How economic rights almost became part of the Constitution

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights has come back into vogue as a lodestar for the modern progressive imagination. And while FDR’s vision of robust social and economic rights has inspired progressive policymakers for generations, many have forgotten just how close the U.S. Supreme Court came to incorporating many of those rights into our existing Constitution.

Roosevelt proposed a Second Bill of Rights during his State of the Union address in 1944. He said that the country had come to recognize that economic security is a prerequisite for true individual freedom; that certain inalienable economic rights were necessary to buttress the inalienable political rights protected by the nation’s Founders.

FDR 2nd Bill

Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights included:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job.
  • The right to earn enough to afford food, clothing, and recreation.
  • The right to be free from unfair competition and monopolization.
  • The right to housing.
  • The right to health care.
  • The right to security from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

While these rights have long served as normative aspirations for various progressive movements, they never have been adopted into the Constitution to sit along side the actual Bill of Rights. Nor have they been otherwise transformed into enforceable legal rights, for the most part.

But there was a time when much of the Second Bill of Rights looked like it was on track to become part of our constitutional order. As Cass Sunstein explains in his book on the Second Bill, there was a brief period in the 1960s when the Supreme Court came very close to embracing much of FDR’s constitutional vision.

Much of the credit goes to Justice Robert Jackson, a close adviser to the New Deal before he was named to the Supreme Court. In the 1941 case Edwards v. California, a plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of a California law that criminalized bringing an indigent non-resident person into the state of California. The Supreme Court struck down the law as a barrier to interstate commerce.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Jackson argued that the law actually violated Edwards’ Fourteenth Amendment rights because it discriminated on the basis of his wealth status. “We should say now, and in no uncertain terms, that a man’s mere property status, without more, cannot be used by a state to test, qualify, or limit his rights as a citizen of the United States,” Jackson wrote. “The mere state of being without funds is a neutral fact—constitutionally an irrelevance, like race, creed, or color.”

Jackson considered laws that classify people by income level to be comparable to those that classify based on race, religion, or ethnicity. That’s a big deal, because those latter distinctions receive the highest degree of protection under the Constitution – what’s known as “strict scrutiny.” Laws that discriminate on those bases are almost invariably struck down by courts.

Jackson’s opinion was not the Court’s majority opinion, and his concurrence remained siloed for years. Until 1956, when a majority of the Court began to faintly echo Jackson’s reasoning in the criminal law context. In Griffin v. Illinois, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires states to provide trial transcripts at no cost to indigent criminal defendants appealing their convictions. “In criminal trials a State can no more discriminate on account of poverty than on account of religion, race, or color,” the Court held.

Then, in the landmark 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Warren Court held that the Constitution requires the states to pay for legal assistance for indigent criminal defendants. That is, the Court held that the Constitution contains a positive right requiring the government to provide an affirmative benefit to people too poor to obtain it on their own.

The Court built on Gideon to expand the state’s affirmative obligation to the poor twice more. In Douglas v. California, the Court held that the Constitution also requires the state to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants appealing a criminal conviction. And in Boddie v. Connecticut, the Court held that the state has a similar affirmative obligation to ensure poor people have legal counsel in divorce proceedings.

In 1966, the Court held that discrimination against the poor was unconstitutional when it infringed upon the fundamental right to vote. In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the Court struck down a $1.50 poll tax. The Court held that “Lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property, like those of race, are traditionally disfavored.” It cited Justice Jackson’s concurring opinion in Edwards, along with the Court’s criminal justice opinion in Griffin. “Notions of what constitutes equal treatment for purposes of the Equal Protection Clause,” the Court observed, “do change.”

The Court also seemed to find that the Constitution provides some level of protection from destitution. In Shapiro v. Thompson, Sunstein writes, “the Court seemed to come close to saying that the Constitution conferred a right to welfare benefits.” That case involved a California law that restricted welfare benefits from those who had lived in the state for less than one year.

The Court struck down the law on the grounds that it penalized people exercising their constitutional right to travel. It penalized travelers by denying them “welfare aid upon which may depend the ability of the families to obtain the very means to subsist — food, shelter, and other necessities of life,” the Court wrote, in apparent recognition of welfare’s importance to sheer human survival.

For similar reasons, the Court invalidated an Arizona law that denied new arrivals publicly funded non-emergency medical care until they had lived in the county for a full year. In Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, the Court applied its precedent in Shapiro and held that it is “clear that medical care is as much ‘a basic necessity of life’ to an indigent as welfare assistance.”

The high-water mark of the Court’s constitutional protections for the poor came in Goldberg v. Kelly. In that case, the Court held that the poor had property rights to welfare benefits, and such benefits could not be withdrawn without a due process hearing. “From its founding,” the Court held, “the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and wellbeing of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty.”

The Court held that welfare benefits were essential for the poor to realize full citizenship and participation in their communities. “Public assistance . . . is not mere charity, but a means to ‘promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,’” the Court said, tying the provision of welfare to the very preamble of the Constitution.

Goldberg was decided in 1970. Yet the budding constellation of constitutional rights for the poor was already about to roll back. In 1968, Richard Nixon edged out Hubert Humphrey by about 500,000 votes to win the presidency. As luck would have it, Nixon was able to appoint four new Supreme Court justices in just five and a half years in office.

That was enough to halt the momentum toward broader social and economic rights under the Constitution. In Lindsay v. Normet, for example, the new, more conservative Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge against Oregon’s state eviction law, ruling that the Constitution provided no guarantee of decent housing. “[T]he Constitution does not provide judicial remedies for every social and economic ill,” the Court held. “We are unable to perceive in that document any constitutional guarantee of access to dwellings of a particular quality[.]”

The decisive turning point came in the 1973 case San Antonio v. Rodriguez. There, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to grave funding disparities in Texas’s school financing system, where per-pupil expenditures were significantly higher in wealthy districts than poorer districts. The Court rejected the argument that this system discriminated against the poor, and rejected the notion that education is a fundamental right under the Constitution.

The Court was troubled by the unstoppable implications of calling education a fundamental right. “How, for instance,” the Court asked, “is education to be distinguished from the significant personal interests in the basics of decent food and shelter?”

A different Court might have followed that train of logic to decide that, yes indeed, all of the above are constitutionally-protected rights. Anyone who is deprived an education, housing, food, or shelter has been denied full citizenship and equal protection under the law.

