The emerging progressive majority is still in bunker mode after many long years of conservative onslaught. This was necessary, because for many years, Democrats still acted as a “governing” party, even when in the minority, and did not have the attack mentality that that required. Now both the base and the party is past the concern trolling that has plagued it for so long.
But what intellectual planks are going to be the foundation of the emerging majority? This is a mixed policy/politics question in that you have to consider your policy goals and your political base.
On simple cleavage is between New Left moral and social policies and liberal economic progressivism. There has never been a governing majority for New Left policies at the federal level, except for the very brief window around 1964. There is a reason that Republicans obsess over God, guns, and gays.
Economic liberalism, on the other hand, has been able to produce a series of large majorities in several elections historically. To the extent that the new Congressional majorities exist, it is due to this. There is a growing rejection of the neoliberal economics that is fueling this.
While there is certainly a continuous drip towards racial, gender, and sexual preference equality, there has been no moment of paradigm shift in a while. Contrast that with economic issues that are now coming to a head.
I believe that a new New Deal coalition is the answer, and not a new New Left movement, for the following reasons.
1. Progressive Social Movements Create Strong Resistance.
By way of example, there was no “orthodox” judaism until there was a liberal movement in that religion. Similarly, much of the current evangelical christian movement is a fundamentalist reaction to the compromises with modernity that mainline protestantism, and, to some extent, Vatican II Catholicism has made.
Similarly, the Conservative movement grew up as a reaction to the rapid social changes created by civil rights movements. The ground was shifting. The backlash was strong, and, though it did not reverse the gains of the civil rights movement, it stopped them short of their goals, and it also destroyed the economic security of earlier economic liberalism by reducing union membership, minimizing social safety nets, engaging in globalized trade, and the general deregulation of industry.
I submit to you that there is no existing concern of civil rights that is as pressing as those that existed in the post-WWII, pre-Conservative era. This is not to say that there are no problems in the civil rights realm, but that those can be handled largely through enforcement of existing civil rights laws.
2. States Are The Appropriate Forum For Social Progressivism.
Social movements are not like many economic problems in that they don’t require the participation of everyone to be effective. For example, one state going along to a single-payer insurance program would not be as cost effective as a federal plan. One state’s attempts to govern any commons, like, say, a river and protect it from pollution would be ineffective.
But if one state legalizes gay marriage, no one in that state loses his or rights without leaving. At the same time, the backlash is limited. Legalizing gay marriage in California will cause some shock in Alabama, but probably no action. Legalizing gay marriage nationwide would put people in the streets. And the representatives those people send to Washington won’t stop with a gay marriage repeal. If a bunch of reactionaries pass laws in Alabama, the reaction is contained there.
This is a political reflection of the reality that while the US shares many cultural aspects in common, there are in fact discrete cultures within the country.
3. Liberal Economic Policies Engender Social Progressivism; The Reverse Is Not True.
Lifting all boats gives more people a more equal voice in politics. Simply giving folks more economic security enables them to participate more actively in politics. When formerly marginalized groups can participate and wield power, they are less likely to need to rely on the good will of the majority to protect their rights.
On the other hand, allowing gay marriage will not cause an aggregate increase in real wages for the lowest earners. Abortion may be the exception that proves the rule, but I am not sure it’s effect is as directly aggregate as, say, single payer health care would be.
4. Social Progressivism Does Not Create a Governing Majority.
Social progressivism can only rely on approximately 225 electoral votes. In the process of getting those 225, however, they destroy their chances in many of the others. An economic populist can earn far more electoral votes with less resistance. My initial analysis confirms that the same is true in congressional districts. Recent special elections confirm this hypothesis.
In sum. there are many economic issues that can only be handled properly at the federal level, such as the environment, health care, and education spending. The number one economic issue, globalization, is necessarily federal in that it involves foreign relations.
There are no currently outstanding social issues that require emergency federal treatment.
Therefore, the new progressive federal majority should pursue a liberal economic agenda and simply preserve the status quo socially.