The American Promise isn’t looking too promising to a lot of Americans.
Many young people, especially those with a college education, think the country is basically irredeemable. In their view, it was founded on racism, sexism, and genocidal colonialism, and all the Framers’ fine words about equality of opportunity are sick jokes played on marginalized communities. The only possibility of real change, these Millennial and Gen Z Americans believe, is to fundamentally reprogram how average people think and to replace capitalism with Scandinavian-style socialism—and they rate the chance of those happening before they reach an impoverished old age and/or the Earth becomes uninhabitable at about zero.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the age-educational-ideological spectrum, a sizable chunk of the electorate thinks America is decadent. To them, it is obvious that the Christian values they believe undergird constitutional liberties have eroded to the point of near collapse; that illegal immigrants are being invited in to dilute their political power; that wokeness and pedophilia have infested all the country’s institutions; and that if these threats can’t be beaten back through electoral politics, then authoritarian means will have to do.
In between are the majority of Americans. They don’t buy into these apocalyptic worldviews. But they aren’t feeling too cheery about America’s future, either, with the country’s politics so poisonous and their own economic situations so perilous.
It could be that the darkest fears prove accurate, and that America has crossed a point of no return toward inevitable decline. Perhaps the next election will be the last truly democratic one. It’s possible that real or perceived antidemocratic moves by one party will lead to a violent insurgency by followers of the other. At the very least, it’s easy to see the political trench warfare of a country split roughly 50-50, with one party representing the majority of voters and GDP and the other a majority of acreage, continuing to hinder the actions necessary to deal with mass generational downward mobility and the growing oligarchic control of the economy that are the primary fuel of today’s fiery political dissention.
But there is another possibility: that we’ve not crossed a point of no return but have stepped back from it. The defeat of so many antidemocratic MAGA candidates in swing states this past November is one sign, but I think it’s bigger than that. A decade and a half of economic and political turmoil—the Great Recession, followed by the Occupy Wall Street protests, followed by Tea Party–induced near debt default, followed by the election of Donald Trump, followed by the Women’s March and the Black Lives Matter protests, followed by the January 6th coup attempt, followed by rampant inflation and shortages of everything from cars to baby formula, followed by a bloody proxy war against Russia, followed by a midterm in which democracy barely dodged a bullet—might finally have convinced enough Americans, especially elites, that the current economic order is not working and that we need a new one.
The central tenet of the current order, sometimes called “neoliberalism” (not to be confused with the very different meaning that word had for Monthly founder Charles Peters when he used it to describe the philosophy of this magazine), is that markets are best left to run themselves, and that government restrictions on corporate behavior generally impede efficiency and reduce prosperity. Both political parties, to one extent or another, embraced this neoliberal thinking several decades ago. Both, to different degrees, are now backing away from it. The Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, with its hundreds of billions of dollars for green energy, is the most obvious example. But even establishment Republicans, responding to their angry base, are trying to put some daylight between themselves and corporate interests. (“I didn’t even know the Chamber [of Commerce] was around anymore,” then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quipped last fall.)
While the old economic order is failing, we don’t yet know what paradigm will replace it—though what it should achieve is clear enough. To be judged successful, a new economic order would need to reverse the income and wealth declines that the bottom 60 percent of the country has suffered for decades. It would have to deliver those gains across the board—to Blacks, Latinos, and working-class whites, in metro and rural areas alike. It would have to protect America from the economic predations of China and Russia and, relatedly, strengthen the fragile supply chains that nearly brought the U.S. and world economies to their knees. Because of this international dimension, a sound economic strategy would need to be attractive to other countries, especially our closest allies in Europe and Asia. Most of all, if there is any hope of repairing America’s fractured democracy, it would have to appeal politically to a broad majority of American voters.