But the lesson here is that elections have consequences. Had Humphrey eked out a half million more votes in a few key states in 1968, we could be living under a very different set of constitutional interpretations today. “It is not too speculative to suggest,” Sunstein writes, “that if Humphrey had been elected, aspects of the second bill would have been a solid part of the constitutional landscape.”

A Humphrey-inflected Court could have pieced together a mosaic of decisions like Edwards, Shapiro, and Goldberg to recognize a right to the “basic necessities of life”—like healthcare, a non-poverty income, decent housing, and sustenance—flowing from the Constitution’s guarantees of citizenship and equal protection, and its commitment to “foster the dignity and wellbeing of all persons within its borders.” Those decisions had all the makings of building blocks for something much bigger.

Instead, that unfinished constitutional project has largely languished in a jurisprudential no-man’s-land under nearly half a century of conservative dominance on the Supreme Court. But not entirely. In the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe, Justice William Brennan cobbled together a Supreme Court majority to hold that undocumented immigrant children have a right to public education. And in 1996, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the Court in M.L.B. v. S.L.J. holding that the Constitution prevents states from denying an appeal from an order terminating a parent’s custody rights to parents too poor to pay a court fee.

These decisions are still out there. They have been neglected, but not reversed. Progressives should pick them up to be resurrected for another day, perhaps far in the future, when the Court is more amenable to expanding the constitutional rights of the poor. After all, conservatives and libertarians have long been at work rehabilitating a long-abandoned line of cases that would do the opposite, enhancing the rights and power of the wealthy and corporations.

Absent a major act of political hardball, the project of incorporating FDR’s Second Bill of Rights into constitutional law will likely remain frozen in time for years, if not decades. But old theories of constitutional law never truly fade away. They hibernate, waiting for the moral spirit of the times to swing their way.

Advertisements

Democratic hardball and the democracy agenda

Progressives are gradually coming to grips with the true scale of reform and reconstruction that the country must implement in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. At the Washington Monthly, editor-in-chief Paul Glastris writes:

“The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It’s no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period—but, unlike the other side, they must do this in part by strengthening the democratic process, not by undermining it.”

Indeed. Democrats are coalescing around an increasingly ambitious substantive platform as they ready for 2020 – Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, free college, a $15 minimum wage, and other bold domestic policies. But they must also adopt an equally ambitious procedural platform to expand the franchised electorate and to level a political playing field badly tilted toward emboldening a modern Republican Party unfit to govern.

Call it a “democracy agenda” – an agenda grounded in finally granting full and equal voting rights and representation to U.S. citizens in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; in enacting a New Voting Rights Act that defends against the most pernicious voter suppression laws and affirmatively makes it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot; in giving the people a voice to add seats on the Supreme Court to rectify its current anti-democratic (small-d) lurch.

Those are reforms embraced by political scientist David Faris in It’s Time to Fight Dirty. Faris also proposes even more audacious reforms: breaking California into seven smaller states, and switching to proportional representation in the House.

Giving full political representation to D.C. and Puerto Rico would add four new Senate seats – which would likely be filled by Democrats. Protecting and supporting the right to vote would make it easier for more people to vote – which would likely work to Democrats’ favor. Rebalancing the Supreme Court would allow a Democratic president to tip a 5-4 conservative majority (*if Brett Kavanaugh wins confirmation) into a 6-5 liberal majority.

These might all smack of hardball entrenchment tactics. But the political effects are incidental to the primary impact, which is to expand the franchise and increase democratic representation in American government.

Moreover, if you believe in the moral urgency of the broader progressive substantive agenda, then these procedural steps are vital. Every year that progressives are locked out of a governing majority is a year that the American people are left without progressive reform to expand health care, environmental protection, higher wages, and other basic dignities. The current “back-and-forth” between Republican-dominated politics and Democratic-dominated politics, Faris writes in It’s Time to Fight Dirty, “inevitably lead[s] to worse and worse outcomes for America’s poor and middle classes, and invite[s] true planetary disaster.”

As Glastris points out, over the last 27 years, Democrats have only controlled both the White House and Congress at the same time in four of those years. Those are two fleeting blips at the beginning of the Clinton and Obama presidencies where it was possible to advance a progressive agenda. And progressives controlled the Supreme Court in neither of them.

Democrats can no longer afford to passively wait on the political pendulum to swing their way. The urgency of the country’s challenges, coupled with the radical nihilism of the GOP, demand something different.

In defending the case for Democratic reform of the Supreme Court, I argued:

“The Democratic president that follows Trump will not have a normal presidency. It will be one of reconstruction — of truth and reconciliation. To prove that America is truly better than this, Trump cannot be treated as politics as usual, no different than any other departing president. His presidency must be rendered a shameful aberration; a stain; a grotesque mistake that cannot happen again.”

The same principles apply to the broader democracy agenda above. Trump’s presidency has depended on a restricted electorate. We know, for example, that Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law discouraged voters and may have helped toss that state to Trump. And the absence of political representation for D.C. and Puerto Rico gave Trump an artificial slim Republican majority in the Senate, rather than a probable slim Democratic majority. That alone is the difference between a Senate that advances a right-wing agenda of plutocracy, healthcare repeal, and presidential rubber-stamping, and one that stands up to Trump and instates real accountability.

In the conclusion to It’s Time to Fight Dirty, Faris reminds us that “the undeniable truth is that we [are] already living through a monumental political crisis.” It’s one that progressives cannot afford to squander by letting real reform slip away. Our political crisis calls for a “Third Reconstruction,” as Faris puts it. Crucially, “[t]he most important thing progressives can do to help transform the United States into a more equal, just, and prosperous society,” Faris tells us, “is to win elections.”

To govern in 2021, progressives must rise to the occasion and realize that fundamental truth. Some times in American history call for hardnosed reconsiderations of our political system – how it has been perverted through inertia and deliberate mischief over the years; how it is amplifying select voices and muffling others. Call it hardball if you want. But this is one of those times.

Share the windfall

President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans gifted U.S. corporations a massive financial windfall last year.  The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 slashed the top tax rate on corporations from 34 percent to 21 percent, handing big businesses a pile of extra cash to spend as they saw fit.

