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Progressive politics

December 5, 2007

There are many ways of distinguishing different kinds of political values: liberal-conservative, environment-growth, radical-reactionary, left-right, Democrat-Republican, social democrat-christian democrat, libertarian-statist. But consider this fundamental divide: between those political programs dedicated to progress for the poor and powerless, versus those focused on conserving the power and privilege of existing elites. One is a party of progress and change; the other is one focused primarily on conserving the status quo.

To locate this distinction in political space we need first to identify the dimensions of inequality over which the privileged and the non-privileged are separated. These obviously include ownership of wealth, income, ability to influence or determine major social institutions; access to important social opportunities (education, healthcare, mobility), quality of life, and degree of independence and self-determination. And these can be further simplified as wealth, power, and distributive outcomes. Most societies provide very different levels of these goods to various groups in society — and almost always there is a high degree of overlap across the membership of the various disadvantaged groups.

It is plain that many societies create substantial inequalities along these lines, and that these inequalities arise as a consequence of systems of power and distribution. Powerful institutions — corporations, governments, insurance companies, political parties, the military — make private decisions that affect outcomes and quality of life for the non-privileged — and these decisions are almost always beyond democratic control. These institutional arrangements give rise to a systematic flow of basic goods that is highly unequal across society. Moreover, the institutions and their directors have substantial power to protect and preserve their positions of privilege.

So these are the central social cleavages that exist in many societies. Corporations, powerful officials, landlords, party functionaries, and owners of large wealth stand on one side — and wage-earners, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the uninsured, some racial or ethnic minorities, and the disabled stand on the other side. And they are separated by powerful and entrenched distributive institutions that reproduce these inequalities generation after generation.

So now we are face to face with the most fundamental dichotomy among political parties and programs: between those that attempt to modify some of these distributive institutions in favor of the poor, and those that are committed to preserving this whole system of inequality creation. There is a “party of progress” and a party of the status quo, conserving of a system of power and privilege.

Are there any political movements in the US today that stand for meaningful change in our system of inequality? And do these movements offer any significant challenge to the most fundamental interests of this system? Yes and no. Examples of programs that would significantly improve outcomes for the disadvantaged in our society include efforts to invent a system of universal health insurance, efforts to secure greater environmental justice for urban people, efforts to turn back the regressive tax policies of the recent past, and efforts to reinvigorate the union movement in this country.

But do any of these political goals present a serious challenge to the basic structures of a divided society? Most likely not. The American economy can absorb a huge amount of redistribution of benefits from rich to poor without fundamentally changing the mechanism of inequality of power and privilege that has endured throughout our history. The New Deal created a meaningful change in American distributive structures — but it did not significantly reduce the wealth and privilege of the elites. There is ample room for a “New Deal for the twenty-first century” that would significantly shift our inequalities in the direction of greater justice — but such an effort is likely to leave unchanged the system of power and privilege that exists.

A progressive politics is possible. But unfortunately our national political parties have rarely addressed these core issues. Where are the national leaders who look honestly at the facts of poverty, powerlessness, racism, and lack of health care, and work for the changes that will structurally address these issues?

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