected to continue to stagnate—but no one thinks the same of corporate profits, which were around three times higher in 2011 than in 1995 and are likely to keep soaring.

By 2024, progressives must rise to the challenge of providing the long answer. If we don’t figure this out by then, we can expect to see un- and underemployment rise even as GDP recovers, resulting in vicious cycles of generational suffering—no health care, limited home ownership, reduced educational prospects—throughout broad parts of the country where, for the last century, the middle class has thrived.

Developing the long answer will require three big elements. The first is a sustained intellectual effort to better understand the drivers of the next American economy—the capital structures, educational systems, and types of businesses that will create sustainable jobs and promote the kind of growth that can be broadly distributed. While good work is being done on some of these topics individually, it is important that a diverse and vigorous set of thinkers address some of the questions holistically. Is the manufacturing sector really going away or just changing dramatically? Can we promote growth that isn’t clustered only in technology hubs? What is the role of the new-energy economy, particularly U.S. domestic energy, in driving this? What does it mean that basic research in key industries, which used to be a comparative advantage, is increasingly being conducted internationally? How will changing American demographics shape and promote the next American economy? Our research effort needs to be both vigorous and broad.

The second is success in bringing back government. It will take political courage to embrace a simple message: Government can, and does, do good. In any scenario, a brighter economic future for Americans will require some critical role for government, because only government has both the power and the mandate to promote the public good. At the Roosevelt Institute, in partnership with like-minded groups, we have launched a multiyear effort, “Rediscovering Government.” This isn’t an argument about a particular type of government, or for absolute loyalty to old ways. It is an argument to open our minds and broaden the political space that would make possible experimentation with forms of government intervention that today are never even attempted because they are politically moribund.

And the third element is a coherent, publicly accessible story, told often and told well. Marketing matters. We must talk about our real economic problems and the range of tools needed to address them, and, taking a page from FDR’s book, demonstrate political leadership in trying different solutions.

If all this happens we can imagine a different world. Government’s role could be expanded, and we might be willing to develop programs involving not just private, but also nonprofit and public-sector incentives and investments. These are likely to be most fruitful in health care and education, the two segments of the service economy where government’s roles as provider and guarantor matter most, and where positive results in people’s lives could, over a decade or so, actually become apparent. Success can breed more success, not only in terms of policy, but also politics.

Of course, conservatives are not going to just stand around while we act. This electoral season shows that they are at a crossroads. They may double down on market fundamentalism in the hope that it, combined with a continued emphasis on social issues, will keep the base happy. Or they might embrace economic populism, taking demographic trends seriously in the hope of gaining strength with Latinos and young people in particular. In either scenario, there’s little chance that conservatism in the next dozen years will include a real role for government or real thinking about not just growth but distribution.

This leaves a political opening for progressives. New and specific economic circumstances have arisen, triggered by the crisis of 2008 but with far deeper roots in structural economic changes that are at least 30 years old. In order to respond to these changes, progressives must develop a deep, factual economic analysis, a programmatic response, and a public narrative that make sense to middle-class Americans. Without a better philosophy, we will not see better politics.

 

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Issue #25, Summer 2012
 
Post a Comment

Daniel:

Progressives already have a perfect, apple pie philosophy: we seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When we pointy-headed progressives just simplify our message into that frame we'll start winning again.

Jun 12, 2012, 5:02 PM
Jeanine Broderick:

The solution to so much is already known when you connect the dots of science done in different fields (everything from positive psychology to biochemistry to neuroscience and quantum physics and more).

Positive emotions, optimism and happiness have very significant positive impacts on health, well-being, relationships, emotional intelligence, creativity, cognitive ability, decision-making, resilience, substance abuse, crime, racism, teen pregnancy, immune system function, and of course, depression.

People given the knowledge and skills to manage their own emotions will thrive.

Jun 13, 2012, 10:02 AM
Evil Overlord:

It's in part this "all about the middle class" mentality that's to blame for our problems. I've seen so many middle class tax cuts in my life that I'm amazed I pay any tax at all. It's possible, though, that amid all the pandering, the time has finally come for some courageous politicians to stand up and say "Let's get serious about true tax reform - for everybody."

Obama blew his 1st term chance to support his own Simpson-Bowles debt commission, but perhaps in his second term he'll be braver. And by 2024, we can hope that wisdom will have prevailed, and we'll have enacted both tax rises (or reform) and entitlement reform.

Jun 13, 2012, 10:32 AM
JOP:

The comment that "life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are sufficient goals for progressive politics ignores that thse happens to be the goals of the Republicans...

Yes, the last line of this post is right on: Without a better philosophy, we will not see better politics.

The philosophy that progresssives hold is based on considering the good of the society, in short, of others-- and despite the economic focus of the preceding analysis (and "It's the economy, stupid!) that means more than good jobs, good commonly accepted benefits for the needy, sick, retired, disadvantaged, poor, and just "different,"as well as the deserving!

