It’s Policy, Stupid

Why progressives need real solutions to real problems.

It sure is tantalizing to become the side that just says “no.”

Given the spectacular collapse of GOP health care reform efforts, progressives may think they’ve hit upon the magic formula for victory: mobilize massive grassroots opposition to the Trump agenda, push Democrats in Congress to vote against everything, and then wait for the modern right’s unique combination of incompetence, extremism, and infighting to lead to their self-immolation.

The temptation for progressives to resist pushing their own concrete policy agenda is compelling, especially since doing so gives the other side ammunition for criticism and because conservatives have previously proven able to gain power by glossing over specifics. But doing little to advance realistic alternatives is not only harmful for the nation as a whole, it’s also counterproductive for the progressive movement in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s absolutely imperative for the left to steadfastly resist the right’s coordinated assaults on people in poverty, science, women, the judiciary, immigrants, non-Christians, the LGBTQ community, workers, human rights, and the environment — and on truth itself. Anyone who fails to oppose these attacks will be judged harshly by history.

But even as a political strategy, pure negativity has its limits. After all, the vast majority of Democratic messages in 2016 were negative against Donald Trump and the GOP — and Hillary Clinton lost key traditionally Democratic states, and thus the election, while the party failed miserably in their attempt to retake the Senate.

The most common excuses used by Democrats to explain why they lost — Russian interference, media bias, resentment from Sanders supporters, voter suppression, Hillary’s personal baggage, etc. — gloss over the single most important reason for defeat: they generally failed to persuade average Americans that they had real solutions to their real problems. Sure, Hillary proposed some very serious policy solutions, but she, and her communications team, rarely focused on them.

Last fall, as a volunteer in my vacation time, I spent a week campaigning for Hillary out of a campaign field office in Redding, Pennsylvania, a former manufacturing hub with one of the highest urban poverty rates in the nation — 40 percent — and a population that is 58 percent Latino. In a low-income neighborhood there, I met a Hispanic women who was on her porch with her children. She told me that she was unlikely to vote because she didn’t think either side would help her. I asked her if she wanted her children to be able to go to college and she responded, “Of course, but we will never be able to afford it.”  I then asked her if she was aware that Hillary had proposed a way to make college much more affordable, and she said she was not. After that exchange, she seemed marginally more likely to vote, but it is telling that, in a state in which Hillary’s campaign spent millions of dollars on campaign ads (far more than Trump), a targeted voter was unaware of one of Hillary’s most important policy positions.

The one uniting thing that prompted many working class white people to vote for Trump and many low-income people of color to not vote at all was their belief that the Democrats would not increase jobs, raise wages, make health care and education more affordable, or generally improve the standard of living for them and for their children. According to 2016 exit polls, 78 percent of voters who said their personal economic situation had gotten worse and 63 percent of voters who said the next generation would do worse than this generation voted for Trump over Clinton.

Fake solutions — such as those offered by Trump — beat no solutions every time. So if progressives keep failing to offer, and heavily promote, concrete ways to solve the problems of voters, they will likely keep losing.

But, let’s say, even if Trump and the GOP continue to govern so abysmally that they hand back power to congressional Democrats in the next election, it will be detrimental for the country if progressives don’t have a realistic, meaningful governing agenda to implement.

To truly fix America, the left needs to do more than fall back on old bromides, such as raising the federal minimum wage, re-regulating Wall Street, and guaranteeing paid family and medical leave. Such efforts are vital, but for rural, urban, and suburban communities with few or no jobs available to those who need them most, merely promising better wages or work conditions for existing jobs isn’t nearly enough when many people don’t have jobs at all. Likewise, punishing crooked titans of the financial industry won’t help working class families pay their mortgages.

Progressives must go bigger and bolder, but not necessarily farther to the left. They should offer comprehensive solutions to help the vast public that needs them, but also make sure their proposals are based in mainstream values such as rewarding work, strengthening communities, bolstering families, and guaranteeing accountability. They also must ensure that their proposals would equally aid rural, urban, and suburban America.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • A national infrastructure jobs program — targeted to repairing our existing roads, bridges, railroads, airports, parks, and drinking water systems; making the nation more energy independent; and bringing the fastest broadband Internet service to isolated rural towns and urban neighborhoods. This program should combine real work experience with 21st century job training and apprenticeships to ensure that all the jobs created are long-term, living-wage, and boost the international economic competitiveness of the US.
  • A dramatic expansion of the AmeriCorps national service program (which GOP leaders are now trying to eliminate). AmeriCorps provides modest living allowances and college aid to Americans who perform significant and structured community service by responding to natural disasters, boosting education, bolstering public safety, fighting poverty, improving health, helping the environment, and protecting homeland security. Any middle-class or low-income student should be able to pay their entire way through college by successfully serving in AmeriCorps.
  • A nationwide employee profit-sharing and employee ownership initiative to make it easier for workers to have a real stake in the success of their workplaces.
  • A dramatic overall improvement of domestic social service delivery by creating pilot programs to test H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) Accounts, which would use technology to coordinate access to multiple sources of government anti-poverty, health care, and work support programs and nonprofit aid. This would allow low-income individuals and households to voluntary work in conjunction with government and nonprofit agencies to boost their long-term economic advancement. (I detailed this idea in a previous column for Washington Monthly.)

Stopping the other side from taking disastrous actions is necessary and empowering, but concretely improving the everyday lives of Americans is the best way to both win and govern. Progressives should aim for nothing less.

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is the author of America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation and CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide, nonpartisan advocacy and direct service organization.