Trump claimed that the tax cut would be “rocket fuel” for the American economy.  But that fuel has largely fizzled out before reaching workers’ pockets.  Real wages have barely budged over the last two years despite steadily declining unemployment.  Aside from a handful of one-off bonuses, the tax bill has had no noticeable effect on workers’ wages.

So where is the cash left over from the corporate tax cut going?  Increasingly, into the pockets and portfolios of executives and shareholders.  According to Politico:

Some of the biggest winners from President Donald Trump’s new tax law are corporate executives who have reaped gains as their companies buy back a record amount of stock, a practice that rewards shareholders by boosting the value of existing shares.

A POLITICO review of data disclosed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings shows the executives, who often receive most of their compensation in stock, have been profiting handsomely by selling shares since Trump signed the law on Dec. 22 and slashed corporate tax rates to 21 percent. That trend is likely to increase, as Wall Street analysts expect buyback activity to accelerate in the coming weeks.

Stock buybacks (which were illegal until 1982) are when corporations use their stockpiles of cash to repurchase their own stock.  This inflates the value of their stock, juicing the compensation of their executives, too.

This is great for the shareholder class, but does next to nothing for workers.  It’s a symptom of a larger trend where record-shattering corporate profitability increasingly fails to produce higher pay for workers.  More and more, the corporate bounty has been hoarded the benefit of executives and shareholders, with barely a trickle for employees.

How do we combat this?  Senators Cory Booker and Bob Casey have proposed a “Worker Dividend Act.”  Under their bill, corporations pursuing massive stock buybacks would have to share the wealth with their employees.  Here’s how it would work:

The total value of a company’s obligation would be calculated as the lesser between the total amount of that year’s stock buybacks and 50 percent of the company’s profits above $250 million. That total obligation would then be distributed equally to each of the company’s employees.

To see how this would play out, consider the example of Oracle, which announced it would repurchase $12 billion worth of its own shares.  That’s nearly 75 percent of its total earnings last year, which totaled over $16 billion.  (And that’s just about par for the course, as Sen. Booker notes: “[C]ompanies on the S&P 500 dedicated 91 percent of their total earnings to stock buybacks and corporate dividends, leaving just nine percent for things like raises for workers[.]”)

Under the Booker-Casey bill, Oracle would have owed its U.S. employees around $8 billion (the lesser of its $12 billion buyback and 50 percent of earnings over $250 million).  That pool of money would then be split equally among the company’s American employees.  Oracle had about 138,000 total employees around the world.  That means its U.S. employees would be in line to receive $60,000 or more each.

Ideas like the Worker Divided Act would help correct the absurd power imbalance between corporations and workers in the twenty-first century economy.  Workers deserve their fair share of the massive wealth sloshing around corporate coffers, not mere pennies on the dollar.  Only government policy can make sure they get it.

Trump is trying to repeal Obamacare in court

Last week, the Department of Justice filed a legal brief announcing that it will not defend the Affordable Care Act in court.  That legal maneuver amounts to a transparent attempt by the Trump administration to try to repeal Obamacare yet again.

Conservatives have spent nearly a decade sniping at Obamacare through targeted litigation.  The ink was barely dry on Barack Obama’s signature on the law before fourteen Republican attorneys general sued to invalidate it.  Eventually, a lawsuit brought by a Koch brothers-funded business lobby made its way to the Supreme Court, claiming that the law’s requirement that everyone purchase insurance was unconstitutional.

In that case, Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote to save Obamacare’s individual mandate.  He thought the mandate went beyond the limits of Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce, but was valid as a tax.

Fast forward to 2017.  Congressional Republicans spent the better part of a year trying and failing to repeal Obamacare.  When they gave up and passed a standalone tax cut on the rich instead, Republicans slipped in a repeal of the individual mandate in order to nick Obamacare.

But they didn’t technically strike the individual mandate from the books.  Instead, Republicans simply zeroed out the mandate’s tax penalty.  So as of January 1, 2019, the individual mandate is “enforced” with a $0 penalty for skipping out on health insurance.

A new Obamacare lawsuit brought by Texas and other red states takes yet another swing at the law. And now the Trump administration’s Department of Justice has weighed in to argue that the individual mandate has become unconstitutional.  The argument is that because the individual mandate no longer generates any revenue in the wake of the tax bill, it can no longer be considered a tax.  And if it’s not a tax, then it has no constitutional authority.

But the administration doesn’t stop there.  Even worse, it argues that if the individual mandate falls, then Obamacare’s rules prohibiting discrimination against people with preexisting conditions must fall, too.  These protections that guarantee insurance access and fair prices should be struck down with the ghost of the individual mandate, according to the administration.

As a legal matter, this argument is utterly frivolous.  It’s a perversion of a legal doctrine known as “severability.”  When a court strikes down one provision of a law, it generally tries to leave alone other “severable” parts of a law in order to preserve as much of Congress’s work as possible.

Turning that doctrine on its head, the administration argues that Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions are not severable from the individual mandate, pointing to congressional findings in the Affordable Care Act that the provisions were closely connected.  But the health care program known as “Obamacare” is no longer derived just from the Affordable Care Act.  Rather, it comes from the Affordable Care Act as amended by the Donor Relief Act of 2017.  Congress itself—however unwisely—opted to defang the individual mandate and leave the rest of Obamacare alone.  The courts have no severability judgment to make, because Congress already made it.

And there’s a reason Congress didn’t touch the rest of Obamacare: it didn’t have the votes.  Senate Republicans pursued Obamacare repeal solely through budget reconciliation because they didn’t have enough votes to defeat a Democratic filibuster.  Reconciliation is limited solely to legislation that has an impact on the budget.  That constraint precluded Republicans from even considering repealing Obamacare’s provisions guaranteeing people with illnesses the right to purchase insurance.

So the administration is trying to do through the courts would it could not get through Congress.  It’s a backdoor attempt to saw off more of Obamacare than Congress could ever bear.

Of course, the Department of Justice’s refusal to defend Obamacare is also a stunning betrayal of the rule of law.  “[T]he Justice Department has a durable, longstanding, bipartisan commitment to defending the law when non-frivolous arguments can be made in its defense,” law professor Nicholas Bagley writes.  “This brief puts that commitment to the torch.”

Bagley also notes that just hours before the Department of Justice submitted its brief, three career attorneys at the Department withdrew from the case.  That’s typically a sign of dissension among the legal professionals within the Department not wanting their names attached to a frivolous brief. That left only Trump political appointees signing the brief—including Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler, who Trump just picked to serve as a federal appellate judge.

