A New Pledge of Principles

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

The 2012 election is behind us, and now rhetoric must give way to reality: We are losing our way.

The problems in our economy and our politics are mutually reinforcing. Rising economic inequality and loss of social mobility threaten democratic cohesion. Polarization and gridlock leave serious problems unaddressed and fuel historically low levels of confidence in government. The declining power of citizens, coupled with the growing power of narrower economic interests, often leads to policy choices that further advantage the latter over the former. The result? Continued erosion of our democracy and persistent economic dislocation.

Defining the proper balance between the free market and the broad needs of society has been at the core of the liberal agenda for the last 150 years. Republican and Democratic presidents including Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton have espoused liberal policies to promote economic growth while also advancing opportunity, social equity, and environmental protection. But during the early years of this century, the balance between capitalism and democracy floundered, and today’s mix of hyper-capitalism and impaired democracy is undermining the common good.

Liberals share responsibility for this state of affairs. We have lost our own way. To many Americans, our ideas seem backward-looking and stale. Without offering a compelling vision for the future, we helped create the space for the Tea Party’s rise, allowing it to discredit and distort liberal ideas, while advancing a vision of maximal individualism and minimal government.

The question before us is not how to revitalize liberalism. Our focus must be on what is to be done to revitalize our democracy, expand economic opportunity, and promote greater equity and sustainability. How can we restore a healthy balance between democracy and capitalism, which is at the core of the liberal idea? How can we persuade the broad majority of Americans that such a balance is necessary to meet the great challenges of this century?

Policy reforms are essential. We need to reduce the influence of money in politics and the power of lobbying in Washington. We must expand access to the ballot, not restrict it. Comprehensive tax reform is long overdue. Investments in education, infrastructure, and basic research are essential. Reducing carbon emissions is imperative. We must devise a balanced solution to the country’s long-term debt. But in the current climate, it is hard to see how meaningful reforms will be enacted, because the problem is much deeper: We have lost a broadly shared sense of national purpose, and our political culture is in steep decline.

Our country is at its best when Americans have a shared understanding of national purpose. In the last century, we helped defeat fascism, implemented the Marshall Plan, waged the Cold War, enacted Social Security and Medicare, made historic advances in civil and women’s rights, and put a man on the moon. We managed the economy so that it produced sustained periods of prosperity and decreased economic inequality, and we conducted the nation’s business, even on contentious issues, with less rancor, partisan polarization, and obstructionism.

It is time for a serious, organized, multiyear conversation about America’s national purpose in this century. We need to involve Americans from all walks of life in an effort to understand and respond to a number of inescapable and profound 21st-century realities including:

• Global interdependence. Our economy, national security, and quality of life are now inextricably and irreversibly linked to the economic and political fate of other peoples and to the viability of our planetary ecosystem.

• Demographic shifts. By 2050, more than 20 percent of Americans will be over age 65, and whites will represent just half of the population.

• Decelerating innovation and slow rates of economic growth. Advancements in information and communications technologies are no longer driving significant productivity gains, constraining growth.

How will we manage global economic competition? How can we shift to environmentally sustainable capitalism? Can we embrace our growing diversity and become a truly inclusive society? What steps can unleash a new era of innovation? How we respond to these and other challenges will determine our character as a people and our success as a nation, yet there is no broadly shared vision of how we move forward from here. We need to come together as a country to determine our national goals for this century and the adjustment in the conduct of our politics we must make in order to achieve them.

I would like to see a diverse group of well-respected leaders from business, politics, labor, academia, religion, journalism, and the nonprofit sector work together to develop an agenda of key national priorities and a statement of principles and norms to guide our political and economic life as we look toward midcentury. In concert with the work of these leaders, a diverse coalition of groups should work together to organize a broad-based effort, using social media, town-hall meetings, public broadcasting, and other tools to engage millions of Americans in the discourse.

The final recommendations would be given broad circulation and might be the basis for a campaign to get candidates for public office and leaders from various sectors to endorse them. If Grover Norquist can persuade a thousand politicians to sign a “no taxes” pledge, perhaps many more would sign a pledge supporting a set of principles that can help heal the fissures in our political and economic life and focus our collective efforts on an inspiring agenda for the nation’s future.

This is obviously an ambitious undertaking. But it is an essential one. Otherwise, we risk continued political dysfunction, economic hardship, and declining global influence.

Read the other pieces in this series:>/h4>

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