Demos Chief: Why Progressives Should Take Heart (Part 2)

At a small gathering in Los Angeles recently, Miles Rapoport, president of the 13-year-old progressive think tank Demos, expressed optimism about the future for progressive values and policies.

Miles's talk was inspiring, but I asked him to elaborate by answering questions from a skeptic's point of view. Following is Part 2 of our dialogue. (Here is Part 1.)

Without campaign finance reform, the chances for systemic changes in economic policy and other items on the progressive agenda are slim to none. Congressional gridlock, corporations, lobbyists and even the Supreme Court are lined up against meaningful change. The issue is barely on voters' radar and even progressive politicians are too busy dialing for dollars to push for change. What makes you think we can change that?

Miles: This may be the toughest nut to crack of all. Money has played an increasing and increasingly awful role in politics, on all sides. But we have to fight back. In the short term, states can pass public financing of elections, as Connecticut, Arizona and Maine have. In the long term, we have to get the courts to revisit their ruling on freedom of speech so that it no longer includes the right to buy the biggest, drown-out bullhorn you can. But the good news is that even now, money spent doesn't always mean victory. Just ask Sheldon Adelson and Karl Rove!

What does the Right have right about the Left? Where can we be better?

Miles: Progressives, for a long time, have been too fragmented, either by ideology, or by what issue you care about most, or competition for funding, or other reasons. We definitely need better coordination, more mutual support, more funding, and the broadest possible coalition, focusing on full inclusion of everyone. We also were slower than the Right in realizing that a major focus needs to be on communications--honing, repeating, and widely spreading our messages. And again, the good news is that more and more people are recognizing these things, the playing field has indeed been leveling, and we are having some real success.

Some would say that what attracts investment to the U.S. is peace and a favorable legal framework to accumulate and maintain property. Let's say we succeed in reining in the power of mega-corporations in terms of wage fairness, environmental controls and enlightened workers' rights and union laws. Wouldn't corporations simply flee to other parts of the world that have cheap labor and loose regulations?

Miles: I think it is a distorted argument. While we can't and shouldn't compete to be the lowest wage economy in the world, we can compete if we invest in our infrastructure, our educational system, and in research. Countries in Europe have done this successfully without our levels of inequality or economic insecurity. As far as globalization goes, we absolutely need to fight for new rules for the global economy that allow all countries and people to thrive, rather than viewing globalization as a giant race to the bottom.

How can a more progressive America persuade developing countries to do what's needed to deal with the effects of climate change?

Miles: We can start to lead by setting a much better example. The U.S. still uses a huge share of global energy, and we are only slowly putting our own house in order. We will be in a much better bargaining position if we do that, including signing on to sensible international treaties and protocols. We can also see that other countries, like China, are beginning to invest in cleaner technologies (and raise wages) as their economies become more mature.

Are you optimistic about prospects for a less militaristic foreign policy?

Miles: I'm beginning to be optimistic on this as well. Budget necessities, and even the sequester, have led to the first serious evaluations of defense policy and the defense budget in decades. I think there is more to come, and a real possibility of changing the fundamental premise that the U.S. is indeed the sole world policeman. The pullback in Syria was an interesting example. Ironically, this could be one issue where there is a genuine left-right coalition to be built.

If the demographic and cultural changes you see lead to future Democratic Congresses and Presidencies, the character of the Supreme Court could change dramatically. How does that figure in to your vision of a more progressive country?

Miles: The Supreme Court has been an unyielding barrier to change over the last ten years. But it will change, and even before that we can make serious changes in judicial decisions at lower levels. As the judicial system has reflected the political and attitudinal changes in the country on gay and lesbian rights, I believe it will reflect these changes on economic issues and even, finally, on campaign finance issues. But it will require a serious effort--as the Right made--to move jurisprudence along with legislative policy.