Trump and his congressional Republican abettors have been hell-bent on soiling Barack Obama’s program expanding health care to twenty million people.  Through acts of sabotage both big and small, they’ve tried their damnedest to make the law function more poorly, even going so far as to deliberately cultivate massive premium hikes on people’s health insurance plans this year.

The galling brief filed by the administration’s hand-picked lawyers is a reminder that the conservative bloodlust to take away people’s health care has in no way dissipated after last year’s legislative failure of Obamacare repeal.  American health care simply will not be safe until Republicans are stripped from power in Washington.

Philip Roth’s terror of the unforeseen

A celebrity novice politician takes the Washington establishment by storm, riding the dark strain of the American heart to an upset bid for the White House.

Philip Roth died this week. In 2004, he wrote a “what-if” alternative history imagining American aviation hero turned Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh runs for president in 1940 and unseats Franklin Roosevelt on an isolationist “American First” platform. Roth published The Plot Against America as a curious peak into an unfathomable parallel universe. But in the age of Donald Trump, Roth’s imagined political catastrophe has suddenly become eerily prescient.

Image result for charles lindbergh nazi

Charles Lindbergh, September 11, 1941 (Des Moines, Iowa)

Roth tells the tale of Lindbergh’s political rise from his own childhood perspective. (Be warned: This post is shot through with spoilers ahead.) Lindbergh captured the animal spirits of the Republican Party, winning its nomination for the presidency. Lindbergh is an open anti-Semite—an imminent threat to American Jews like Roth and his family.

Roth’s father, Herman, is a staunch believer in goodness and justice in America, refusing to believe that Lindbergh could come close to the White House. He counts on the guardrails of American democracy to protect Jews. “There was Roosevelt, there was the U.S. Constitution, there was the Bill of Rights, and there were the papers, America’s free press.” Ultimately, all of these guardrails would give way to Lindbergh’s ascent.

Lindbergh’s campaign was at first dismissed by the establishment as a “publicity gimmick,” as he flew himself in a solo plane from rally to rally across the country. Lindbergh was at once both a plainspoken common man with a flat, “decidedly un-Rooseveltian” affect, and a superhuman living legend. He played on nostalgia, reminding Americans of his heroic flight across the Atlantic, “and it was 1927 all over again.”

His message was simple: FDR and other elites were duping the American people into war. Lindbergh would keep America out of World War II. “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war.”

Roosevelt, for his part, campaigned on a sense of inevitability—as too busy with the serious business of governing to be bothered by Lindbergh’s “carnival antics.” When told that Lindbergh had won the GOP nomination, Roosevelt remarked, “By the time this is over, the young man will be sorry not only that he entered politics but that he ever learned to fly.”

In the run-up to the election, polls showed Roosevelt running comfortably ahead. The polls were wrong. Republican party leaders left Lindbergh’s campaign for dead, frustrated by the novice candidate’s insulated campaign.

Lindbergh shocked the world by winning in a landslide. Republicans seized control of Congress, too. Pundits latched on to a series of comforting rationalizations to explain Lindbergh’s blowout win: The country had rejected FDR’s bid for a third term. Lindbergh’s aeronautic feats were what the country needed to venture into the future. Anything to explain away the appeal of Lindbergh’s openly fascist campaign.

Before even being inaugurated, president-elect Lindbergh met with Axis leaders to negotiate peace with the United States. The American public overwhelmingly supported Lindbergh’s efforts to keep U.S. troops out of the war. They praised Lindbergh’s deal-making skills, and the apparent respect he commanded from Hitler.

Within weeks of the election, brash public anti-Semitism begins seeping out of the American woodwork. Bigots emboldened by political fortune saw fit to flex their newfound muscle in American life.

Upon taking office, Lindbergh launches a new Office of American Absorption to “Americanize” Jewish city kids by enlisting them to work on farms in the Midwest as a sort of summer camp. Yet while America’s Jews lived in horror of the new administration, much of the rest of the country celebrated peace and prosperity. The stock market boomed, and world war remained someone else’s problem. Eventually, a numbness and sense of normalcy set in across most of the country.

But Lindbergh’s insidious rise changed the fabric of the country. He invited the Nazi Germany foreign minister to visit the United States, leading former president Franklin Roosevelt to emerge from the sidelines and speak out. Lindbergh’s Nazi-friendly stance created the social space for American Nazism to go mainstream. The true terror of the Lindbergh presidency was what it brought out in regular Americans. America became a meaner, more violent place.

Eventually, Lindbergh’s administration is engulfed in a shocking scandal of foreign influence. Chaos swirls, a political resistance emerges, conspiracy theories gain currency on both sides, accusations of fake news about “so-called Jewish riots” fly.

Roth’s counterfactual history has a tidy conclusion that folds the country back into its previously interrupted political order. By the close of The Plot Against America, the dark age of Lindbergh turns out to have only been a two-year interregnum in American history before the country returned to its senses.

Will our own political moment pass so cleanly? Many Americans that are rightly distraught over Trump hope for a deus ex machina from Robert Mueller or the 2020 election. Yet the political tectonics and simmering resentments that unleashed Trump will not soon fade; the most we can hope for is dormancy.

Plus, the retrospective of history has its own way of deluding us into faith that a comfortably reassuring logic and order prevails. “Turned the wrong way round,” Roth wrote, “the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

Jimmy Carter & the America we long for

In the aftermath of Watergate, Vietnam, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, routine economic shocks, and the upheavals and violence of the late 1960s onward, the United States desperately needed a reset in 1976. The man Americans turned to that year was Jimmy Carter.

Regardless of Carter’s ultimate performance in office, his presidential campaign is a useful touchstone for what resonated with Americans as a viable path forward after years of chaos and government by vengeance.

Image result for jimmy carter campaign

In The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein keys in on one speech Carter delivered in Watts, California, in June 1976 at the dedication of a new wing of Martin Luther King Hospital.

Carter began by discussing King’s legacy, and what King meant to him as a southerner. He then appealed to the unachieved promise of America, before launching into a clear and direct vision he sees for America:

The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her. 

For all our progress, we still live in a land held back by oppression and injustice.

The few who are rich and powerful still make the decisions, and the many who are poor and weak must suffer the consequences. If those in power make mistakes, it is not they or their families who lose their jobs or go on welfare or lack medical care or go to jail.

