It's a commonplace sentiment that politics in America is broken. Each week brings more evidence of deadlock in Washington, of social and economic decay and of disillusionment. The debased nature of politics, however, is only the most superficial symptom of our problems. Beneath the surface-level partisan bickering, much deeper currents have begun to shift.
Recent polls, for instance, show that roughly 80 percent of Americans believe their Congressional representatives to be "more interested in serving the needs of special interests groups" than "the people they represent." Almost four out of five believe a few rich people and corporations have much too much power. And only 37 percent - not much more than a third of the population - have confidence in the most solemn and august of American institutions, the Supreme Court.
It is clear that something different is going on - both with the economy and, more fundamentally, with democracy itself. The data on long-running trends are clear:
Real wages for roughly 80 percent of American workers have not gone up more than a trivial amount for at least three decades. At the same time, income for the top 1 percent has jumped from 10 percent of all income to roughly 20 percent. Put another way: Virtually all the gains of the entire economic system have gone to a tiny, tiny group at the top - for at least three decades.
Another disturbing trend: Almost 50 million Americans live in officially defined poverty. The rate is higher, not lower than in the late 1960s. Moreover, if we use the measuring standard common throughout the advanced world - half of median income - the number would be just below 70 million, and the rate almost 23 percent.
This is to say nothing of an unemployment rate that, if properly measured, is stuck in the range of roughly 14 to 15 percent. At the same time, a record 46.7 million Americans were on food stamps in 2012, up by 51 percent from the depths of recession in October 2008: another milestone on our collective road of decay.
And looming over all this, of course, is the mother of all difficulties: the building climate crisis.
The current political system is simply incapable of dealing with such challenges. It focuses on deficits, not answers. But long trends that don't change are a clear signal that it's not simply partisan bickering and Congressional stalemate - or even politics in general - that are the problem.
The trends were moving steadily downward long before the rise of the Tea Party, long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed corporations and the super-rich to pump big money directly into politics, and long before many other changes that have been heralded as tipping points of one kind or another.
When long, long trends, do not improve - when they grow steadily worse, year in and year out - it is clear that we face systemic problems, not simply political problems in the usual sense of the term. The question is: How do we deal with a systemic crisis - something built in to the political-economic system rather than the usual garden-variety political or economic crisis? How do we really confront that question squarely?
Part of the problem for progressives is that - as historian Lewis Namier once quipped - we all tend to "remember the future." By which he meant that we don't and can't document what will happen in future. Instead, most of us unconsciously project forward assumptions about what is possible from our actual experience of the past. We "remember" forward that which we unconsciously take for granted. This works much of the time, when things are unfolding in roughly the same way they always have. But it works terribly when the game changes, when deep and fundamental systemic challenges are being posed.
It is difficult in the extreme for most people to grasp the possibility - embrace and understand fully the likelihood - that we may be entering a many-decades-long period in which the dominant reality is one of erratic growth, stagnation, commodity inflation, substantial political stalemate and decay. But - give or take an occasional political or economic uptick - that is, in fact, the most likely long-term context flowing from the deep and continuing trends.
Progressives need to recalibrate our strategies to the likelihood of such a context if a new era of political-economic change is to be forged in America. The challenge is extraordinary, but the options definable:
Option Number One: A New Progressive Realignment?
Some observers offer what they hope may be a politically viable way out of the pain and a way to reverse the long-decaying trends. The respected analyst Ruy Teixeira, for instance, holds that growing numbers of minorities (especially Hispanics) and pronounced shifts among women and educated professionals are likely to produce increasing Democratic majorities over time. In Teixeira's view: "All this adds up to big change that is reshaping our country in a fundamentally progressive direction." Other observers, more simply, consider the 2008 and 2012 elections to be a political "realignment" and optimistically predict enduring Democratic majorities and electoral successes.
But the question we face is not simply whether Democrats or even progressives can be elected. Commonly lost in predictions based on demographic changes is that the question of who is elected (and even the question of whether they can do something useful) is radically different from the question of whether the decaying long trends, and the challenging economic management problems emerging throughout the system, can be dealt with.
Put another way: Given the underlying and ongoing changes in institutional power balances, the deepening economic difficulties, the growing fiscal crisis, and the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, there is little reason to believe demographic changes, important as they are, will easily be translated into a force sufficiently powerful to alter the long-decaying income, wealth, climate and other trends, even if the balance of party affiliations in Congress (and their relative political views) begins to shift.
Option Number Two: Build a Movement
It is possible, to state the hope of many others, that a massive and far-reaching populist or progressive form of political movement-building, along with new labor-organizing strategies, will produce a renewal of traditional reform capacities in ways that may achieve more than modest gains - in other words, that, again, may actually begin to alter the downward trends. Such movement building is clearly useful no matter what.
The central question, however, is how far down the road traditional reform strategies can take us, and what else, substantively and institutionally, a serious movement needs to embrace to create trend change, to say nothing of larger system-wide change. Demonstrations; sit-ins; direct action; civil disobedience where relevant; labor-community alliances and the like are very important, but they are unlikely on their own to achieve trend-altering change in the face of the deepening systemic crisis - especially given the decline of unions, the institutions that have historically given weight and muscle to progressive reform efforts.
In a variation of older "pendulum-swing" and "cycle" theories of history, some progressives all too easily cite populist- and progressive-era gains in the hope that these provide precedents for our own time in history. But many forget that populism, in fact, was largely defeated in its major policy proposals, and that despite important regulatory and other gains, progressive-era achievements were of a radically different order. The federal government was a mere 3.7 percent of GDP (compared with 24.1 percent in 2011) - even after most of the gains traceable to the progressive era and World War I's impact on political-economic change had been incorporated into public policy.
