THE BLOG

Tracking the Progress of the Progressive Agenda

05/27/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

We live in a political era dominated by corporate cash, billionaire "beauty pageants," and a right-wing noise machine whose rhetorical phasers are permanently set to "stun." It's easy to lose track of ourselves when we're distracted from moment to moment by Fox News pinwheels and celebrity-driven media circuses.

But out behind the tents, where the carnival lights aren't as bright, a lot of people are fighting the good fight. How's that fight going? One way to track its progress is by measuring recent developments against a populist or progressive agenda.

There are a number of such documents in circulation at the moment, each of which has its own strengths. Bernie Sanders has a 12-point economic agenda, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is offering a 13-point agenda and Robert Reich is currently in the process of rolling out "ten ideas to save the economy."

These plans share many ideas and goals in common. The one I know best is the 12-point agenda called "Populism 2015 Platform: Building a Movement for the People and the Planet." It is jointly sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future*, National People's Action, USAction, and the Alliance for a Just Society. This first of several posts will take a look at the first three points in that platform.

While all 12 points are deeply interconnected, the theme of the first three might be summarized as "growth." The first, "Rebuild America for the 21st Century and Create Jobs for All," reads as follows:

America's public infrastructure -- from roads to rail to water and energy systems -- is increasingly dangerous to our health and a drag on our economy. National investment in rebuilding America will create millions of high-quality jobs, bid wages up, help close the racial jobs gap, and make America a better place to live and work.

Infrastructure is the first item on Sen. Sanders' list as well. Sanders has introduced a bill, cosponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), which would invest $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next five years.

Sanders says the bill would create 13 million "decent-paying jobs." That estimate appears quite reasonable, especially when compared to the 27 million jobs which the New America Foundation estimated would be created by a $1.2 trillion infrastructure program. (The 2011 paper is no longer available online, but a summary description can be found here.)

And, while the Washington Post and others have characterized Sanders' $1 trillion infrastructure budget as politically "problematic" (to use a Post blogger's word), it seems relatively modest when compared to the $3.6 trillion which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates must be spent by 2020 in order to return our decaying roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to proper working order.

This idea, like many offered by the left, is extremely popular with the American people. 75 percent of voters in a November 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated that they supported "increasing spending on infrastructure projects for our roads and highways."

If creating these jobs would have such a positive effect on employment, if our infrastructure is in such urgent need of repair (as evidenced by last week's fatal Amtrak crash), and if the idea is so popular -- why, then, would passing a bill like this be considered "problematic"?

Because we have a political system that responds to the desires of an oligarchy, rather than to those of the public at large. That's not one person's opinion. It is what a Princeton University study concluded in 2014.

Nevertheless, the public debate on infrastructure is shifting -- although probably not quickly enough to prevent the next tragedy.

In a similar vein, the Platform also called for investment in a "Green Economy," saying:

Catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger. The United States should lead the global green revolution that builds strong and resilient communities. Public investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency can create jobs and opportunity, particularly in communities of color that have borne the worst consequences of toxic corporate practices.

Here, as with infrastructure, two critical needs are being addressed -- in this case, the fate of the planet and the need for jobs and economic growth. And here, too, the public is on the right side of the issue. In a December 2014 poll, 80 percent of voters indicated that they found the idea of:

A clean energy policy that promotes American innovation and manufacturing jobs, speeding up the nation's transition to cleaner, renewable forms of energy like wind and solar...

To be "appealing." (51 percent of them found it "extremely appealing.")

All government spending programs (except defense) are anathema to conservatives. But the right seems to be spurred into a special frenzy by green jobs, perhaps thanks to encouragement from the Koch Brothers and the other "hidden persuaders" driving the conservative agenda. The "Green Economy" agenda, whose virtues should be self-evident, has some tough battles ahead -- at least until the political climate shifts.

The next item in the "Populist Platform" is "Raise Wages, Empower Workers and Reverse Inequality." It is described as follows:

Inequality has reached new extremes, as more and more jobs become contingent and part-time, with low pay and few benefits. We should lift the floor under every worker by guaranteeing a living wage, paid sick and vacation days, and affordable health care.

We should empower workers to form unions and bargain collectively. We must curb perverse CEO compensation policies that give executives personal incentives to plunder their own companies.

Some first steps toward curbing CEO pay were included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill of 2010. Unfortunately, the Securities and Exchange Commission has taken more than five years to implement a key disclosure provision in that law. And "say on pay" provisions allowing shareholders to hold a (non-binding) vote on executive pay have not had the impact some hoped. 92 percent of executive pay packages received 70 percent shareholder support or more in 2014.

However, in one encouraging development, shareholders this month approved the pay package for J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and other senior executives by an unexpectedly narrow margin. Shareholder activism can become an important aspect of economic reform if properly directed. In this case, the "no" votes were apparently led by institutional investors, a group which typically includes union pension funds.

And speaking of unions: Labor empowerment has not received the political support from Democrats that might have been expected, given union support for Democratic candidates. It would have been reasonable, for example, for the newly-elected President Obama to offer stronger support to 2009's Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) strengthening workers' collective bargaining rights. That didn't happen.

But at least one other form of worker organizing has had considerably more success. The "Fight for 15" movement of fast-food employees and other low-wage workers has quickly grown from a spontaneous set of demonstrations with a seemingly unrealizable demand -- a $15 per hour minimum wage -- to a well-organized and well-supported effort whose goal now seems eminently achievable.

Cities have taken up the call. In April Seattle moved to raise its minimum wage to $15. San Francisco raised its minimum wage to $12.25, with a plan to increase it to $15 by 2018. Los Angeles recently voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently indicated he would create a Wage Board to review restaurant workers' salaries after a minimum wage proposal failed to make it through the legislature in that state.

The Fight for $15 offers some compelling lessons for the progressive movement. For one thing, it demonstrates that while national-level (presidential and congressional) campaigns are part of a progressive strategy, they can't be the only approach. Municipalities, labor organizing, and street-level demonstrations are powerful tools for change. Our media's fixation on national campaigns and political celebrities should not make us overlook these vitally important fields of action -- especially not when we're learning that the struggle for growth is having its greatest successes, appropriately enough, at the "grassroots" level.

Major systemic changes are needed to address economic inequality. But the Fight for $15 shows us that seemingly unachievable goals can be reached. It tells us that we mustn't let commentators or political insiders determine the limits of the politically possible. That is for the public, not the pundits, to decide.

We've learned that it's wrong to aim too high, with a focus on national elections that neglects local and state organizing. And when it comes to a movement's goals and ambitions, the Fight for $15 is teaching us something even more fundamental: that it's a mistake to set our sights too low.

(*Conflict of interest note: I am a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future.)

Sign up here to get alerted when RJ posts a new segment on money and politics.