Time for a Tea Party with the Right: Why Progressives Need a Transpartisan Strategy

Let's sit down with the right for tea. Let them vent their anger and hate - and we can vent ours. Let's listen to the fear that lies beneath the hate, to the reasons they're afraid.
05/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Krugman derides the embarassing right wing Tea Party-goers protesting government spending. He would be more successful if he looked beneath the protests, to the fear that drives many to join them.

True, the tea parties were largely a ratings-boosting initiative of Fox News, and few participants knew they were performing parts in a play written, and underwritten, by a few billionaires whose handlers are afraid to tell them they're too ideological for their own good.

But Krugman's response - which could apply as easily to many left-wing protests - is misguided and self-defeating. The tea parties tapped a genuine fear that the trillions being spent by government right now will be wasted - and that we and our children will be paying the cost for generations.

Is that fear so unjustified?

Let's face it: government's record for spending money well is - to say the least - really, really bad. Sure, you can point to a lot of good things government dollars buy - like schools, parks, and courts of justice, even the Internet. We need them to keep doing that. But dollar for dollar, government is neither wise nor efficient in many of its spending decisions. That's not what government is for.

Here is why: to paraphrase George Gilder, dead industries and dying institutions employ powerful lobbyists. For that reason, the trillions Congress is now spending will likely be divided mostly on the basis of lobbying power. Sure, a few dollars will be spent on green jobs and technologies. But most of those will look greener than they really are. And the rest of the dollars will prop up old industries, old companies, old labor unions, old interests and old ideas - and will not, for the most part, advance the change Obama stands for. Unless ...

Unless what?

Unless we progressives form an alliance with the right.

We need the right. Not the wing-nuts or the demagogues. We need the legitimate right. Who?

I said it in my last post: The left and the right are the feminine and masculine of American politics - the heart and the head, the purpose and the power, the meaning and the means. Liberal compassion is the heart of American politics - it tells us what we want to be. Conservative discipline, the type that Bush forgot about, that derives from scientific rationalism, is the means of American politics - it tells us how to get there. When progressive transpartisans unite the "what" and the "how," they gain the power to birth new ideas, and grow them to fruition.

We can't achieve the liberal goal of health care for all, for example, if we don't apply the conservative principle of fiscal responsibility, and drive down today's costs. We can't create green jobs, without green profits to pay for them. We can't stop global warming, if we don't build an information-based and clean tech economy to replace our consumptive industrial one.

That's why we need the right. We need the tools of fiscal discipline, to spend our money well. We need a commitment to personal liberty, to guard against overreaching government power. We need personal responsibility, to avoid a self-defeating society where everyone expects a bail-out. Without fiscal discipline, limited government, and personal responsibility, the progressive agenda will fail.

Of course, right now, we need government to spend. Fiscal restraint, in the middle of a major recession, would send the economy straight toward depression. The official Republican proposal to freeze spending for five years - conveniently, until they have a chance to be in charge - is pure, cynical politics.

But that doesn't make the right entirely wrong. Government is best suited not to spending money directly, but to establishing the rules, the framework of incentives by which people and companies spend money.

Wasting our dollars now might help restore the past, for a while. It might help us claw our way back to a late-term fossil fuel addicted consumption-driven economy. But we don't need yesterday - we need tomorrow: a new economy, built on a new, sustainable foundation of innovation, information, and clean technology. It's our job to make sure the stimulus dollars are spent to do that - by real people and real businesses who, unlike government, can do it right.

We need a new alliance of progressives not trying to rebuild an out-of-date past, but growing a new future. A coalition that can bring together people like Michael Lind and Ted Halstead, journalist Mark Satin, philosopher Ken Wilber; and organizations like the Progressive Policy Institute, the New America Foundation, the U.S. Climate Task Force, Radical Middle, NDN, New Policy Institute and many more. (See especially Mark Satin's list of organizations that have advanced selected radical center ideas.)

The group that I work with - Future 500 - is one of many that seek to do this, by engaging diverse interests together, to break their ideological thinking, and help them advance their own deeper mission and interests, along with those of others. We advance solutions that are better for business, labor, society and the environment. It isn't hard to think of those solutions. What's hard is convincing people to set aside archaic positions, and take up fresh new ideas that bring them into alignment with people they used to think were there adversaries.

We have the capacity to meet every one of the challenges we face. We have policy options and technologies that can drive down health care costs, carbon emissions, and petroleum consumption, and drive up health, prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

But we lack a political movement of progressive transpartisans dedicated to advancing these collaborative solutions. This is how we are failing President Obama - and if we don't correct ourselves, we will force him to fail as well.

If progressive centrists simply cheer Obama on, without aggressively supporting collaborative solutions, the administration will be forced to pander to specific interest groups with an old-style super-stimulus plan that pumps more money into a failing system, without dealing with systemic causes. That might restore a little growth for a few short years. But it will further erode our prosperity long-term.

Let's sit down with the right for tea. Let them vent their anger and hate - and we can vent ours. But let's not stop there. Listen to the fear that lies beneath the hate, and to the reasons they (and we) are afraid. Then act - by embracing what's right on the right. We won't win them all over - but with ten percent, we will gain a governing majority with its eyes on the future, not the past.

It's our choice.