Progressives for Progress

08/30/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

We Progressives would do well to focus on the first two syllables of our political philosophy's name: progress. We are the reformers, the optimists, the ones who, as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy put it at his brother Bobby's funeral, don't "see things as they are and say why" but rather "dream things that never were and say why not."

There is something incongruous, therefore, when self-described Progressives argue that we must maintain the status quo in communications technology as a means of achieving our values of fairness, equality and consumer protection. Specifically, as communications technology rapidly evolves into an all-digital platform, from digital video streaming to voice-over-Internet-Protocol ("VOIP") phone service, some Progressives argue that we should freeze in place century-old copper wire architecture in order to maintain the public benefits of universal availability, emergency service, consumer protection, and other core elements of our telecom social contract.

To a twenty-something technophile, this must sound a little bit like demanding the continued use of horses and buggies rather than cars, because at least we know the four-legged creatures work. Not exactly the best way to cultivate the next generation of Progressive leaders.

On the other hand, much in the vein of Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" theory, we sometimes see quick decisions being made in response to natural disasters, where longstanding telecommunications infrastructure is replaced with new technology, even though policy makers have not thought through the implications of such changes. The government agencies we trust to protect the public interest observe major changes in consumer preferences and infrastructure reconfigurations right under their noses but have no long-term plan of action. The result often can be a surprise to consumers and regulators alike. Clearly, a more forward-looking and reasoned approach to regulation is in order.

This debate is at full boil in a Federal Communications Commission proceeding regarding whether or not to conduct local trials where copper lines would be replaced by digital ones. There are plenty of corporate interests making arguments that serve their bottom lines, from cable companies that want to keep making money under the current regime to phone companies that want to make money by eliminating all regulations.

A ray of sanity, however, has emerged from the public interest and labor movements. In general, their argument is not to fight the local trials or the inevitable migration of telecommunications from copper to digital. Instead, they lay out basic principles of communications policy that have withstood the test of time and suggest that the United States keep these principles intact as technology evolves.

The basic principles laid out by these forward-thinking Progressives include maintaining 100% universal availability of phone and emergency "911" services; providing a reliable network that delivers a dial tone as we have come to expect it; and consumer protection against billing fraud and other scams. Regardless of what technological change lies over the horizon, say these labor and public interest organizations, Americans must at least know that their basic bargain with telecommunications providers will survive.

This is a Progressive approach to telecommunications policy that embraces technological change while maintaining our core values of fairness, equality, and consumer protection. Rather than attacking new technologies like some kind of latter-day Luddites, these Progressives want to update our public policy to keep pace with technology. It allows for the reasoned, thoughtful reform of our public policy, rather than the Shock Doctrine approach to change.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, the cradle of the Progressive movement, and lest my fellow cheesehead lefties accuse me of betraying the cause, here is what former White House Chief of Staff and founder of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, said when I asked him on my Sirius Left radio show whether we Progressives run the risk of looking like we just stand for preserving the status quo in government programs. Podesta acknowledged the problem. Above all else, he responded, we should stand for reform.

I agree. Reform, improvement, progress. Refusing to accept things as they are and fighting for the world we dream it can be. This should apply whether we are agitating for equal voting rights under the law or modernizing our approach to the telecommunications laws we have. The longevity of our Progressive movement demands no less.

David Goodfriend is a former FCC attorney and former Deputy Staff Secretary to President Clinton, now practicing communications law in Washington, D.C. He is an adjunct professor of technology and telecommunications policy at Georgetown University Law Center, co-founder of Air America Radio and "Left Jab" on Sirius-XM, and frequent contributor to MSNBC.