In short,progressives seek a civilized and modern society... and the US does presently attain or even aim at such a standard-- what with mind-violence, mass media-truth-violence, much less physical forms of violence being tolerated, even hailed as "freedom". Moral-social issues for progressives need not be stuck with opposing forms of social bias, supporting equal rights to abortion, gay-marriage, etc. We should be talking about what makes a decent modern progressive society consisting of diverse but universally humane persons seeking a sustainable planetary human presence.

Jun 13, 2012, 1:55 PM
JOP:

The comment that "life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are sufficient goals for progressive politics ignores that thse happens to be the goals of the Republicans...

Yes, the last line of this post is right on: Without a better philosophy, we will not see better politics.

The philosophy that progresssives hold is based on considering the good of the society, in short, of others-- and despite the economic focus of the preceding analysis (and "It's the economy, stupid!) that means more than good jobs, good commonly accepted benefits for the needy, sick, retired, disadvantaged, poor, and just "different,"as well as the deserving!

In short,progressives seek a civilized and modern society... and the US does presently attain or even aim at such a standard-- what with mind-violence, mass media-truth-violence, much less physical forms of violence being tolerated, even hailed as "freedom". Moral-social issues for progressives need not be stuck with opposing forms of social bias, supporting equal rights to abortion, gay-marriage, etc. We should be talking about what makes a decent modern progressive society consisting of diverse but universally humane persons seeking a sustainable planetary human presence.

Jun 13, 2012, 2:01 PM
falk burger:

Philosuphy - what's that? First, progressives need to find some spine and stop diving for cover behind some phony notion of "centrism". Get behind a real leader like Kucinich, Nader, Gravel or Sanders and let the left pole take its proper place in politics - on the left!! If the media are going to use the word "polarized", rushing to the right to close the gap is neither our job nor sane policy. Can we listen to Bill Maher and refuse to be too dumb to be governed? Politics! Progressive Drivel!

Jun 13, 2012, 9:00 PM
MCK:

We need more philosophy. But the spiraling dependence of our colleges upon corporate funding will only support the persistent transformation of higher learning in America into a social formality devoted to servile arts.
In politics, we often get sentimental lip service to progressive ideals. The government should not be an enforcement bureau, free-money lender and bottomless insurance fund for corporate rackets designed to enrich the rich at the expense of people who actually do work. But, our progressive-talking pols support that scheme rather than being true to these ideas because they depend upon the winners in that system arrayed against these ideas to fund their campaigns, K-Street jobs, sinecures, etc. We need publicly-owned, democratic elections. Meanwhile, it's important to call a fraud a fraud.
We need more democracy. Pushing for more democracy - even more than may seem prudent - throughout American institutions builds upon our American instinct for democracy. The preponderant American response to making a shared choice is still, "Let's vote on it."

Jun 14, 2012, 5:06 AM
Pyrrho:

It will take political courage to embrace a simple message: Government can, and does, do good.

It will take more than political courage. People think--know!--the "game is rigged" in Washington in favor of the wealthy and well-connected special interests. This is a huge obstacle to winning over the electorate to your message.

You message needs to be combined with a clean government initiative to remove money/special-interest influence from politics in order to overcome the deep cynicism of the general public to your ideas.

I think the message should be refined to read: "Government can do good, but only if government is clean." Or this: "Government can do good, but eternal vigilance is the price of good government."

Jun 14, 2012, 9:22 AM
ANNE LEONARD:

"Government can do good, but eternal vigilance is the price of good government." Pyrrho (awesome). And, someone mentioned Bernie Sanders- I wish we had 400 more of him in congress! As far as progressives, a simplified, framed message- followed by ACTION. Sure we want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-and, maybe the neocons do to, but its how we define LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT Of HAPPINESS, that matters the most.

Jun 19, 2012, 5:52 PM
Benedict@Large:

Overall, a decent statement from the Roosevelt Institute. Some comments on your initial premises however ...

"A fundamental cause is the inability of both the right and the left to articulate and stand behind a coherent, plausible political philosophy ..." - Correct, except that philosophy isn't missing because it hasn't been created. It's missing because the macro assumptions in use do not allow the economic space for it to be created.

"Yet progressives have fared little better on the big ideas front, ..." - Not correct, unless you limit "progressives" to those who are allowed a voice in DC. As above, THESE "progressives" are limited by existing macro limitations.

The fact is that the neoliberal paradigm not only remains dominant in DC, but is also exclusive, as in EXCLUDING all views that reject its basic premises. Any new political philosophies that might be developed within this paradigm may well contain many essential and desirable features, but these will inevitably run into the walls of that paradigm, and the ability of either party to "stand behind" that philosophy, as good as it might be, will also run into those walls, and will fail. This will be manifested as the continuous party-swapping which you have identified.

NOTE: By "economic space" and "macro limitations", I'm referring specifically to the obsession with debt. As even Keynes admitted in his private letters, the need to balance the federal budget, even over the business cycle (as in his "General Theory"), is unnecessary. This is not to say that federal spending can be unrestrained (as Keynes knew), but rather that budget outcomes are not the proper restraint for that spending. So long as policymakers on both sides continue to believe this, neither side will be able to deliver on its vision.

Jul 13, 2012, 12:12 AM

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