The Time Has Come for Progressives to Rescue and Renew American Democracy

Apr 25, 2022 | PDA Blog

Photo: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), running in the 2020 presidential primary for the Democratic Party nomination, marches with supporters to early vote on February 27, 2020 at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)


by Alan Minsky, Executive Director Progressive Democrats of AmericaHarvey J. Kaye, Professor Emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay | Common Dreams



Why now is the exact right time to advance and fight for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.


“America needs something more right now than a ‘must-do’ list from liberals and progressives. America needs a different story… the leaders, and thinkers, and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.”  —Bill Moyers, “A New Story for America” (2006)

It has become nearly cliché to say we are enduring a crisis of democracy. But the fact remains. We are. However, let’s be clear about it. The crisis did not begin 2016. It has been 45 years in the making. And to address it, progressives must offer not simply an attractive progressive economic legislative agenda, but also a truly compelling and transformative democratic story, vision, and unifying project.

A story, vision, and project that speaks to Americans’ deepest memories, anxieties, and aspirations. That will remind us that—whether we are native born or newly arrived—we are heirs to a revolutionary promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We must organize around a story that will enable us to see, as the progressive writer and activist Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote 120 years age: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.” Indeed, that will encourage us to recognize, as FDR’s Solicitor General and soon-to-be Attorney General and then a Supreme Court Justice, Robert H. Jackson put it in 1938: “We too are founders… We too are makers of a nation… We too are called upon to write, to defend and to make live, new bills of right.” A story that will lead us not only to vote progressively, but also to make history progressively.

Doing so is imperative. If we progressives fail, we will remain politically marginal—and American democracy will remain in peril.

The 2022 primary season, which has already begun, provides an opportunity we must seize. To do so, we must make clear to the American people the tremendous promise for democratic and social renewal inherent in the progressive program. Promise spelled out by a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.

This is the third of three articles we have published at Common Dreams urging progressives to advance an economic bill of rights that would assure economic security, economic opportunities, and economic prosperity. Inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call in 1944 for an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans; energized by the ensuing efforts of A. Philip RandolphMartin Luther King JrSenator Bernie Sanders, and Wisconsin Assemblywomen Kristina Shelton and Francesca Hong to enhance and realize FDR’s vision; and informed by the recent work of economists Mark Paul, William Darity, and Derek Hamilton to spell out what it might entail today, we began in the first by proposing and outlining a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.

A Second Bill of Rights which would establish that all Americans have a right to:

1. A useful job that pays a living wage.

2. A voice in the workplace through a union and collective bargaining.

3. Comprehensive quality health care.

4. Complete cost-free public education and access to broadband internet.

5. Decent, safe, affordable housing.

6. A clean environment and a healthy planet.

7. A meaningful endowment of resources at birth, and a secure retirement.

8. Sound banking and financial services.

9. An equitable and economically fair justice system

10. Recreation and participation in civic and democratic life.

Just as FDR knew from polls conducted at the time that he was articulating exactly what his fellow American truly wanted to pursue and secure following the Second World War, we firmly believe that this roster of rights—based on poll after poll, progressive electoral victories in 2018 and 2020, and workers’ own renewed labor agitation and organizing—clearly expresses Americans’ growing yearnings to progressively transform the nation’s oppressive and destructive economic order. Yearnings incited by more than 45 years of corporate, conservative, and neoliberal class war against the democratic achievements and hard-won rights of workers, women, and people of color in the course of the long Age of Roosevelt from the 1930s to the 1960s. Yearnings definitely intensified by the many devastations of the Great Recession of 2008-10 and the pandemic of these past two years.

In the second of our essays, we cited a multitude of legislative initiatives and bills by progressive Democratic Senators and Representatives to demonstrate that, together, progressives already have essentially embraced a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.

In this essay, we focus on why, if progressives are serious about winning political power and changing the world, they not only have to highlight their economic program in the 2022 election cycle and beyond—but they must do so in a way that both captivates the public imagination and spells out why their proposed changes are readily attainable and will improve the lives of the vast majority.

Of course, we also can’t pull any punches in showing how the past 45 years prove that our moderate and conservative opponents hold forth no such promise for American society.

Sadly, most progressives are not leading with a clear economic framing of issues—let alone a visionary one like the 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.

This is political suicide for two reasons. First, the economy has polled as the issue of greatest concern for Americans throughout most of the neo-liberal era (on aggregate, surpassing all other matters by a longshot)—and it does so again today. It goes without saying, this is not because people are happy with the economy.

Second, the progressive economic program is very popular with the general public—and spectacularly so with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

As such, progressives should be sweeping Democratic primaries this year, but the public is not adequately aware of the transformative social contract on offer from progressives. Here’s how to change that.

Adopt a clear and inspiring way to present the program, such as a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights. We apologize for the example but think of the success of the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America, which Newt Gingrich and company used to win control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. It’s also important that the public understand that progressives are directly addressing economic concerns since that is what’s most important to voters—of course we can highlight other issues too, but a focus on the economy must be central and loudly stated.

