The vigorous agenda of social reform and expanded government services, particularly in health and higher education, promoted by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and now by a new class of Democrats in Congress, has much in common with mainstream European social democracy.
That senior Democratic party politicians perceive it as radical suggests that a big part of the party’s problems lie in its commitment to an ideology of free markets and deregulation of capital, and a concurrent lack of concern for issues of class and inequality.
This has left the Democratic Party’s liberalism excessively focused on issues of equal access for racial and ethnic minorities, women and sexual minorities.
It’s all created an opening for Republicans and the political right to denounce the party as led by disconnected “liberal elites” promoting “affirmative action” and “political correctness” while ignoring the interests of ordinary working- and middle-class Americans.
The Democratic party needs a revised image grounded in a new reality that will address basic issues of inequality, access and fairness. The central focus of a progressive program of reform must be to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, regardless of their race, gender or sexuality, and expand opportunities for personal and social mobility.
Real campaign finance reform will be critical in levelling the playing field. Sanders and other politicians have demonstrated that it’s possible to raise substantial funds by accepting only small donations. It is better for the democratic process to raise $150 million from a million citizens than from 50 or fewer millionaires.
In terms of economic policy, the value of public goods needs to be recognized again. A necessary first step will be to restore the tax on corporate profits to its previous level and refashion genuinely progressive income tax, returning even to the levels of the 1950s, a period marked by vigorous economic growth and increasing real income for most Americans.
This will make possible a significant increase in public revenue for public purposes.
This should be accompanied by a broad-based increase in the minimum wage and a restoration and reaffirmation of collective bargaining rights for public and private sector workers. A revival of anti-trust laws and a closer regulation of finance capital will restore competition, curb risky speculation and help prevent a repeat of the financial crisis of 2008.
Inequality is the underlying problem that is eroding social trust while devastating the well-being of individuals and communities across the country. After declining in the post-Second World War years, inequality since the 1980s has grown to grotesque proportions that have resulted in a tiny plutocracy with a combined wealth equal of more than 90 per cent of Americans.
In their book The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson document the heavy toll that persistent and growing inequality is taking on individuals, communities and on society as a whole.
Further, in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, author Robert D. Putnam vividly demonstrates how growing inequality and declining public resources have eroded the well-being of children and families in a mid-sized American city.
Renewed progressive policies need to make economic equality, health care and education central. The goal must be to eliminate poverty and discrimination that leave a large part of the population incapable of making the necessary productive contributions to tackle the challenges of the next 30 years.
Instead of access to health and education being rationed by cost, it must be enshrined as a fundamental right of citizenship and a critical foundation of the public interest.
In specific policy terms, a number of initiatives would flow from this commitment.
In addition to minimum wage, tax reforms and the restoration of collective bargaining, an educated population equipped with the skills required for the modern world is obviously of critical importance.
Public education must be reinforced with resources and up-to-date facilities. We need to reverse the trend of declining public support for secondary and higher education.
Policies that divert public resources to private schools managed by community groups and provide tax and financing incentives to profit-making companies across a range of trades — from beauty schools to training for medical assistants, paralegals and mechanics, many of which rely on federal funds for tuition — should be curtailed or eliminated.
Fund public education
Instead, public education must be funded in ways that reduce what has become a ruinous trend of student debt.
In its present form, the American health-care system is financed through a ramshackle mess of private and public funding that’s a laughing stock among other advanced countries.
It should be replaced by a coherent single-payer public health- care insurance system that provides quality levels of care for all citizens and regulates the behaviour and costs of the pharmaceutical industry.
A reformed tax system that distributes individual and corporate responsibilities in a fair and equitable fashion would provide growing resources to meet the individual and collective needs of all Americans.
This is the time to begin implementing the policies to meet these urgent priorities.
Commentators on the right often complain that such ideas are too costly, that they’re unaffordable.
And it’s true — these are not priorities for the right. The right’s solution is to push the costs on to users.
But the result is that health care and higher education have become unaffordable for many Americans. And the institutions of U.S. democracy are the collective property of all citizens. A reformed tax system that distributes burdens in a fair and equitable fashion would provide more than enough resources to put health care and education within reach for American citizens.
The time has come for Democrats to start vigorously pushing these urgent priorities and restore the promise of a secure and decent future for all Americans.