What’s Left (Part 3)

Reader suggestions on the progressive agenda.

Dream Act Paperwork, Washington DC.
Bolivian Diego Mariaca, center, his mother, Ingrid Vaca, right, and brother Gustavo Mariaca, left, fill out DREAM Act paperwork on Aug. 15, 2012, at the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, we posted a series of pieces asking—in the wake of the huge gay marriage wins at the Supreme Court this term—what progressives’ next big battle might be. We wondered what issue or issues could unify and inspire us, and how we could parlay the lessons just learned in the fight over marriage equality into a larger, achievable agenda for change in the new millennium. 

Reader mail is (almost) always a pleasure, and in this case, we were heartened and inspired by the serious, careful responses. Even the critical ones. Same for the comments posted below the piece, which were thoughtful and smart. We thank you. Below, and in no particular order, we highlight some of the reader suggestions for reclaiming/reframing and reinvigorating the liberal agenda, with the caveat that there was so much more to say, and we hope that the real conversation is only just beginning.

I. VOTING REFORMS: Probably the greatest number of readers suggested that liberals should enact swift and simple election reform, to ensure that the rest of the progressive agenda can be implemented. A sampling of suggestions:

A. FIXING VOTING: Ian Campbell wrote what many were thinking: “How about actual elections? Free and fair ones, in fairly-drawn districts, without hackable voting machines, restrictive anti-voting laws, and with a better, more fair voting system than the current ‘first past the post’ that sustains the two-bad-party system? Elections that forbade corporate influence, were publicly funded and allowed the most compelling argument, not the richest voice, to gain support?”

B. GERRYMANDERING: Robert Hallinan writes: “Our two party system as it currently functions runs the risk of consolidating power in the party apparatchiks rather than the people in a way, as Hannah Arendt recognized years ago, that could, in effect, de-voice a people otherwise ostensibly free to speak out. Gerrymandering is wrong on its face and both parties need to admit it and create rational municipally based voting districts without regard to political demographics.”

C. SAME-DAY VOTER REGISTRATION: Jerry Gale writes: “I think that the best thing progressives can do … is to pass a national law calling for same day registration. If someone shows up on the day of voting with a valid government issued ID with an address on it, they get to vote. Requiring people to register to vote weeks before the day of voting makes it more difficult for young votes and minority voters to vote.” In a similar vein, from reader Karl Miller: “Aggressive Enfranchisement. Not just fixing the encroachments of sneaky state legislatures, but making elections a national holiday. Not compulsory voting, like Australia, but another kind of July 4, if you will. If the Right sees our nation’s founding as the overthrow of pernicious Government … the left must remind us that our new government was a magnificent invention of its own, one that only works in proportion to the individual’s engagement with it. Is it worth a few hours of your time each year to sort out who you want to run your school, city, state, Congress and country? We say yes and the more we can do to free up that time, the better.”

II. SUPPORT FOR UNIONS: Kyle writes: “I don’t think the importance of the labor movement is acknowledged enough in the current progressive movement (let alone in the mainstream American left). But if income inequality is the single greatest economic problem to progressives, then freedom of association and collective bargaining should be at the forefront of the progressive agenda. … Not only do union workers receive better pay than non-union workers, but unions could likely have prevented the staggering growth of CEO-to-worker pay: thirty years ago, CEOs were paid 42 times more than employees, but now they’re paid 354 times more. Not even Don Draper’s generation of employers thought they were 354 times better than their workers, because that generation of employers was more likely to negotiate with their employees. The solution is for Democrats and progressives to begin fighting as much for unions as conservatives fight against them.” Michael McBrearty writes to add: “It is astounding you did not mention the drastic need for reform of labor law. 5000 workers are fired in the US every year for attempting to organize their workplaces. More than any other factor, the corporations’ unbridled, ruthless and sometimes violent campaigns for ‘labor-free’ work forces are responsible for the inequality and the hegemony of the super-rich.”

III. MEANINGFUL HEALTH REFORM: From Jill B.: “Our fight as progressives must focus on economic justice. We do have to find some way to save the middle class. I believe that splitting health care away from job benefits, making it a societal responsibility instead via a national health plan, is one essential part of that.” Daniel Carey writes: “Single payer health care for all!!”

IV. FINANCIAL REFORM: From Frank Pasquale: “Instead of focusing on disclosure in finance regulation, we need to just start forcing finance intermediaries to do socially responsible investing … on a FAR larger scale than it is currently done. Otherwise, our entire future (i.e., our patterns of capital
allocation) simply get sorted into whatever seems to make a fast buck for the already wealthy.”

