In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, the historian Francis Fukuyama said: "It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate... a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society." It's too bad that the Left has not clearly articulated an agenda for the future that the conservative Mr. Fukuyama can cite. But let's address the problem.
Protecting and saving the shrinking middle-class is precisely the real election issue for 2012. For Obama, the question is: will the American Middle Class that turned out for him in 2008 do so again or will they take their votes to the GOP? And if Fukuyama is correct, the challenge will be for the Left -- that is, progressives and moderates together -- to articulate a way to protect the American Middle Class.
Before we venture an answer to that question, however, it might serve to offer a definition of the American Middle Class. What is it?
If you attempt a Google search of American Middle Class, you will understand why such a definition is difficult. In general, though, there is a consensus that a person or family belongs to the Middle Class if they earned an income of between $30,000 and $90,000 last year. Those limits may seem too low or too high for some, but if we settle on $60,000 as a median income, we may be describing a typical member of the Middle Class.
If we use that income range, approximately 60% of American households belong to the Middle Class. Given the importance of retaining and strengthening that segment, it is obvious that the 2012 election will be a contest to attract that 60% in November to prevent those numbers from shrinking further. And if that is the case, it will be up to the Left to articulate a realistic agenda in a time of debt and limited government intervention.
Romney, for one, keeps saying that he knows how to solve this problem, but of course he has not put forward any program other than trashing regulations and lowering taxes in order to "free" the economy of Left-leaning interference. Since we know the dangers and ineffectiveness of these traditional conservative approaches, we have to look to the Left to offer a viable program.
First and foremost, taxes will have to increase for the top 20% of American earners while taxes for the Middle Class remain as they are. Debt must be reduced. Second, private investment in research and development, especially in technology, will improve the economy and provide jobs and growth in manufacturing. Government incentives need to be put in place to grow R&D. Third, strenuous diplomacy to improve export potential and monetary policy will help us compete with China, India and Japan, especially if foreign leaders see that Congress is on the same page. Last, economic policy decisions have to be long range, with stated goals and gradual debt reduction toward a balanced budget.
Any Left-leaning agenda must be pragmatic, which means policy based on evidence, especially focused on past crisis conditions. The key to such an agenda will be forward looking and not based on retrenchment. Environmental concerns, for example, have to be acknowledged and not denied. And last, corporate culture must encourage greater flexibility and congruence between management and labor to the point where those distinctions gradually disappear. A culture of "Us vs. Them" cannot be the hallmark of twenty-first century progress. And last, education has to be brought in from the cold and given national attention, creating opportunity for all Americans.
Therefore, a Left-leaning agenda is progressive in human relationships, inventive in economic development, attentive to the environment, creative in crisis management, and determined in opportunity for everyone. Nothing less will succeed, and we certainly cannot go back to some Tea Party longing for the past. Nostalgia is not an option.