The modest size of the modern American welfare state compared with that of many European nations - even after the unusual gains of the Great Depression era - also reminds us of the weakness of traditional American reform capacities even without considering the modern decline of labor and other fast-growing modern challenges. Among the factors commonly cited to explain our much weaker state-managing politics are: racial and ethnic divisions, a complex history of immigrant rivalries often exploited by conservative forces, the huge scale of the nation, the absence of feudalism and the fact that the United States did not experience massive war on its own territory during the 20th century - a force (as the late historian Tony Judt in his book, Postwar, powerfully demonstrated) that helped pull together the modern welfare state and political-economic capacities of many European states.
None of these considerations suggest that labor organizing, reform efforts, and progressive movement building should be abandoned. Quite the contrary; all are extremely important. The critical challenge is to find a way, as we move ever deeper into a much more profound systemic crisis than many have as yet confronted, to dig much deeper in the quest for a new way forward than we have previously been forced to do. The ultimate challenge is to simultaneously - and as part and parcel of an integrated strategy - begin to deal directly with the core institutional issue of how wealth is owned and controlled at the heart of the system.
Option Number Three: Go Local
It is also possible that in addition to traditional progressive movement-building efforts, new strategies created especially by the young, by environmental activists, by the Occupy Movement, by progressive business groups like the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE) and American Sustainable Business Council, along with the many others who are beginning to coalesce in the New Economy Movement, will add new energies and a different kind of developing thrust to a larger movement-building effort. Especially important are localist efforts and building from the bottom both economically and ecologically to achieve greater local resilience.
Again, important as such a direction also is - and important as it is to build wherever possible - the power of such activism to address some of the large-order system-driven trends, and especially those involving climate change, is also all but certain to be severely limited unless and until it becomes possible to fundamentally alter the underlying institutional and systemic power imbalances and the growth-driven corporate institutions that continue to produce the ongoing trends and stand in the way of change. And this, in turn, requires a much deeper approach, side by side with such efforts.
Option Number Four: Friendly Fascism
It is also possible, of course, that the growing social and economic decay will lead to one or another form of violence on either left or right (or both), even over time to growing domestic terrorism from one or more directions. Explosions of urban unrest like those of the 1960s may well occur again as the pain deepens. It is also a mistake to forget that even more threatening possibilities may develop elsewhere in the system: The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was committed by an angry white terrorist, Timothy McVeigh.
If there is violence, there will also be repression and - depending upon which party is in power and the precise circumstances - the already deepening trends of ever-declining civil liberties are likely to be intensified. It is possible that this logic may lead to what the late Bertram Gross termed "Friendly Fascism" or to a corporate state in which civil liberties and democratic processes are subverted as politicians exploit fear in the wake of violence.
However, even massive repression almost certainly does not end the challenge - and in fact can provide the impetus for widespread change. The dictators who dominated Latin America for many decades have disappeared in most countries - and progressive groups, once suppressed and tortured, are back in force and building anew. Their determination to continue to build through even very dark times stands as a reminder of what is also possible, and what might become necessary in the challenging historical context we may face.
Option Number Five: Evolutionary Reconstruction
It is also possible that quietly developing "New Economy" wealth-democratizing, institution-building trends such as cooperatives, employee-owned firms, ecologically sustainable small businesses, publicly owned enterprises, land trusts, social enterprises, community development corporations and the like will continue their little-noticed but ongoing growth trajectory and build in scale and power over time, decade by decade, precisely because of the pain of the emerging historical context. As a result, such institutions might begin in critical areas to partially displace corporate institutions at the same time they slowly create new political constituencies.
The developing longer-term processes might thereby (minimally) begin to achieve steadily expanding institutional capacities to bolster traditional progressive movements - and in turn such movements might ultimately help enact policies to nurture and expand the developing wealth-democratizing institutional thrust.
If so, although the resulting longer-term, decade-by-decade development path would not serve to replicate the institutional power of the labor union in progressive strategy, it could slowly help create institutional alternatives and new associated constituencies that might help strengthen a revised strategy.
First, it could provide alternatives to the corporation as the only significant choice for local municipal economic development.
Second, it could slowly displace corporate institutions in a number of key areas (for instance, state single-payer health insurance, electric power development, large-scale banking in crisis, possibly national health insurance over time, plausibly other major corporations over time).
And third, it could help create new institution-shifting ideas of what must ultimately be done, and how longer-term strategic approaches might be changed so that, when the opportunity arises, developments nurtured at the local and state (and, in part, national) levels might one day be available for further, larger-scale implementation.
This long and slow-developing path might be called "evolutionary reconstruction." It is a path, like that followed in the state and local "laboratories of democracy" in the decades prior to the New Deal, that might offer the basis, too, of longer term political-economic ideas when the moment is right . . . especially if combined with new movement building strategies.
An obvious conclusion is that it is important to build forward, positively, on all fronts over time - and in particular to self-consciously advance new wealth-democratizing, institution-building strategies that may add new forms of power, along with new vision, to a politics of reform. Over the long haul, such a direction could help forge - slowly, agonizingly (and in significant part precisely because of the ongoing systemic failures) - new institutional foundations and related political efforts that might become sufficiently powerful to begin to alter the downward-moving direction of the great social, economic, and environmental trends that now define the decaying pattern of our corporate-dominated system. Even possibly to create some elements of a new "mixed" economy more favorable to progressive concerns.
And with all this, too - and beyond - we might also begin to see the slow development of a new vision and wealth-democratizing culture and movement capable of beginning to challenge the dominant hegemonic ideology, holding out the prospect of system-altering change much more far-reaching than many currently imagine. This, of course, is the real prize - but one that is likely to be achieved only if sufficient groundwork is laid and genuine knowledge of how to democratize the economy developed in advance.