THE BLOG

How to Create a More Progressive America

05/11/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Barring a dramatic scandal or an unforeseen event, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president. While many on the left have complained about her close ties to banks and her past unwillingness to tackle inequality, such complaints are unlikely to be solved by any challenger. Progressives should instead begin creating the infrastructure to shift American politics in a more progressive direction -- and do so while supporting Clinton in 2016.

To understand why progressives should push Hillary rather than run against her, it's important to understand some important lessons from political science. First, long periods of liberal control tend to make voters more conservative (and vice versa). As Larry Bartels recently noted, James Stimson's Policy Mood indicator shows that Americans are "more conservative than at any point since 1952" (demonstrated in the graph below).

This graph demonstrates how policy mood tends to move in the opposite direction of the sitting president, becoming more liberal under Bush and Reagan and more conservative under Obama. But it's not inevitable that Americans will choose a Republican in 2016; arguments that Americans simply won't put another Democrat in the Oval Office after two terms of a Democratic presidency are based on only a few data points. (And it bears repeating, of course, that Al Gore won the popular vote after two Clinton terms in 2000.)

In the case of Obama, an unabashedly progressive president, Americans may well seek a slightly more moderate candidate. With Obama's presidency domestically defined by health care, it's likely that voters won't want more spending in that area; however, there could be interest in higher spending on child care or education, two areas that Clinton has built her political career around.

In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, about 40 percent of independents said Hillary Clinton is "too liberal," while only 13 percent said she's "not liberal enough."

However, Hillary benefits from having the highest net favorability among Democratic respondents, and among all respondents, in fact. (Net favorability is total favorability minus total unfavorability. The smaller bars for Webb, O'Malley and Sanders, shown below, reflect their relative obscurity.)

The graphs above show two things: 1) progressivism faces roadblocks in the immediate future, as the country angles for moderation after what is perceived as an emphatically liberal Obama administration; and 2) like it or not, Hillary Clinton is in the best position of any Democratic candidate to mobilize the progressive base. This is where it becomes important to recognize that the best chance for a progressive agenda lies not in challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination but in making sure she gets the White House, and then holding her accountable once she's there.

In modern politics, parties have far more power than politicians have. As the parties have become increasingly polarized, and their constituencies increasingly divided by class, it's harder for middle-class or working-class voters to justify a Republican vote. The vast chasms between the two parties are so deep now that the difference between the leftmost Republican who could win the presidency and the rightmost Democrat who could do the same is still large. I've illustrated before the massive differences in results between Republicans and Democrats in terms of promoting economic growthreducing inequality and reducing racial disparities. It's more important to get a Democrat in office than to nitpick over ideology.

Most importantly, a large portion of what presidents do goes entirely under the radar. I've noted before the extensive political science literature showing how presidents affect policy by staffing bureaucratic positions, enforcing regulations and appointing judges. Many important policy choices elide journalists, and many small changes such as executive orders go unnoticed but have dramatic impacts. Further, presidents have some influence over whether monetary policy focuses on boosting employment or reining in inflation. Together, these policies have dramatic impacts on growth and inequality.

All of this means that progressives should focus on ensuring that a candidate who will listen to their interests, rather than the perfect candidate, wins the presidency. There's a good case for Hillary being that candidate. Clinton has a higher favorability rating than any serious Republican contender (only Bush, Rubio and Walker have a chance of winning the nomination), and she has a dramatically high recognition rate. She's won support among elites from both the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party. Given the current playing field, the only credible challenge to Hillary would likely come from someone to her right, and likely one who couldn't win an election.

This calculus means that progressives need to make sure that Hillary addresses our concerns. Already, Hillary has indicated a possible move to the left, criticizing overpaid CEOs and hedge-fund managers in a recent Iowa visit. But it will take sustained pressure to ensure that Clinton pursues a progressive agenda once in office. For that progressives need to learn from their enemy: the Koch brothers.

In 1980, David Koch ran for president on the libertarian ticket and won a mere 1.1 percent of the vote. Chastened by his loss, he and his brother realized that the way to shift policy would be to create a libertarian infrastructure aimed at pushing Republicans to the right. Certainly, there are other factors maintaining right-wing ideology: Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution, and the brutal political savvy of Mitch McConnell. However, the massive, Koch-financed network of think tanks, foundations, universities, and fellowships, in addition to a sophisticated polling and market research apparatus, all keep Republican politicians in line.

Progressives can't replicate the strategy, but they can create structures that will ensure that politicians are incentivized to pursue progressive policies. That will involve focusing on three areas that will bring about a more progressive America:

1) Voter turnout

The importance of voter turnout for a progressive America cannot be understated. The chart below, created with data from Vincent Mahler, shows the relationship between voter turnout and redistribution. The relationship is powerful, and as I've extensively documented, cross-national studies and studies within the states find that higher turnout leads to more progressive policies.

To boost turnout, progressives should invest in get-out-the-vote operations and same-day registration. In addition, stricter enforcement of motor-voter requirements could increase the number of registered voters by 18 million.

2) Labor mobilization 

For a long time, the mainstream left has taken unions for granted. Unions were seen as parochial, narrowly interested in advancing their own interests. In reality, unions provided an important check on the Democratic Party, making sure it didn't move too far to the right. Unions partially filled this role by boosting turnout. In a study with Patricia Davis, Director of the Office of Global Programs at the Department of State, Radcliff shows that their election-day mobilizations push candidates and parties by increasing turnout and organizing workers; unions hold parties that benefit the working class and middle class to the left.

However, unions are currently besieged by right-to-work laws, which dramatically reduce union density and, as a result, union influence, being instituted across the country. All the while, national Democrats have largely remained silent.

One of the criticisms of the idea that unions increase turnout posits that the causation is actually reversed -- that it isn't that union membership makes people more likely to vote but that people who vote are more likely to join unions in the first place. However, political economists Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for this effect, joining a union will increase an individual's chance of voting by 10 percentage points. Ryan Lamare, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations, studied the effects of unions in Los Angeles County and found that unions boosted turnout, particularly among Latinos.

3) State and local activist infrastructure

Finally the progressive movement needs to invest in an intellectual and advocacy infrastructure. Here, the Kochs aren't the only people who have used this strategy; evangelicals have successfully ensured that Republicans stay steadfast on the culture war because of their extensive and well-maintained advocacy structure. The NRA has done something similar. Now the left needs to massively mobilize at the local and state levels. Here, progressives face a disadvantage: Conservatives were able to make use of evangelical churches, gun clubs and politically active chapters like the tea party. Progressives have only a few similarly mobilized coalitions, but they can still be potent, as the environmental movement has recently shown.

Historian Erik Loomis recently wrote the obvious:

If progressives push [Hillary Clinton] to the left through consistent organization, she'll swing left. If she feels more pressure from Republicans, she'll swing right. This shouldn't be all that hard to figure out, yet it constantly surprises us how politics actually work in this nation.

He's correct. The problem is that movement building is difficult. Waiting for Godot is easy.