A Letter to the Wall Street Journal About What Progressives Want

The editors of the Wall Street Journal are clueless about who progressives are and what they want.

While the editors can find common ground with corporate liberals, they seem to think that progressives are mostly authoritarians who want to keep right-of-center speakers off college campuses, rather than populist libertarians who want to reign in unconstitutional government surveillance, end the corruption of uncapped campaign contributions and Super PACs, limit economic inequality, and reign in the domination of large multinational corporations and crony capitalists over American life.

When it comes to reporting hard news, the Wall Street Journal is actually one of the best news sources in the country, and, along with the New York Times, I read it almost every day. After all, the economic elites, who constitute its main readership, need a reliable source of information to have the understanding to maintain their economic and political dominance. But when it comes to the editorial and op-ed pages, the Wall Street Journal is mostly a mouthpiece for the hard right.

Recently the Wall Street Journal editorial pages ran an opinion piece by the paleoconservative American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray entitled "The Trouble Isn't Liberals. It's Progressives." (Murray is best known for arguing that all social welfare programs are failures and should be abolished, and his theory that inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of minorities and women. He has argued that "no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world's great philosophical traditions." The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified him as a "White Nationalist," which does not seem to bother the Wall Street Journal editors)

In his column, Murray speaks about a pleasant dinner he shared with "two men who have held high positions in Democratic administrations" whom he approvingly terms as acceptable "liberals." According to Murray's standards, "These Democrats should get exclusive possession of the world 'liberals.'"

Contrasting these good, inside-the-beltway, liberals to evil progressives, in Murray-world "[T]heir liberalism has nothing in common with the [progressive] political mind-set that wants to keep right of center speakers kept off college campuses, rationalizes the forced resignation of a CEO who opposes gay marriage, or thinks George F. Will should be fired for writing a column disagreeable to that mind-set. It has nothing to do with executive orders unilaterally disregarding large chunks of legislation signed into law or with using the IRS as a political weapon. My companions are on a different political plane from those on the left with that outlook -- the progressive mind-set."

As a progressive blogger for The Huffington Post for the past eight years , and a progressive activist and writer for much longer, I could no more recognize myself and my compatriots in Murray's characterization of "progressives" than I could agree with his opinions on the inferiority of minorities and women. It seemed to me that Wall Street Journal readers, even if the majority are conservative, would want a more accurate view of the "progressive mind-set", if for no other reason than to combat it. So as someone with a long track record writing and acting on progressive issues, I wrote a Letter to the Editor correcting Murray's characterization of the "progressive mind-set."

Here's the Letter:

To the Editor:

Charles Murray is correct that there are real divisions on the center-left between "progressives" and those he identifies as "liberals" (Op-Ed, July 1). But he has as much of a tin ear in understanding those divisions as many in the center-left have in understanding differences among those on the right.

The division is rarely, as Murray would have it, between responsible liberals and authoritarian progressives focused on keeping right-of-center speakers off college campuses. Indeed when it comes to civil liberties -- like NSA spying -- and interventionist foreign policy, progressives often have more in common with the libertarian right than they do with centrist Democrats. The divide on the left may not be so different from the divide on the right--It's between corporate liberal and conservative politicians whose campaigns in both parties are financed by powerful special interests, and populists on the left and right who reject the Washington-Wall Street axis.

The progressive critique of corporate liberalism was crystallized in the Journal's front page article "Clinton Money Machine Taps Corporate Cash" (July 2) detailing Clinton Inc.'s fundraising of $2 billion-$3 billion, more than half from industry sources. As David Brooks has written, "[Obama and Clinton] Democrats learned never to go to war against the combined forces of corporate America... [T]he Obama administration and the Congressional leadership go out of their way to court corporate interests, to win corporate support and to at least divide corporate opposition."

So unlike the Murray's out-of-tune caricature, the divide between corporate "liberals" whom Murray praises and "progressives" whom he condemns is between those who accept the corporate dominance of American politics as a given and those who challenge it.

What do progressives stand for? Here's a sampling: Breaking up the big banks--It they're too big to fail they're too big to exist; criminally prosecuting Wall Street executives whose fraudulent activity helped create the 2008 meltdown; mortgage relief to homeowners to match the bailout of the banks; a bigger, rather than smaller stimulus; large-scale public works projects to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and create jobs; single payer healthcare instead of the Heritage Foundation-inspired Obamacare; a more progressive tax system including a wealth tax, tax reform to eliminate American corporation's off-shoring tax avoidance schemes, and a carbon tax to put a price on emissions causing global climate change; public funding of elections to limit the corruption of democracy by concentrated wealth; and an end to unconstitutional metadata collection and warrentless wiretaps by the national security apparatus.

Murray would like to see greater dialogue between conservatives and those he considers to be "responsible" liberals (and whom many progressives would regard as corporate liberals). On the other hand, a dialogue between progressives and libertarians might also reveal a surprising amount of agreement, particularly on government surveillance and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, in a hypothetical 2016 Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul, for some progressives the choice of Clinton over Paul might not be completely obvious.

The Wall Street Journal would not publish the letter. Nor did it publish any other letters questioning Murray's characterization of progressives as left-wing authoritarians who should be expelled from the political dialogue. But as I think about it, this is one case where the Wall Street Journal may not want accuracy.

The interests of corporate conservatives like the Wall Street Journal and corporate liberals like Charles Murray's "liberal" friends would be threatened if conservative libertarians and progressive libertarians began to discover that, while they disagree about many things, they have more in common than they think when it comes to crony capitalism, government surveillance, an interventionist foreign policy, and too-big-fail banks.