It is important that we frame progressivism as the moderate position that it is, and conservatism as the radical position that it has become. (More)


In the political world, how a position is categorized is often critical to whether it will prevail. If your position is considered by the chattering classes to be “radical,” the chances of it passing are slim. If, on the other hand, your position is considered to be “moderate” or “reasonable,” the chances are that your position will prevail. Most people in the American electorate, regardless of their political affiliation, like to consider themselves to be reasonable and moderate people. And that is why Republicans and their conservative media backers work hard to portray any position taken by progressives as being “radical” while at the same time they lie about their own conservative positions to make them appear more moderate. And it is why it is problematic that progressives too often act as if they are outside of the mainstream and that they need to change their beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate.

While the framing of progressive ideas as “radical” works far too often for conservatives, it is important to keep in mind that it does not reflect reality. Instead, on issue after issue, the progressive ideal of using government to establish rules and regulations for markets to operate in and tax policies to fund social goods that individuals and the free market cannot or will not provide is the centrist position between the conservatives’ desire for a virtually unfettered free market and, on the other side, socialism. In other words, progressives and liberals occupy the middle ground between conservatives and leftists, and we should start viewing and portraying ourselves that way.

A great example of this is seen in Joe Nocera’s recent column in the New York Times titled The Banking Miracle, in which Mr. Nocera, who is supportive of regulation of the banking industry, refers to the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act as “amazingly radical.” As Winning Progressive contributor Mark Bridger has explained:

The second Glass-Steagall Act (1933) did two important things. First, it set up the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which insures bank deposits. This was crucial in restoring faith in the banks after their failures during the Depression. Second, it separated banks into two types – commercial and investment – and forbade either from offering the services provided by the other. A commercial bank is what most of us think of as a bank: it makes loans and gives mortgages, accepts deposits and pays interest, and offers services like checking accounts, CDs etc. An investment bank, on the other hand, deals with corporations. It underwrites (finances) stock offerings, speculates in stocks, and creates all sorts of financial “instruments” such securitized mortgages (mortgages bundled into stock offerings), credit-default swaps (“insurance” on possibly bad loans) and other “derivatives.” To get an idea of how this plays out, check out a book such as Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis.

Before Glass-Steagall, any bank could act as a commercial bank or investment bank or both. A bank could use deposits to finance securities speculation, for example. If the risks didn’t pan out, the depositors could be left holding the bag. As the story goes, banks that were exclusively commercial were afraid and envious of the money-making potential of investment banks; correspondingly, investment banks were greedy for the large funds that depositors could provide. Banks that combined both functions seemed to have a tremendous advantage if sheer money-making potential was the object. Furthermore, regulators were anxious to insulate depositors from speculation with their savings; creating the FDIC could not be possible in this atmosphere. Thus, the main provision of Glass-Steagall II was to require that banks be either commercial or investment banks, but not both.

Mr. Nocera refers to Glass-Steagall, which was repealed in 1999 by legislation that, unfortunately, was signed by President Clinton, as “amazingly radical” because the regulations that were put into place by that act are far more stringent than anything that is considered politically possible today. But while Glass-Steagall type regulations may be outside of the political mainstream right now, in terms of the ways we could structure the financial system in American, the regulatory approach represented by Glass-Steagall represents the middle ground.

At one extreme we have so-called “free market” conservatives, who believe that the financial industry should be allowed to function with little to no regulation. At the other extreme is socialism, in which the government would own and operate the banks and other means of production. Progressives reject both these views as too one-sided and, instead seek to allow the free market to function by having government establish and enforce rules, set up social safety nets, and invest in public goods so that the economy will thrive and benefit society.

Progressives realize that there are times when one of the extremes is the best option. For example, the facts on the ground show that single-payer health insurance systems, such as Medicare, are more effective and less costly than health care systems that rely on private insurance. Similarly, as Matthew Yglesias points out frequently, cities would function better if the creation of parking for residential and commercial areas were dictated by the free market rather than by minimum parking requirements.

But in most cases, the middle ground – the actual one, not what the media has falsely identified as such – is what works. Most core economic functions, such as producing goods, extracting resources, or responding to market demand, are done most effectively by the free market. Yet just as our road system would not work without rules and you cannot raise children successfully without rules, that free market system will not function and thrive without rules (i.e.: regulations). And it is that fundamental acknowledgment of the need for a middle ground between unfettered free markets and government control of the means of production that is at the core of progressive thought and makes progressivism the centrist position.

So, as you discuss politics and policy with family, friends, and colleagues, or write letters to the editor and comments, I would urge my fellow progressives to take to heart the message that we are the true moderates and that we don’t need to water down or change our message in order to remain so.

(Cross-posted from Winning Progressive)