Ideas, Interests, and the Challenge for Progressives

By James Kwak

Updated based on feedback from Matt Stoller. See bottom.

Mike Konczal wrote an article a few days back arguing that various progressive policies aimed at helping poor people would not be able to pry the “white working class” away from Donald Trump and Trumpism. I think the article was insightful and intelligently argued. This was my quick response:

In other words, it’s the long term that matters. We need policies that create broadly shared prosperity not because they will peel away Trump supporters in the short term, but because they are the right thing to do. And in the long term, if progressives prove that they can deliver the goods—a society with less inequality and less economic insecurity—that will change the political landscape.

Dani Rodrik wrote a longer, better response to Konczal. Rodrik’s perspective, which he’s presented in greater depth in the Journal of Economic Perspectives and a recent paper with Sharun Mukand, is that political outcomes result from the interaction of interests and ideas. As he writes in his recent post, “The politics of ideas is about activating identities that may otherwise remain silent, altering perceptions about how the world works, and enlarging the space of what is politically feasible.” Politicians appeal in part to voters’ interests, but also attempt to make salient identities that they share (or pretend to share) with particular segments of the electorate.

In this framework, Konczal may be correct—progressive economic policies may not appeal to white, working class Trump voters—but that’s because progressives lost the battle of ideas long ago. The implication is that progressives need better ideas, not just more effective policies. In his post, Rodrik cites Konczal’s example of people who “view the federal government as something that is helping people ‘cut in line,'” and continues:

In other words, people dislike and distrust the government. And yes of course, conditional on that belief, the progressives’ agenda of enhanced environmental regulation will not draw the support of the people it tries to help. Same with dealing with the banks, creating more jobs, or progressive taxation.

Clearly, the progressives have lost the war of ideas here – on government as a force for good. Equally clearly, they will not win it by offering detailed policy proposals on each one of these areas.

We progressives tend to be rather smug about the belief that our policies (infrastructure spending, social insurance, expanded family leave, universal pre-K, etc.) will do a better job helping poor people than typical conservative policies (cut taxes and regulations and let the invisible hand do its magic). Where we have generally failed is in convincing ordinary people, not policy wonks, that our vision will create a better society for them and their families—or perhaps that we have a vision at all.

This is hard to do, and I don’t have a simple answer for how to do it. But it is something that the right did extraordinarily well during their decades in the wilderness after World War II. It was an article of faith among Hayek, Friedman, Buckley, and the old conservative warriors that ideas mattered—that they could only gain political power by undermining the intellectual and political near-consensus around the New Deal. Part of their success lay in transforming their economic policy program—small government, low taxes, union-busting—into a powerful ideology that could appeal to people in all classes. Ronald Reagan’s message that government was the problem, and that the solution lay in unleashing the energy of the free American people, was and remains compelling even to people who have been the victims of Reaganite policies. More generally, the idea that markets are the best way to solve all problems has become so completely baked into contemporary discourse that it is no longer seen as an ideology. (This is roughly what I call “economism” in my new book.)

In the battle of ideas, progressives have been on the back foot ever since Reagan, which is probably one reason why we like to retreat to the realm of policy detail, where we can revel in our technocratic superiority. But somehow, as Rodrik points out, “they need to convince the electorate that it is their interests they have at heart – not those of bankers or of large corporations.” That could also take thirty-five years. But we have to begin somewhere.

Update: Matt Stoller responded with several tweets on Twitter. I think this one encapsulates his criticism:

Stoller is rightly pointing out that you could read my post to say that the only fault of progressives has been failing to make a better case for their policies—when, in fact, Democratic administrations have inflicted plenty of lousy policies on the poor and the middle class (welfare reform, 1997 capital gains tax cut, financial deregulation, HAMP, looking the other way on foreclosures, etc.).

Now, I don’t consider either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama a progressive, but there is disagreement about what that term means. So let’s just say this: One reason Democrats have failed to win the hearts and minds of large segments of the working class is that our actual policies, when we have been in power, have not served them that well. Yes, our policies were generally better than what Republicans would have done; and yes, there were some that helped the poor, such as Medicaid expansion and the Obamacare subsidies. But on balance, the Democrats have done little to reverse the tide of the Reagan Revolution. In the future, if we want to win back the whole working class, we’ll need both better policies and a better vision than “we’re not as bad as the Republicans.”

13 responses to “Ideas, Interests, and the Challenge for Progressives

  1. Well i would’nt care so much about my wage as long as i can afford everything i need. The gvt prevents me from affording the simple(pursuit of happiness) things of life, while raising the cost of living and then holding me accountable financially for my needs.
    The gvt then, (by being a democracy of never ending clash of ideals), is guilty of obstructing wisdom once the laws of nature are applied or considered.
    Evil, corrupt gvt employees, you are need of reform, at any cost.

