Democrats Rediscover Their True Progressive Roots

The party's new economic plan is a thinly-veiled return to the party's early 20th century progressive roots.
Democratic lawmakers huddle together in a coffee shop before unveiling their party's "A Better Deal" for working America
Democratic lawmakers huddle together in a coffee shop before unveiling their party's "A Better Deal" for working Americans in Berryville, Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017.

Over the past few decades, Democrats have done little to prevent entrenched corporations from monopolizing the U.S. economy, one of the largest drivers of economic inequality, and at the same time, have been too reticent to defend the new and independent businesses that drive job creation. However, last week, Democratic congressional leadership tapped into the party’s rich legacy of progressive capitalism through the release of its new economic plan — “A Better Deal” — a thinly-veiled return to the party’s early 20th century progressive roots. This approach has the potential to plant the seeds for a retro-reboot that Democrats desperately need.

The blueprint highlights a new Democratic commitment to “ensure start-ups and small business can compete and prosper” and “crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power.” It harkens back to an earlier age of Democratic politics — for example, the Democratic Party Platform in 1940 — which emphasized the importance of “new enterprises in our national economy” giving the “ordinary citizen a chance to go into business and stay in business,” and attacked the “unbridled concentration of economic power” via “the extortionate methods of monopoly.”

Rather than Big Oil and Big Steel, though, presumably Democrats will now begin calling to task the new monopolists dominating their industries — for starters, the big four airlines, half a dozen major banks, and yes, America’s tech giants with strong Democratic ties like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. The Party appears to finally be waking to the hard realities that it’s never been more difficult to be an entrepreneur in an America increasingly dominated by large corporate oligopolies, a major contributing cause to lower rates of investment in American communities and depressed workers’ wages.

We are simply not creating enough new businesses in the U.S., and those that are being created, are found in a smaller and smaller number of urban centers. The net result is unprecedented levels of geographic inequality, dividing the coastal, cosmopolitan powerhouses and our industrial and Rural heartlands into two different countries. It explains why years after the Great Recession’s official end, a majority of Americans still feel that their local communities are in a recession.

A modernized FDR-style agenda would focus on the following priorities: (1) increasing public and private sector investment in more communities; (2) limiting the public sector’s regulations on new businesses; (3) scrutinizing industry barons to prevent potential monopolies from exerting too much economic power; and (4) putting people to work immediately through a national infrastructure and job training program. However, for it to really take root today, and not merely serve as more empty rhetoric, Democrats must also be prepared to set aside long standing, Democratic dogma:

  • Stop blaming globalization and technology for U.S. economic challenges. Globalization and technology are inevitable forces, largely beneficial to Americans, who enjoy cheap goods, open markets, international peace, and modern conveniences. While these forces have enacted serious costs on certain industries, workers, and communities, solutions must be targeted, local, and inclusive of the private sector. 

  • Stop advancing an anti-capitalist rhetoric.  Capitalism is not the problem, it’s the only way a society creates wealth. However, for new and small businesses to thrive, there must be fair and open competition and more widely-shared access to capital.  If every solution involves additional regulation of the private sector, the first businesses to suffer are our fragile entrepreneurs, who are at the tip of the spear of building new American industries, and most importantly, the source of all net new American jobs.

  • Stop insisting that college education is the only road to success, and if only it were free, everyone would climb the socioeconomic ladder.  Only one in three Americans graduate from a four-year university, and in many smaller towns, those that leave for college, never come come back to build their communities. There needs to be more roads to success and meaningful careers (i.e. through apprenticeships and expanded vocational education) than simply white-collar jobs in large, cosmopolitan cities.

  • Stop confusing an anti-poverty agenda with a working class agenda. Both have their place, but Increasing the national minimum wage ignores the differences in local economies and is no substitute for a real plan to replace family-wage jobs that paid $60,000 or more. Universal Basic Income is no better, both politically and fiscally impractical, and unsustainable given its separation from work (an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit is a far better solution to enhance wages).

However, even a bold new agenda is not enough. Teddy Roosevelt, the original progressive Trust Buster, understood that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Democrats now have the burden of demonstrating they understand that national economic growth since the recession has not lifted all boats and that for many communities the American Dream is even further away.

Democrats should get out of Washington and localize their new agenda, making clear that their focus is on empowering local communities by giving them the tools to decide their own economic destiny. What works for California or New York may not work in Michigan or Ohio ... or, even more so, in Rural America. That will require spending far more time in smaller cities with local entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as young elected leaders, like those in The NewDEAL, who are building America’s economic ecosystems from the ground up.

A new chapter of Democratic leadership is desperately needed in America, and a real progressive agenda could unite the party, and win over the country.  It’s no coincidence that FDR’s Greatest Generation made up the Party’s most loyal voters for decades, ensuring fifty years of nearly unbroken Democratic control of Congress.