We still have poverty in the midst of plenty.

We still have far to go. We must give our government back to our people. The road will not be easy.

But we still have the dream, Martin Luther King’s dream and your dream and my dream. The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her.

I see an America poised not only at the brink of a new century, but at the dawn of a new era of honest, compassionate, responsive government.

I see an American government that has turned away from scandals and corruption and official cynicism and finally become as decent as our people.

I see an America with a tax system that does not steal from the poor and give to the rich. 

I see an America with a job for every man and woman who can work, and a decent standard of living for those who cannot.

I see an America in which my child and your child and every child receives an education second to none in the world.

I see an American government that does not spy on its citizens or harass its citizens, but respects your dignity and your privacy and your right to be let alone. 

I see an American foreign policy that is firm and consistent and generous, and that once again is a beacon for the hopes of the world.

I see an American President who does not govern by vetoes and negativism, but with vigor and vision and affirmative leadership, a President who is not isolated from our people, but feels their pain and shares their dreams and takes his strength from them.

I see an America in which Martin Luther King’s dream is our national dream.

I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, its head high, a diverse and vital nation, moving into its third century with confidence and competence and compassion, an America that lives up to the majesty of its Constitution and the simple decency of its people.

This is the America that I see, and that I am committed to as I run for President. 

Carter argued that America deserves a government that lives up to the best of the country’s promise and character. He envisioned a new administration that roots out corruption and unwinds a system rigged for the rich. He vowed to pursue the dreams of employment for all and high-quality education for every child. He promised to be a positive force for American society and government—one in touch with the pain, dreams, and strength of the American people.

It’s a utopian vision, as all progressive visions must be. Progressives wish to improve society to achieve the promise of America. Implicit in that wish is faith that those ideals and values can be achieved by flawed, mortal human beings. The inherent hope and optimism in that faith must be reflected in the vision and speeches of progressive leaders.

Former Obama White House aide David Axelrod has a theory that presidential incumbents are consistently replaced by their polar opposites. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have,” Axelrod wrote. “They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.” The “grandfatherly” Dwight Eisenhower was replaced by the young, vibrant John F. Kennedy. The cool-headed, cerebral Barack Obama replaced the trust-your-gut, down-home George W. Bush. Obama in turn was replaced by the antagonistic, emotion-driven Donald Trump.

In the dark, chaotic days of the Trump administration, voters may again seek an opposite come 2020. After a presidency defined by cynicism, bellicosity, trenching division, and resentment, Americans may look for the opposite: a politics of hope, love, and optimism. A spin on the forward-looking politics offered by past progressives like Carter and Obama.

Carter’s speech was titled “The Power of Love.” And in 1976, Perlstein writes, “people yearned to believe.” They may yearn again come 2020. Donald Trump has offered a fundamentally negative vision—of American carnage and a crippled America.

Progressives must be prepared to counter this vision by explaining the hope they see for America. They must paint a vision for American voters — one that doesn’t react to Trumpism, but that transcends it entirely. The power of anger can only be vanquished by the power of love.

The promise of a jobs guarantee

Last week, Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill that would conduct jobs guarantee experiments in fifteen cities. The idea of a federal jobs guarantee has gained traction on the left, intended as a government jobs program to scoop up any workers unwillingly left behind by the private sector to completely eliminate involuntary unemployment.

Here’s how Booker’s jobs guarantee bill would work, per Vox:

“The Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act, announced by Booker on Friday, would establish a three-year pilot program in which the Department of Labor would select up to 15 local areas (defined in the bill as any political subdivision of a state, like a city or a county, or a group of cities and counties) and offer that area funding so that every adult living there is guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour (or the prevailing wage for the job in question, whichever’s higher) and offering paid family/sick leave and health benefits.”

The promise of a jobs guarantee is extremely compelling. Polling has found public support for the idea, showing 52 percent of Americans support the idea of the government guaranteeing jobs for everyone, and only 29 percent opposed.

It’s also an idea with a long history. Progressives from Martin Luther King through Sen. Hubert Humphrey championed a federal jobs guarantee. After the a federal employment guarantee was excised from the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, advocacy around making the government the employer of last resort has largely been confined to a small group of academics and activists.

Until now. The jobs guarantee, in close tandem with single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income, has become a major policy contribution from the left. As prominent Democrats eye presidential runs in 2020, they’ve competed to win over the activists by co-opting their policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and now Sen. Booker, have both embraced the jobs guarantee idea.

The allure of a jobs guarantee is easy to see—the promise of ending mass unemployment and economic recession is incredibly enticing. But how would it hold up in practice? The idea is to have public employment act like an accordion in response to the “rest” of the economy: public work would expand at times when unemployment would otherwise by high, and contract when it would be low. But how would that work in practice? Would kinds of actual jobs are fungible enough to fit that model?

Booker’s bill is based on work by scholars Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton, who recently wrote up a jobs guarantee proposal at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They propose creating a “a National Investment Employment Corps to achieve permanent full employment in the U.S. economy through large-scale, direct hiring by the federal government.”

Paul, Darity, and Hamilton conceive of the NIEC as a “public option for employment”—a government-provided safety net that can both employ people left behind by the private sector, and keep the private sector accountable to provide good wages and benefits. They point to the positive spillover effects of a jobs guarantee as one of its major benefits: the standards for pay and benefits set by the public jobs program would pressure private employers to keep up. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton propose that public jobs pay annual wages of $24,600 per year, or $11.83 per hour, with a full benefits package (health insurance, retirement pans, paid family and sick leave, and four weeks of vacation time per calendar year). (On wages at least, Booker would go further, offering public jobs at $15 per hour or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher.)

The precise jobs that a jobs guarantee would provide remain somewhat mysterious. Booker’s bill relies on local community governments and agencies to identify jobs needed on the ground. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton would have the federal government “identify areas of needed investment in the U.S. economy, including goods (examples: infrastructure, energy efficiency retrofitting) and services (examples: elder care, child care, job training, education, and health services).”

They also mention several other areas that would be a good fit for a federal jobs program, including: “the repair, maintenance, and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure, housing stock, and public buildings; energy efficiency upgrades to public and private buildings; assistance with ecological restoration and services to reduce the country’s carbon footprint; engagement in community development projects; provision of high-quality preschool and afterschool services; provision of teachers’ aids; provision of high-quality elder care and companionship; rejuvenation of the nation’s defunded postal service; support for the arts; and other activities that shall support the public good.”