V. BETTER CAREGIVER POLICIES: Elizabeth Zacharias Owens writes in: “Every so often, an infographic that displays the global differences on maternity leave shows up on my Facebook feed. They always anger me, knowing that the US is lumped in with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Suriname for the least generous countries when it comes to maternity leave … I firmly believe we need to have a federally mandated paid caregiver leave.” Natalie Kertzner adds: “federally mandated paid maternity and paternity leave for parents. Any sort of leave that encourages families and parents to be together with their children.”

VI. LEGALIZE MARIJUANA: From Trevor P: “Legalize pot. This is such an easy, popular idea I’m astonished more politicians don’t jump on the bandwagon. The more pressure that’s put on the federal government to abandon its foolish drug-war policy toward marijuana, the better.”

VII. FREE BROADBAND FOR ALL: PL writes to say: “The internet is just too powerful a tool to not be in the hands of everyone. In the least it gives each person access to opportunities and information that they may not normally have been aware of, and restricting access to it by pricing people out is just going to create another economic divide.”

VIII: REBUILD THE WALL BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE: From Keith: “The complete and total eradication of religion from our laws, legal philosophies and even our political discourse. The free practice of religion in our country is an individual right, but it is most certainly NOT a right to force religious views, beliefs, traditions, practices or legal sponsorship into our laws (at any level). Even the appearance of religious affiliation should be avoided in all matters related to the state because all tax-paying persons should be allowed equal and complete protection under all laws, regardless their faith (or lack thereof).

IX. WOMEN: Diana Brooks spoke for a lot of readers when she wrote: “I think you missed one large issue: The war on women. I am few weeks younger than our president and never have been terribly politically active, until, the last few years, I noticed this ‘thing” happening, a trend which others would start to notice and would eventually get a name. Now I go to ERA rallies at my state and in D.C. (I lived in D.C. in 1989/90 and never went to anything, I was so uninspired in my youth). I coded and edited an ERA webpage recently and moderate a women’s issue group on Facebook. I alienate friends and relatives without regret over these issues and my car was hit in a parking lot—coincidentally right where my ‘Stop the War on Women bumper sticker is. 

X. AN ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE: Al Johnson writes: “Note that this isn’t just about socio-economic mobility where a super smart or super motivated person is able to ‘move up’ (economic mobility) to a higher rung on the ladder (Horatio Alger story), and it isn’t just about starting your own business and becoming a job creator. It means that the kid who graduated at the bottom of his high school class (or even flunked out?) can still have a decent life. This was the norm in the 50s and 60s when America had good paying factory jobs, and someone turning screws on an assembly line in Detroit could buy a house, raise a family, and send his kids to college. This needs to become the new norm, not our current new norm of high unemployment, low wages, and the rich taking everything from everyone else. In order for this to happen, we need to: (i) Repeal NAFTA, CAFTA, and all of the other SHAFTA agreements that allow US corporations to export US jobs. (ii) Reward US companies that create living-wage full time jobs (not minimum wage PT jobs), and penalize companies that outsource to the lowest wage country. This can be done via tax rates, quotas, tariffs, not making that company eligible for US contracts, etc. (iii) Change to a progressive tax policy.”

XI. EDUCATION REFORM: Joseph Leff writes: “My idea is to make a trade school/traditional college hybrid available. Students would start out by learning a skill that will get them a decent-paying job right away. This could be programming computers, working as a dental hygienist, driving a ‘big rig’ truck, etc. Ideally the training program would last six months or so. Once they have this certificate they would, while working full-time, begin a part-time program in liberal arts. This coursework, coupled with their initial vocational degree, would lead to an Associates degree after several years. At that point they could transfer to a four year college and work toward a BA, either full or part time, or not, as they saw fit.”

XII. NOMENCLATURE: Several readers want to start with reclaiming progressive language. Jennifer Brannan says we should “stop calling ourselves progressives. We’re liberals. Enough with allowing the word to be spit at us as an insult, and running for the cover of ‘progressive.’ If we can’t stand up to conservatives on that, how will we ever accomplish the list of causes in your article?” And James Hooper suggests the following: “I think one of the biggest challenges for progressives, but also the most important, is the reclamation of morality. … Is it moral to squander the natural resources we have in the name of short-term profits? Wouldn’t it be even more moral to take a stand against those with narrow, selfish interests and make green technology the next moon shot? … Maybe what progressives really need, though, is to stop focusing on issues individually and start bringing them together. The great pillars of progressive and conservative ideals are all intertwined, and to separate them is the only way to make a conservative argument.”