With the nation’s capital mired in unending political gridlock, it might seem fanciful to imagine major progressive change happening to our social and economic system anytime soon. The myriad problems with the political system that combine to prevent concerted action — too much money in politics; too much polarization and structural inertia; not enough collective focus on large scale social and economic problems; not enough political commitment to bold action — are certainly real and difficult to dislodge. But the long-term demographic trends rapidly changing national politics, coupled with declining economic prospects for millions of Americans, could produce steady movement towards a radically more progressive future within the next 30 years.
How might this be possible? For starters, the coalition that lifted President Obama to two terms in office is just getting its legs. This collection of young people, single women, communities of color, and professional and working class whites doesn’t appear to have much in common at this point other than a basic belief that government can serve as a force for good and that the current policies of conservatives are bad and don’t represent them. But as we at TP Ideas have documented repeatedly, the Obama coalition is coalescing and growing faster than most analysts recognize. Should this disparate group begin to unite behind a sharper and more coherent set of values and policy needs through combined direct organizing and political education efforts, the possibility for more expansive change will increase as the increasingly active electorate pushes legislators to the left.
Moreover, the current economic model in America is clearly failing too many citizens, creating far too much instability for middle- and working-class people and splitting America into hardened class lines. It’s difficult to envision this status quo holding for another two decades. Americans are more skeptical than ever that they can succeed in a system that does not reward hard work and sacrifice with a decent paying job, economic security, and the chance for a decent retirement. At some point, the failure of the economic and political system to deliver widely shared growth and opportunity to Americans may lead voters to consider some more radical policy options.
What might the future progressive agenda look like? The Obama coalition voters all want greater opportunities in life through education and work, respect for their diverse life choices and conditions, and stronger communities with better schools, cleaner neighborhoods, and good paying jobs. Here are a few possibilities for what this might mean in concrete policy terms:
• Single-payer health care
• Universal child care and workplace flexibility
• A guaranteed minimum income and new urban and rural anti-poverty campaign
• Consumption or carbon taxes
• National industrial policy and a federal jobs program on clean energy and infrastructure
• Re-regulation of finance and Wall Street
• Drug decriminalization and criminal justice reform
• Expanded voting rights and curtailed corporate money in politics
• Full and equal status for LGBT families and individuals
• Stronger civil liberties protections in national security policy
When you combine rising political power with major unaddressed economic and social needs, the possibility for these sorts of big changes becomes more realistic. Some of these issues are not actively under consideration, so it’s difficult to assess the depth of interest in, for example, a guaranteed minimum income. But there are suggestive signs. On healthcare, polling shows consistent support for President Obama’s health care plan among Democrats and liberals, but a good chunk of these voters believe it does not go far enough in overhauling the health care system. If Republicans successfully block implementation of Obamacare at the state-level, or the plan does not deliver enough in term of cost reduction and coverage for other reasons, it is reasonable to expect that liberal Democrats and core members of the Obama coalition will continue to press for something like Medicare for All as a solution. Similarly, numerous public opinion studies show strong support among these constituencies for subsidized child care and workplace flexibility, voting rights and equality for LGBT families, and more robust government action on climate and jobs.
Every major political transformation in American history — from the Progressive and New Deal eras to the Reagan revolution — became possible only after a new mix of voters linked themselves to social movements to develop a concrete and far-reaching policy agenda that was then advanced within existing or new political parties. Should the economic and social conditions facing the bulk of U.S. voters continue as they are today, don’t be surprised if the future policy agenda looks more like the Green Party Platform than the narrow band of timid policy options that dominate DC today.