“Today the Campaign for America’s Future launches a new website—WageClassWar.org—to detail the new terrain of American politics,” announced one of its officials, Robert Borosage, on November 20, 2012. He added: “This was the first class warfare election of the new Gilded Age…More and more of our elections going forward will feature class warfare.”
My book Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002) characterized a far different bipartisan vision for America while recognizing the role of Borosage’s movement:
Traditional big-government, national progressivism is advocated…by the Campaign for America’s Future, a left-liberal coalition of: politicians; labor unions; environmental, consumer, and women’s groups; think tanks; journalists; and academics, which was launched in the summer of 1996 as an economic populist counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The Campaign marches in the footprints of the past to the drumbeat of economic justice.
The DLC was formed in 1985 to lead the Democratic Party back to the center from its losing leftward course. The DLC think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), espoused “a public philosophy built on progressive ideals, mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions.” Governor Bill Clinton was the fourth DLC chairman (1990‒1991).
In 1996, President Bill Clinton proclaimed, to the first Republican Congress since the 1950s (The White House, State of the Union Address, January 23, 1996):
The era of big government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. Instead we must go forward as one America…Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both.
I believe our new, smaller government must work in an old-fashioned American way, together with all of our citizens through state and local governments, in the workplace, in religious, charitable and civic associations….
I decided on the theme of Centering America after reading Harvard government professor Michael J. Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent (1996), discovering the lost strand of progressivism that I called the local progressive ideal, and recognizing its contemporary bipartisan manifestations. As I began the book:
Ironically, as we embark on our voyage through a new century, an overlooked common vision of reform manifestos from both political parties…would reach back—to the dawn of the twentieth century—and resurrect an old paradigm as the way-of-the-future for the Knowledge (or Information) Age. The paradigm is the local progressive ideal—the decentralization of government and economic power to local citizens and sustainable communities. This ideal has two fundamental tenets: local self-governance and individual economic independence, both of which stem from the principles of our Founders. This ideal restores the role of civil society as a complement to limited government in fostering independence and civic virtue (or public spirit) in citizens, to make them more capable of self-governance.…
What were those reform manifestos from both political parties?
A collection of essays on political philosophy by foremost Republican thinkers, led by Lamar Alexander, was published in 1995 by the Hudson Institute as The New Promise of American Life. In one of them, Chester E. Finn Jr. pointed out that Herbert Croly’s 1909 progressive manifesto, The Promise of American Life, was not the only historical progressive vision. Finn noted that: “Within progressivism…there was a schism of no small significance….One major faction sought a renaissance of individualism, of Jeffersonianism, of individual rights and small-scale enterprise.” The other essays generally supported that vision.
In 1997, the DLC/PPI published Building the Bridge: 10 Big Ideas to Transform America, which included “The New Progressive Declaration: A Political Philosophy for the Information Age” and declared:
Like the Progressives a century ago, we seek to initiate a new politics based on ideas…As the era of big government comes to a close, we must reconstruct the progressive agenda in keeping with the organizational, political, and social imperatives of the Information Age….Our task now is…to revive our lost traditions of citizenship, economic self-reliance, and voluntary civic action within self-governing communities….
This philosophy largely comported with that of The New Promise of American Life.
The 1990s were a period of shared prosperity. As I showed in Productivity, between 1996 and 2000, during the Internet (dot-com) boom, GDP grew at a rate of about 4 percent per year (not because of tax rates) and employment and wages increased for all—like the halcyon days of the 1950s.
Unfortunately, the collapse of the dot-com and housing bubbles and the 2008 financial crash resulted in slower economic growth since 2000 and high unemployment. Those who educated themselves for the global information age have prospered while others have not, as I elucidated in The Middle Class and Governance. The improvements in public and higher education required to provide workers with the competency needed for this era’s jobs have still not materialized.
Moreover, the era of big government was not over. Improvidently, both political parties returned to enlarging government but not to paying for its growth. Republicans have followed a “starve the beast” strategy—tax cuts to restrain spending by limiting revenue—while Democrats have responded with “feed the beast”—greater spending without comparable tax increases. (Christopher DeMuth, “The Real Cliff,” The Weekly Standard, December 24, 2012) When my old boss, President George H. W. Bush, acted to limit the deficit by balancing spending and taxes in a 1990 budget agreement, it cost him the 1992 election. Both parties have continued debt-financing of consumption and expanding entitlements.
The turn to class warfare began as early as 2000 in Vice President Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention (Michael Novak, “Al Gore and the ‘Wicked Project’,” National Review, September 25, 2000):
Al Gore…is trying to erect his presidency on the shameful act of teaching resentment of ‘the rich and powerful’ to ‘working families’.…The ‘rich and powerful’ are the very people of daring, imagination, and talent the country will need if prosperity and invention are to continue as they have…If they are rich and powerful now, it’s because they created even greater wealth for others….His convention speech was the most Marxist tirade I have ever heard an American president or presidential nominee give….
This resentment is the terrible fuel behind the one vice that has destroyed all previous republics—not hatred, not violence, not luxury, not even moral decline, but envy. Envy tears down. Envy would rather punish and even destroy the rich than raise up the poor. Envy doesn’t mind…fixing them in perpetual dependency….The Marxisant Democrats…their only incentive—their total preoccupation—is political power.
Pew Research confirms that partisan differences between the parties were relatively stable to about 2000, but have grown by more than 60 percent since then. (“Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years,” June 4, 2012)
The Democratic left, including the Campaign for America’s Future and President Obama—fueled by the American academy—have made economic justice to rectify inequality through redistribution their signature issue, returning to Herbert Croly’s national progressivism—big government and control of the economy. The academy seeks social justice through Croly’s progressive democracy, as I explained in Democracy.
Ironically, the DLC was dissolved in February 2011, reflecting the return to power of the far left. In an even greater irony, columnist Thomas L. Friedman has suggested that the far right today “needs its own DLC.” (“Send in the Clowns,” The New York Times, December 12, 2012)
In less than two decades, the hopefulness of a more bipartisan centrist nation—heading towards a local progressive ideal reflecting our founding principles—has been replaced by the anxiousness of a sharply divided, more unequal nation without sufficiently educated citizens, strong economic growth, and the financial means to satisfy entitlement expectations and economy-stifling debt. Unless that course can be reversed, class war by an emboldened progressive and academic left, seeking “social justice,” could auger our self-destructive way-of-the-future.
The next article will begin a series examining the ideas of social justice and fairness.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).