If the country is becoming more liberal on accepting minority rights, why is the left having such a hard time making progress on its bread-and-butter issues of class and economics, which were once its central, animating concerns? Why is liberalism half-dead, half-alive?
The inclusion of minorities in public life is a huge part of the American progressive narrative. The United States began as a country that limited political participation to property-owning white males. Eventually we opened the doors to all white men, and eventually all men and women (albeit with frustrating retrenchments along the way).
American history is a story of broadening political inclusion. It’s a story of progress (hence “progressivism”). MacGillis suggests that this is because expansions in minority rights–from women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage–rely upon appeals to that famous American individualism:
Despite notable exceptions, such as Social Security and Medicare, “in general, Americans are more liable to support movements from the left or from the right that talk in terms of rights and individual freedom than talk about collective rights or responsibilities,” said Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin.
Progressives should certainly reflect on this as they celebrate the Declaration of Independence, which is the founding document of American individualism. After their triumphant 2008 electoral victory, Democrats quickly surrendered the political momentum. When they presented compelling collective reasons to reform the health care system (e.g. cost savings, more egalitarian access to care, etc), conservatives pinned the “socialist” tag on the donkey–and it stuck.
The lesson? It’s difficult to fight for equality in American society without referring to the common good or social justice. As Demos Senior Fellow John Schwarz has argued, American progressives need to learn to make their economic arguments in terms of individual freedom.
If they’re unsure of how to approach this, they might look to their intellectual forebears. During the Gilded Age, in the early twentieth century, the original American progressives argued that the American Founding was a promise to future generations. While the U.S. Constitution provides American citizens with a number of individual rights, its Preamble promises collective benefits as well:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Get that? The Constitution’s guarantees are “common” and “general,” not “individual” and “particular.” They apply to everyone. American institutions have an egalitarian promise at their heart.
The original progressives argued that the common project of American democracy was in danger of losing its meaning. Industrialization was fundamentally changing the face of the American economy, and this carried political consequences as well. As courts repeatedly held that property and contract rights of industrial robber barons allowed them to exploit American child laborers (sound familiar?), the progressives asked if such unequal treatment had any place in a democratic nation. Modern progressives should do the same. As economic inequality grows, they must remind Americans that we’re better than this. We are not a country that cuts the safety net for its neediest citizens while protecting public subsidies to wildly profitable oil companies. This isn’t about protecting collective goods. It’s about keeping America’s promise to every individual citizen. That’s an argument that every American should recognize.