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The Progressive Agenda and the Financial Crisis

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"We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob," Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1936.

Powerful words. It's hard to imagine a modern presidential candidate railing against financial institutions with such verve and vigor. But his central insight only gains relevance with time: government indifference towards markets provides shelter for financial speculation and greed. It was unregulated speculation that spurred the Great Depression, unchecked greed that drove us to the current financial crisis. Our government always has had and will always have a critical role in bringing such forces to heel.

But Roosevelt knew that it was not only the policies of the indifferent government that posed such a great danger. It was a deeper set of philosophical beliefs. "Above our market places," he went on, "stand the altars of our faith--altars on which burn the fires of devotion that maintain all that is best in us and all that is best in our Nation." We must always put values above money, recognizing that the economy serves society and not the other way around.

In his recent speech in Colorado, Obama struck a similar tone. "The American economy has worked in large part because we have guided the market's invisible hand with a higher principle," he argued, "America prospers when all Americans prosper."

The speech goes on to list a series of smart policy prescriptions for coping with the current crisis. Legislation that shores up both our families and our markets is a must. But, in light of the financial meltdown, we must also take a hard look at the philosophy underlying our economic policies. The conservative movement's narrative about the role of individuals and the market led us this mess. We need a new narrative, a new progressive economic philosophy, to lead us out. Our policy ideas alone will not capture the American public's hearts nor provide the answers to all our problems; our ideas must be linked to a picture of the nation and the world we hope to achieve. We need a narrative that energizes our ideas and builds the political will for meaningful change.

The progressive movement is slowly writing this narrative. Just this week, a coalition of think tanks and activist organizations released a major publication with a bold set of progressive values and a unified vision for what our country can achieve. New Progressive Voices: Values and Policies for the 21st Century features top intellectuals and leaders describing the America we must build in compelling language. In it, Andrea Batista Schlesinger of the Drum Major Institute describes how a strong middle class is integral to a stable democracy, while Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change emphasizes community values over individualism. Larry Mishel explains how to build shared prosperity, and Miles Rapoport of Demos envisions a participatory democracy capable of true self-governance. The messages are compelling, clear and advocate the kind of transformation we so badly need.

But as important as the individual essays was the effort by leaders to come together and find common ground. This kind of effort to build a coherent progressive narrative will help us not only win elected office and pass legislation, but will fundamentally change the tone of the debate in America. And fundamental change is badly needed--the incremental policy reforms advocated by centrist democrats just won't do the trick. FDR concluded his 1936 speech, "That is why the recovery we seek, the recovery we are winning, is more than economic. In it are included justice and love and humility, not for ourselves as individuals alone, but for our Nation."

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