Some of these jobs seem to be a better fit for the accordion-like design of the jobs guarantee than others. Public infrastructure repair and construction are classic stimulus work that can be provided by government as an employer of last resort. But child care and elder care are much more permanent jobs that we wouldn’t want people fleeing as private market conditions improve.

The jobs guarantee seems to be trying to solve two market failures at once: eliminating involuntary unemployment, and providing social goods that are currently under-provided by the market. Those twin goals drive toward a bifurcated public jobs program: one temporary “stimulus” jobs corps that does yo-yo as the economy expands and contracts, and a second much more permanent jobs corps program in communities and industries that have been long-term underserved by the private economy.

There certainly are vast regions that are jobs deserts, not to mention child and elder care deserts, too. To the extent that these three overlap, then the jobs guarantee could quickly make the government a permanently dominant employer in certain communities. Which is not inherently a problem—there are already many communities that depend on a public employer, like a university or government agencies. Communities deprived of employment opportunities today would certainly be better off with government-facilitated work than with none at all.

After all, the jobs guarantee is about much more than just an income stream. A job is a principal source of dignity for most people. Franklin Roosevelt included the right to a useful and remunerative job in his proposed Second Bill of Rights. The right to employment—the guarantee of a job—means that people will no longer live at the mercy of the markets for their livelihoods, their pride, and their dignity. A sense of self, purpose, and meaning would no longer vanish thanks to the bursting of an asset bubble, the greed of financial elite, or the cost-benefit decisions of private industry. The jobs guarantee tames the economy and puts it to work serving the human spirit.

Interestingly, a decade before his Second Bill of Rights speech, Roosevelt had opposed a permanent public jobs program. He told Congress in 1935 that public relief was a “narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” and characterized public work as “a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks.” His public jobs plans deliberately paid below the prevailing industry wage, so as not to displace or discourage private sector work. [See William Leuchtenburg’s Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, at page 124.]

It’s true that any old job is not necessarily an elixir of dignity and fulfillment. Many jobs are sources of immense tedium and displeasure. The types of jobs mentioned by Paul, Darity, and Hamilton certainly sound like socially beneficial sources of pride. But the paradox of the jobs guarantee is that the more it strives to provide long-term impactful work to the jobless, the more it stops looking like an employer of last resort and starts looking like a government takeover of a particular industry. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.)

(Interestingly, Roosevelt’s 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, largely embraced Roosevelt’s New Deal and even tried to outflank him on jobs, vowing to “provide jobs for every man and woman in the United States willing to work and to continue public relief to those who could not work.” [See Leuchtenburg at page 320.])

Booker appeals to the dignity of work to support his jobs guarantee bill. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” he said.

His bill would do for a jobs guarantee would private funders like Y Combinator are doing for a universal basic income: seeding small-scale experiments to see if the idea could actually work as large-scale public policy. That’s probably exactly where the jobs guarantee should be right now. Given its ambition to restore purpose and dignity to millions, it’s worth seeing whether we can make the mechanics of a jobs guarantee work.

Hope in the wilderness

Crooked Media is soliciting suggestions for its new podcast on how to fix the Democratic Party. Below is my submission:

When I think about how to fix the Democratic Party, I think of my family back home in Syracuse, New York. My mom’s parents were first- and second-generation Italian immigrants, and were union workers and loyal New Deal Democrats. My mom is a nurse and inherited their Democratic association, but is surrounded by colleagues that support Trump or otherwise feel totally disconnected from the Democratic Party.

Democrats have always conceived of themselves as the party of the underdog, the little guy, the working people. Something is deeply wrong if they are not reaching workers like nurses in a place like Syracuse when, just a few generations ago, these people were the heart of the Democratic Party.

While Democrats think of themselves as the party of working people, they are increasingly perceived as a party led by cultural elites. This isn’t a recent change, but the product of several decades of Democrats shifting the party’s center of gravity higher and higher up the income scale.

The truth is, Democrats win elections where they are seen as the party of working people and Republicans as the party of bosses. Think 2012 with Barack Obama vs. “guy that just fired your dad” Mitt Romney.

Of course, the Democratic Party cannot count on another Barack Obama walking through that door. But what Democrats can do is run more working people as candidates—like teachers, and nurses, and blue-collar workers. The kind of citizen candidates that have been winning in off-cycle elections like Virginia.

Democrats must fuse a working class politics that cuts across all races and religions, ages and backgrounds. And not just for electoral success, but to vindicate the American experiment: that people from all walks of life share common values and can form shared civic institutions and ultimately a shared democracy.

The Democrats’ story must be the universal story of people fighting against injustice and sticking up for themselves against interests bigger and more powerful than their own—all to demand the dignity and respect guaranteed to them as Americans.

As the party seeking to make a better society, Democrats are inherently the party of hope. They must articulate a message of hope and inspiration, grounded in a clear vision of what that society looks like, and how it makes life better and more fulfilled for regular Americans. From Roosevelt to JFK to Barack Obama, Democrats win when they inspire hope.

To me, that is how Democrats can get back on their feet: to have a clear-eyed vision of what the good society looks like that speaks to the hopes and aspirations of all Americans—rather than a flurry of white papers checking off the siloed interests and needs of individual groups of Americans. And this vision must come from the mouths of candidates and leaders drawn from the ranks of working people themselves.

That’s the identity that has led the Democratic Party to the greatest triumphs of its history from the New Deal to the Great Society to the Affordable Care Act. And it’s the identity that can create the kind of coalition that might match those triumphs for a new generation.

Robert Kennedy’s challenge to liberalism

We are in the midst of the fiftieth anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s brief 1968 presidential campaign, which began in March 1968, and was over less than three months later when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Kennedy’s campaign is often remembered as one of the great lost hopes for American liberalism—a campaign that had the promise of uniting a coalition of white ethnic voters and inner city black voters. But Kennedy also posed a challenge for liberalism.

In May 1968, Kennedy issued a press release on reforming the welfare system. (The press release—which I’ve written about previously—is included in abridged form in a collection of Kennedy’s speeches.) Kennedy railed against the indignities of welfare, and condemned a politics that limited the reaches of its imagination to monetary redistribution as hopelessly inadequate.

