By James Kwak
Ever since I finished Economism (and the 2016 elections, which happened about the same time), there has only been one thing I have wanted to write. I tried in “The Importance of Fairness: A New Economic Vision for the Democratic Party,” and in “A New Economic Vision, in 27 Words,” and again in “Hey Democrats, the Problem Isn’t Jobs and Growth.”
I wanted to write this thing because it has become clear to me not only that our economic world is screwed up in all sorts of obvious ways, but also that the only viable path to fixing it runs through the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is what it is; even if it weren’t currently in the grip of a madman, it would at best be the party of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, … you get the point. The 1% will always have their party. The problem is that the 99% don’t have theirs. The result has been the rightward drift of our entire political system, in which Republicans use their turns in power to advance their extremist agenda, and we Democrats use our at-bats to hold the line and nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court.
So the important question is how the Democratic Party can be rallied behind a new economic vision that can both stem the rising tide of inequality and wrest control of the political landscape back from the conservatives. And that, of course, means we have to replace the economic vision of Clinton, Obama, Clinton, and most of the primary candidates today: the fantasy that private sector growth, aided by clever government nudges to make markets work better, can solve all problems for all people.
The working title of Take Back Our Party—the one I carried around in my head but was too embarrassed to tell people—was Manifesto of Our Democratic Party. (David Dayen eventually agreed with me that it was too presumptuous.) But they idea was very simple: They—the party establishment—have their Democratic Party; but we have a vision of a different Democratic Party. And ours is better. Hence the titles of Chapters 1 and 4.
Their party has failed, both as policy (25 years of rising inequality) and as politics (see the enormous shift in control of state governments over the past decade and the election of Donald Trump). If you’re reading this, you probably agree with me. (If you don’t, read Chapters 2 and 3.) But the question is what to replace them with.
In my 27-word economic vision from back in 2017, this is what I said:
All people need a few basic things:
- An education
- A job
- A place to live
- Health care
- A decent retirement
Let’s make sure everyone has these things.
That’s basically what Chapter 4 says, in many more words, except that I dropped jobs from the list (for reasons explained in depth there).
The epigraph of that chapter was originally another Don Draper gem: “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” For too long, the Democratic economic message has been that we like markets and business just as much as the Republicans, only we are better at managing markets and helping businesses grow. And throughout that time, this may have been true, but ordinary people know they are getting left further and further behind as the rich jet off into another dimension of wealth and success. Another clever infrastructure investment plan or a new tax credit for apprenticeships, supposed to generate jobs and growth, is not going to change the way people see the world.
We need to change the conversation. We need a new message. We can’t just say we feel people’s pain and ask them to trust us to increase economic growth. Our message should be that a good society takes care of all its members; that that means making sure everyone has the basic necessities of life, including health care, education, housing, and retirement income; and that government is the way a society fulfills these obligations to its members. This is the message that Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed in 1944.
I can’t promise you that this is the right platform to lead us to victory. But I can promise you that the one we have now isn’t working. It isn’t slowing the rise of inequality, and it isn’t giving voters a reason to choose us. It’s time for a change.
Here’s the final chapter of Take Back Our Party. Thanks for reading.