In think tanks and advocacy groups around Washington, the race is on to provide this new economic vision, but so far, the most talked-about candidates don’t inspire much confidence. Many on the socialist left are promoting hitherto unthinkably large social interventions, like a guaranteed basic income, that are unlikely to gain wide political support—they didn’t even fly with Democratic primary voters in 2020—and in any event are intended to alleviate the failures of a capitalist economy, not fix capitalism. In more establishment center-left circles, where corporate lobbyists carry some weight, the big idea is for government to subsidize “strategic” industries, as the new CHIPS Act does microchip makers, without asking very much of these industries in return. On the right, the excitement is around “postliberal” intellectuals who admire foreign strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. These thinkers call (vaguely) for an expanded welfare state to rebuild families and communities, but one guided by a theocratic central government.
There is another emerging economic paradigm, however, that is more promising. The Biden administration’s crackdown on monopolies reflects this thinking, but it encompasses a wider range of policy tools than just antitrust enforcement. And it is rooted in a theory of politics and economics that derives not from European socialist or reactionary traditions but from a uniquely American one articulated by the Framers, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
The basic idea is that preserving democracy and liberty requires checks and balances not just on government but on the economy as well; that power, whether political or economic, should not be granted to any one entity, but distributed broadly; and that a stable republic requires that government guarantee individuals (white men at the time, all adult citizens today) not just an equal right to vote but also an equal chance, through possession of assets (a farm, a business, professional or trade skills, and so on), to make a respectable living.
This tradition, sometimes called civic republicanism, animated many of the country’s most successful economic reforms. These include the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided small, reasonably priced land holdings and free public schools to western settlers, including Black people (though at the expense of Native Americans); the Civil War–era Morrill Act, which created land grant colleges to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”; the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts, which gave federal agencies authority to break up monopolies and open markets for entrepreneurs; the 1963 Higher Education Facilities Act, which funded the building of community colleges; and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which, for the first time, provided federal financial aid to any aspiring student, regardless of class, race, or gender, who lacked the means to go to college.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, America was hit by a brutal combination of recession, inflation, and rising international competition that seemed to defy conventional solutions. Perplexed policy makers turned to the idea that unshackling markets from government restraint was the answer. For a while, that seemed to work. But over time, this libertarian approach led to (among other foreseeable evils) monopolization, deindustrialization, plummeting entrepreneurship, Gilded Age levels of income and wealth inequality, billionaires corrupting the political process, supply chains stripped of resiliency, and, once again, inflation. This free market ideology was even applied to non-profit sectors of the economy, like hospitals and colleges. The result was greater privilege for the wealthy, soaring costs for the many, and scandalous treatment of the poor.
If this history sounds familiar, it may be because versions of it have appeared in hundreds of separate articles in the Washington Monthly over the years. But we’ve never really pulled the different strands of our work and thinking together. In 2023, we are going to try to do that, with the aim of offering an integrated theory that can compete in the contest now under way to replace the neoliberal regime.
That effort starts with this issue, which features a package of articles that unearth civic republican approaches to past economic dilemmas that can be applied to current ones. Nicholas Lemann explains how the concept of “political economy,” a central focus of American politics from the founding to World War II, disappeared from the national conversation but is making a much-needed comeback. Phillip Longman reports on a largely forgotten statute, the Robinson-Patman Act, which barred price discrimination based on market power in retailing, and how that law can be used to combat today’s inflation, shortages, and inequality. And Barry Lynn offers a treatise on how to eliminate dangerous chokepoints in international supply chains by rebuilding a version of industrial policy that Washington foolishly abandoned decades ago.
Elsewhere in the issue, James Fallows provides the latest in a series of dispatches he and his wife, Deborah, are writing on colleges that are using their power and resources to improve the economic and civic life of their local communities.
I can appreciate the deep pessimism many Americans feel about the country and its future. It is often born of personal experience and a keen appreciation of America’s (often monstrous) failings. But while I understand the feeling, I don’t share it. Quite the opposite. Not to get all state-of-the-union on you, but I’m convinced that America’s best days are ahead of us, and that this country’s uniquely rich endowment of institutions, resources, and culture provides it with a greater potential to achieve broad-based prosperity than any other country on Earth, by a mile. But to tap that potential will require a plan, a vision. Watch this space.