“Perhaps the area of our greatest domestic failure is in the system of welfare—public assistance to those in need,” Kennedy said. This was the height of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty—a period when poverty plunged in the United States. The national unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.

Kennedy argued that welfare breeds division, resentment, and alienation. But he brushed over the hostility felt by “the taxpayer” funding welfare programs, and focused on the humiliation experienced by welfare beneficiaries themselves. “[T]here is greater resentment among the poor, the recipient of our charity. Some of it comes from the brutality of the welfare system itself: from the prying bureaucrat, an all-powerful administrator deciding at his desk who is deserving and who is not, who shall live another month and who may starve next week.”

Having one’s survival chained to a cold bureaucracy was bad enough. Even worse, Kennedy argued, was the fundamental lack of purpose that plagued the souls of welfare recipients. “[T]he root problem is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do—which means nothing to do with the rest of us,” Kennedy said.

Welfare was inadequate because it failed to bridge this foundational alienation between the poor and society at large. To Kennedy’s mind, nothing less than the pillars of American democracy were at stake. “We often quote Lincoln’s warning that America could not survive half slave and half free,” Kennedy said. “Nor can it survive while millions of our people are slaves to dependency and poverty, waiting on the favor of their fellow citizens to write them checks. Fellowship, community, shared patriotism—these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together. They come from a shared sense of individual independence and personal effort. They come from working together to build a country—that is the answer to the welfare crisis.”

Consumerism and materialism were frequent targets of Kennedy’s campaign. Days after declaring his candidacy, he gave a now-famous speech in Kansas that warned about taking too much solace in America’s ever-growing gross national product. A war on poverty was not enough, for “even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task,” Kennedy said, “it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”

To Kennedy, filling empty stomachs was just the start. The true goal was to fulfill empty souls.

Kennedy’s answer to the inadequacies of welfare was work. “We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” Kennedy argued. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”

Kennedy specifically took on proposals for a guaranteed minimum income that gained currency toward the end of the Johnson administration. “It is a myth that all the problems of poverty can be solved by ultimate extension of the welfare system to guarantee to all, regardless of their circumstances a certain income paid for by the federal government,” he said. “Any such scheme, taken alone, simply cannot provide the sense of self-sufficiency, of participation in the life of the community, that is essential for citizens of a democracy.”

Welfare dependency was fundamentally at odds with the human spirit, Kennedy thought. “Human beings need a purpose. We need it as individuals; we need to sense it in our fellow citizens; and we need it as a society and as a people.”

Kennedy proposed specific policies to replace welfare. He wanted to create government incentives for the private sector to provide jobs for everyone willing and able to work. He would have replaced the existing welfare bureaucracy with an automatic system based entirely on need. He also called for an improved and expanded day care system.

Though Kennedy found government welfare payments insufficient to meet the challenge of poverty, he was no absolutist. When powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills tried to freeze welfare payments in 1967, Kennedy attacked the bill as the “most punitive measure in the history of the country, [punishing] the poor because they are there and we have not been able to do anything about them.”

“We will never succeed in restoring dignity and promise to the lives of people … until we develop a system which provides jobs,” Kennedy continued. “Welfare is neither the cause nor the remedy. But welfare has its role: helping those in need.”

The goal of liberalism is to secure dignity and self-determination for all Americans. To Kennedy, welfare was necessary but not sufficient. Public assistance, no matter how generous, simply could not fill the void of having a job—a stake in society and a contribution to take pride in as your own.

Redistributing resources may be an easy and familiar function of liberal government. Kennedy’s challenge to liberalism was to transcend that transactionalism—to fulfill the material needs of Americans, then move on to satisfy the needs of the spirit and soul as citizens.

Rewinding American identity

I recently watched a profoundly insightful lecture by New Yorker journalist and author George Packer at the University of California-Berkeley on “American Identity in the Age of Trump.” Packer’s lecture—which had previously been featured in a David Brooks column in the New York Times—provides a useful historical account of the deterioration of American politics, and how it wrought Trumpism. By exploring the different American stories jockeying for supremacy today, Packer gives us the tools we need to craft an identity to restore our democracy.

Packer’s theme is that American identity has collapsed amid polarization—that on an individual and community level, American life has grown ever more isolated, shrinking the common bonds we share as a national community.

He points to data showing a correlation between rising polarization, inequality, and immigration since the 1970s. “A smaller pie,” he argues, “divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike drives us toward cynical and hateful extremes.”

This sense of alienation has been driven by disillusionment with our institutions—not least of which include our political parties, according to Packer. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Democrats were the party of the “fair shake,” while the Republicans were the party of “getting ahead,” as he puts it. The parties more or less neatly aligned with workers and business, respectively.

That dichotomy gradually broke down in unpredictable ways. On the left, after the bloody 1968 convention, Democrats reformed their nominating process. This weakened the influence of entrenched labor interests, and gave more voice to the “new politics” of the day, with its emphasis on civil rights, the environment, and resisting militarism. This generation was proceeded by the Atari Democrats and Bill Clinton of the 1980s, with its own emphasis on embracing globalization and promoting education as a cure-all elixir. The Democratic Party, in short, became steadily detached from the concerns of working people over the last fifty years.

Over the same time period, the Republican Party has by and large been a “shaky marriage” between the rich and downscale whites. The GOP odd couple became a (white) workers’ party led by the Kochs, and stained by nihilism fed by rage, according to Packer. In 2008, the possibility of vice president Sarah Palin stirred political excitement in a segment of the Republican base that had long felt forgotten. That excitement was populism, which slowly seized Republican politics.

Palin’s populism turned working-class whiteness into a breed of identity politics. She doubled down on anti-institutional and anti-intellectual strains that had percolated in conservative politics for generations, amplifying them into all-out contempt for “lamestream” institutions, beaming ignorance as a point of pride. She tacked on infatuation with her own celebrity and unrestrained narcissism for good measure, as Packer puts it. With this combination, Packer says, “Palin was John the Baptist for Donald Trump.”

Packer alleges that our institutions stopped meeting the aspirations of those at the bottom, while those at the top stopped believing in interests larger than their own. His 2013 book The Unwinding traces the lives of several individual Americans over thirty-five years, as their senses of isolation and alienation deepened on the back of broader political and economic shifts in American life. It’s a book that describes the early warning of something like Trumpism. Packer says—“a democracy where no center holds.”