Then, make clear the distinctions between progressives and our rivals. Explain how the American political landscape shifted with the 2016 presidential election. Since that time, we have three distinct political tendencies vying for power inside our two-party system. On the far right, we have the Trumpian reactionaries; in the “center” we have the status quo neo-liberals, who stretch from the Romney wing of the Republican Party through the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party; and on the left, we have the progressives.

This configuration was confirmed by the emergence of the squad in 2018 and the results of the 2020 presidential election, in which Sen. Bernie Sanders took “third place” for a second consecutive cycle—while Trump once again challenged establishment stalwarts in the general election.

Of these three political tendencies, only the progressives are proposing a vision of economic, social, environmental, and democratic renewal for American society that will improve the quality of life for the vast majority of the population.

Don’t be shy. Explain that the neo-liberals have run America for forty-five years and that they’ve produced a society of ever-greater wealth inequality, excessive costs for basic necessities like healthcare, housing, and education, in which the average person has to work 60-70 hours a week, with little to no benefits, just to get by. So, in this primary season, explain to voters who are disgusted with Democrats for failing to make the changes they want (even though they mouth support for them on the campaign trail) that there are two parties inside the Democratic Party: neo-liberals who are beholden to their corporate donors and progressives who serve the people.

As for Trump, after much populist bluster on the campaign trail, he only broke with neo-liberalism over global trade deals; and, even on this front, only made marginal adjustments. More significantly, he doubled down on classical GOP neo-liberalism when his party was in control of both houses of Congress. His signature domestic policy achievement was his tax plan, which produced an even greater reallocation of wealth upwards than occurred under Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes, and Obama.

On top of that, the dominant role of money in politics weakened democracy in the neo-liberal era; and Trump, of course, accelerated America’s drift towards oligarchy with overt attacks on our democratic traditions.

Seriously, of the three major political tendencies, only progressives offer a truly promising alternative for America.

This is an astonishingly powerful position for progressives to hold. Dissatisfaction with the current economic and political order is legion among the great majority of Americans. They are crying out for a different social contract along the lines of a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.

Now is the perfect time to bring these demands to the American electorate and ask them to vote them into reality. In the spring of 2022, we are emerging from the greatest disruption of American life in generations—and there is ample evidence, from the great resignation to a groundbreaking wave of union organizing, that as things return to normal after COVID, people don’t want to return to the old normal. What better time to propose a positive new vision for American society and the economy?

Better yet, we can easily achieve our program. These principles and practices are already the norm in every other rich industrialized country in the world—from Japan and South Korea to Europe and Canada. And guess what? These countries are doing better, much better, than the United States in virtually every social index—from education to personal health to happiness itself—with prosperous middle classes, lower wealth inequality, and stable democracies.

Lastly, when it comes to strategy, progressives need to take another page from the GOP, and insist upon greater unity and discipline from our elected officials. If we are to become a mature political movement, one powerful enough to alter the direction of society, the importance of this cannot be overstated. The public must be able trust that progressive candidates will not back down from the progressive agenda when elected. We have a great role model in this regard. The foundation of Bernie Sanders’ unrivalled popularity is his unwavering commitment to progressive social-democratic policies across his entire career.

A clear platform, like a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights, allows the public to understand when politicians follow through on their promises. So, just like Grover Norquist’s notorious No Tax Pledge operates for Republicans, a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights can anchor the progressive movement—and impress upon the American people that we are the political movement to support because we will work for them and transform the economy in the ways that they want—and if a politician breaks with this pledge, they will be challenged and defeated in the next election.

When we sat down to write the first installment of this series, we were motivated in part by the grotesque misrepresentations of our movement that we saw in the media (as a Stalinist thought police, “canceling” anyone who dared oppose them); and how any mention of economics tended to be absent even in more positive representations of progressives. Yet we knew that the central focus of progressives in the current congress were on core economic issues—particularly in strengthening the best elements of the Build Back Better package—and that the public was very supportive of the progressive position.

With the midterm elections around the corner and understanding that the economy was consistently the most important issue for voters, we felt progressives were about to miss a great opportunity. By consolidating around their economic platform, progressives can contrast their coherence against the failure of the centrists and grow their strength in the left-liberal coalition, with the goal of becoming dominant within the Party.

In recognizing that the current progressive economic program matched up brilliantly with FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights—as well as later iterations by A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr, Bernie Sanders, and others – we not only found an apt vehicle to promote the current progressive economic program, but one that tied it to the most compelling and popular visions for American society from the past century—which, just as in 1944 and 1963, can set us on a path towards fulfilling our limitless promise.

We now live in the most ethnically diverse country in the history of this world on a plentiful continent-wide land mass. That this beautiful tapestry of cultures should remain trapped under the yolk of an exploitative economic system that perpetuates the injustices of the past, and the devastation of the planet, is unconscionable. A 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights, brought to fruition by the contemporary progressive movement, can bring down the curtain on the failed neo-liberal era and deliver the freedom, democracy and economic justice that will be the foundations of a truly egalitarian America.