I run a progressive think tank (this one), and as I wander around this Fall, I see conditions that should mean boom times for my business. Occupy Wall Street protesters are passionate, committed, numerous and widespread. They have made clear that many on the left are finally as angry and restless about the economy as the Tea Party on the right was in 2009 and 2010. But I don’t see our supply keeping up with their demand for new ideas. (And theirs is not the only demand: polls actually still show that a new Democratic presidential term will most likely begin in 15 months. For what will it stand?)
To be sure, there is much good work being done, here at the Century Foundation and elsewhere. But leading progressives practically need to run to get in front of the OWS parade. How did that happen? Part of the reason is that we are spending a lot of time these days thinking about the past and too little about the medium-term future – the missing policy agenda for the people in the park. We obsess about President Obama’s first year and what didn’t happen, what might have been done (and might not have been possible), who could have been appointed (and who couldn’t have been).
At the same time, we devote too little precious time and thought to ensuring that the most significant progressive legislation in 45 years, the Affordable Care Act, is made sustainable, not so much politically as administratively. (The politics, despite much of the chatter, will likely be easier: Who among us truly believes, for instance, that today’s Republican Party has demonstrated the foolhardy courage to take away health coverage from young adult children now covered by their parents’ plans, or to re-introduce refusals of insurance for pre-existing conditions?)
We devote ourselves to too much reminiscing about when industrial unions represented a third of the workforce and too little to building new organizations for the third of workers who are now independent contractors. We’re unwilling to acknowledge the unquestionable imperative, if not now then soon, to pay down some of our debt because that’s the narrative from the right (one we gave them during the Reagan years, when they first, obliviously, ran the debt up). And we seem to have almost given up on the idea of promoting American values through non-military means in a world where power is more diffuse, informal and dynamic—even though those seem to be conditions especially conducive to civic, social, networked engagement.
It’s never been the task of the people in the park to come up with the ideas. It’s their job to call attention to injustice, to demand that the powerful be held accountable, to just plain get angry at massive inequity. It’s the job of others to articulate an action plan for thinking progressives – and not just by repeating the same ideas that we had five, ten or even 15 years ago.
Core progressive values endure, of course, but they must take new shape in current contexts. I still enjoy listening to Bruce Springsteen but I wouldn’t use a Walkman to do so today, even though both first became popular at the same time. I’ve benefited from collective bargaining, but never enjoyed the protections of a burial association or hiring hall. A new progressive agenda similarly needs to take into account the current context for ideas. That means the inevitable need for fiscal responsibility, for imagining what’s next for a post-industrial economy, for negotiating politics and economics in a world with many more and more diverse actors. In the face of new situations, we need new, truly creative thought.
Edward Filene, the successful progressive Republican who founded TCF, said in 1934 that, “The superstitions of today are not the superstitions of yesterday. More often, they are the formulas of yesterday, which applied very well to the conditions of yesterday but which must be edited and recast if they are to become applicable to the conditions of today.” More than three-quarters of a century later, that is still precisely true.