Packer met an Ohio steelworker who found Trump’s insults refreshing, saying that Trump’s ugliness is a “mirror of how they see us”—turning the tables on those elites who defile Middle America as flyover country populated by uncouth rubes. The lower Trump’s language and behavior sank, Packer observed, the more the press vilified him, and the more he was celebrated by his tribe. It’s a trend that has carried on into the Oval Office: the more he demonstrates manifest unfitness and danger to the office, the more the press hollows, and the more his Republican base rallies around him.

To Packer, Trump has revealed what has been true all along. Republican voters are not small-government principled conservatives who read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and belong to the Federalist Society. They want government to do things that benefit them, and not people who don’t look like them. The party’s most energized elements, Packer says, “are driven by violent opposition to changes in color and culture to the country they once knew.”

The election in 2016 was in part about economic anxiety—not necessarily economic hardship. Trumpism succeeded in places with low levels of mobility, little hope, and lost faith in the success of their communities. (Of course, these attitudes tend to correlate with and be informed by harsh attitudes on gender and race, as well.)

Put together, the election was about alienation, Packer concludes. It had very little to do with actual policy. Hillary Clinton came armed with pages and pages of policies and white papers aimed at making the economy more responsive to working people, breaking up economic monopolies, and more. When he interviewed Clinton just before the presidential election, Packer suspected none of her ideas would break through to voters. “She’s a lifelong institutionalist at a time of bitter distrust in institutions, a believer in gradual progress faced with violent impatience,” he wrote at the time.

In short, the traditional partisan divide between the “fair shake” and “getting ahead” has broken down. “The essence of American politics today is tribalism,” Packer says. He points to Richard Rorty’s influential tract Achieving Our Country, which tells us that politics is a contest of narratives. Different narratives of the American story have always jockeyed for supremacy in our politics. But to Packer, the narratives that dominate public debate today have become increasingly balkanized and splintered.

Packer sees four dominant narratives in America today:

  1. Libertarian America. This narrative emphasized individual freedom and free markets. It’s the narrative of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek; of Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, and the Republican establishment. “The libertarian idea regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers—everything but citizens,” Packer says. There’s little respect for self-government to meet our needs, which is why Ryan sits back and lets Trump trash our democracy for the sake of tax cuts for the rich.It’s also a shell narrative with little actual support in the real world. Packer calls the libertarian narrative a “head without a body”—the ideology of the donor class and conservative think tank bubble, with little resonance among actual Republican voters.
  2. Cosmopolitan America. This is the narrative of meritocracy and globalization. It’s the narrative that embraces modernity and technological change, thrilled by the prospect of disrupting old system and flattening hierarchies. This narrative prevails in Silicon Valley and educated urban professionals. It’s the legacy of the New Democrats that occupied the Democratic establishment from the 1980s on through the bridge to the twenty-first century.
  3. Diverse America. This is the narrative of social justice that focuses on remedying histories of oppression and celebrating America’s pluralism. It sees Americans as members of groups, each with their own stories and historical perspectives. Packer sees Diverse America and Trump each reacting to one another. Trump deliberately picks fights with subscribers to this narrative (indeed, its largely the narrative that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016), and shrewdly sees it as his ally—as the progressive the progressive mirror of “America first.”
  4. America First. This is the narrative of Trumpism. Its one that pits true patriots against their victimizers: disloyal coastal elites. It’s the narrative of the heartland, of Palin’s “real America”: white, Christian America.

Each narrative brings forward a set of winners and losers. Libertarianism has its makers and takers, in the words of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Cosmopolitanism has urbane meritocrats and Trump’s beloved “poorly educated” white working-class. Diverse America pits group against group. And America First pits “real Americans” against elites.

Packer thinks that none of these narratives will suffice to forge a true American community. He does not offer a fifth competing narrative, but instead offers an aspiration that we define national identity in the most inclusive terms possible, turning away from tribalism and toward broadly shared citizenship.

*          *          *

To my mind, a narrative that turns back polarization and unites a true American community must be one that actually values such a community. That narrative must build upon what is right and good about our existing narratives, while doing away with their zero-sum spoils and losses.

Each narrative has something compelling to offer. Americans have always believed in individual freedom and autonomy—just not the narrow anti-government strain offered by today’s libertarian right. America has always been a country that embraces innovation like globalization and technology—but cushions must be set in place to withstand the disruptions of those forces. America is a nation of immigrants, and is exceptional precisely because it undertook an experiment to prove self-government by heterogeneous groups can actually work—a belief that people of different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds can come together and form one community, not siloed tracts of black, white, and brown. And America has always been a proud, patriotic country. At its best, that patriotism is an inclusive celebration of shared American values. But at its worst, it can mutate into an exclusionary chest-thumping assertion of an ultra-limited claim over “true” American heritage.

Perhaps we can retain these compelling features of Packer’s four narratives, while sanding off the downsides to create an American identity that doesn’t presuppose winners and losers. That would create a new narrative that doesn’t accept or encourage a winner-take-all society between makers and takers, or between Ivy Leaguers and high school graduates. And it would strive for something bolder than a politics of factionalism based on either intergroup rivalry or resentful mono-cultural purity.

Such a narrative might expand upon Packer’s hope for inclusive common citizenship. It would be a narrative that relies on communitarian values and social democracy to achieve greater dignity and self-determination for all. The politics that undergirded the era of progressivism from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal on through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society do not fit neatly within Packer’s four narratives. The proud American identity of this era, and the national aspiration of broadly shared uplift and prosperity, ought to be resurrected today.

Of course, racial and cultural politics ultimately unwound that common identity. Lest we circle back to Packer’s descent into polarization from the ‘70s onward, we must update the New Deal politics to eliminate its exclusions. Fortunately, much of that work has already been done by none other than Barack Obama, who relentlessly cast the American story as one of steady progress, where groups rise up against legacies of oppression to demand a place in the American community—a current always churning toward broader citizenship.

The four American narratives that prevail today are products of our long descent into polarization. To escape that spiral, we must transcend the narratives that define our current politics. A narrative that is both new and old, that harkens back to America’s heyday as a secure middle-class nation while pointing forward toward America’s future as a dynamic multicultural democracy, may just be what we need to reverse our long unwinding.