  2. That will be difficult as long as it is advantageous for the opposition to destroy than construct.

  3. Its a battle of ideals, yet the laws of nature always win at the end, this gvt is on the wrong side of nature, ergo, the gvt loses at the end, and the people get the chance to even the odds of gvt failure once again. There is no debate, no compromise on this issue, it just is what it is.

  4. “….In other words, it’s the long term that matters…..”

    No kidding – Global War Drug and Slave Lords have been pulling the same schtick for thousands of years – stay hidden from the villagers until the villagers finish their labor of gathering up the harvest – then the depraved blood thirsty savages attack the village, kill them all and live – ideally – off the fruits of their labor.

    Prove me wrong.

    Still want a divorce from “The Patriot Act”. Declaration of Independence – plaster it everywhere so people REMEMBER who we are and what is our duty and that We the People have the RIGHT TO PROTECT OURSELVES FROM PREDATORS.

  5. I would like to second what you wrote: “We need policies that create broadly shared prosperity not because they will peel away Trump supporters in the short term, but because they are the right thing to do. And in the long term, if progressives prove that they can deliver the goods—a society with less inequality and less economic insecurity—that will change the political landscape.”

    It will be harder to address the misinformation that comes from corporations and billionaires, because they have a vested interest in policies that benefit them at the expense of everyone else, and they have the means to do it, and the infrastructure in the form of think tanks and media corporations. (To make it worse, big corporations are generally controlled by wealthy white men, and they run those corporations more for their benefit than for the shareholders.) The best that can be hoped for is to eliminate private money from campaign finance as much as possible (one possibility is the state systems sed in AZ, CT, and ME), but that won’t stop politicians from representing fat cats spreading misinformation.

  6. It’s interesting to me that so many people bring up the widely-held view that the federal government is “something that is helping people ‘cut in line,'” while rarely acknowledging the truth of the sentiment. This is what’s actually happening. Now, there’s a good reason for it to happen (some people *should* be able to “cut in line” because these are the same people who were, time and again, sent to the “back of the line” by racist and sexist laws, policies and behavior adopted by the very government which is now undoing its past misdeeds). But that doesn’t change how much the people who are being “disadvantaged” (or just relegated to their proper place) are not going to like it. Let me be clear: “No one” cares if a policy is moral when it hurts their standard of living. The fourth quintile, mainly white men propped up by the system for (at least) the last few centuries, are lost to progressives for decades to come. So we should probably stop hand-wringing and try to take away their guns (just kidding, we’ll never take away their guns).

  7. Progressives need better salesmanship to convince a broader audience. Use stories and rhetorical devices to communicate better, speak in common language, and make statistics relatable. That is the exact opposite of how progressive academics and lawyers write. A career based on publishing to demonstrate your intellect to peers is counterproductive to persuading a wide audience.

    Progressives should study the communication styles of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and even Hannity and O’Reilly. That includes appealing to identity. Because in persuasion, style does matter as much as substance.

  8. William Fritz

    I’m afraid, in the modern media world, the thing Progressives have lost is their ability to master the “sound bite.” So many Republican ideas can be stated in short, SIMPLE TO UNDERSTAND “ideas” that can be consumed in a couple of seconds. A Progressive tries to answer in a sound, reasoned argument and the eyes of the Fox news consumer glaze over in another ten seconds. I don’t know how to fix this, exactly, because good ideas are seldom, if ever, simplistic or simple enough to be encapsulated in a “sound bite.” It’s a topic we Progressives need to think about in detail, along with listening to what George Lakoff has to say about “framing” issues.

  9. Great article. Its simple although difficult to accomplish. Create policies that work and speak to peoples hearts in order to convince them of their necessity. Can’t have one without the other.

  10. Ray LaPan-Love

    Something missing here, the Dems have a glitch, politics in the modern era takes more money, and lots more of it, and those who have it benefit most when labor is cheap. So, the Dems, the psuedo-left-pretender progressives, have slowly but surely removed the glitch by replacing their working-class base with a base made up of racially devised ‘blocs’. This however required a shift away from the labor issues that put them at odds with Big-Money, to issues which appeal to people of color and women. Hence, we are seeing a new order of things political. But Repugs, have the same problem as the Dems when it comes to crafting a message that will draw working-class support without alienating the rich and powerful. So, it took an oddball such as Trump to find a base that had been ignored. Luckily for the Dems though, Trump is so deeply flawed that he failed to find ‘enough’ support, but the lies on each side are exposed now. Things must change.

  11. Guess no one remembers Grandma saying, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

    I would never answer a pollster honestly….only idiots do that…

  12. Ray LaPan-Love, your comment implies that Peter Thiel can run for president and win. My comment is meant to imply that he will, possibly in the next few days.

    Too bad Sabado Gigante has stopped taping new episodes. It’s the only weekly show that could adequately cover this election.