Observers of 21st-century American politics might be forgiven for thinking that the policies Kenworthy proposes are so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, the resurgent radical right bitterly opposes much of the existing welfare state, much less new programs. And haven’t the Democrats largely embraced corporate centrism and deficit-fetishism?
Surprisingly, perhaps, Kenworthy thinks the long-term trend of American social policy is toward providing more services, and once programs are adopted, they are very hard to undo. Simply put, the economic trends producing insecurity, lack of opportunity, and uneven economic gains are likely to continue, if not worsen. Policy makers will try to solve these problems, and the kinds of programs that exist here and abroad have a proven track record of helping. So, at least sometimes, they will succeed in expanding or implementing these programs.
He’s not unaware of the obstacles to these kinds of reforms, but argues that, on balance and over time (the next 50 years or so), many of these policies are likely to be enacted. He points out, for instance, that although many polls show that Americans are opposed to “big government” in theory, they largely support individual programs like Social Security and Medicare. And once a policy is adopted and has been in effect, support tends to go up.
Given yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, it might be worth focusing on the role of money in politics. This ruling lifted a cap on the total amount someone could contribute during a particular period, while leaving intact limits on contributions to individual candidates. It’s another step down the same path as the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, which prohibited limits on independent spending by corporations and unions.
For many folks on the left, the ever-expanding role of money in politics is one of the most powerful obstacles to progressive reform, if not the most powerful. Kenworthy is aware of this, but argues that the role of money in determining political outcomes is overstated:
Even if money totals continue to favor Republicans, it’s unclear how much that will matter. There are diminishing returns to money in influencing election outcomes: when a lot is already being spent, additional amounts have limited impact. The Democrats had less money in 2012, yet they were competitive in the presidential, House, and Senate elections. (p. 163)
In general, he says, the “history of campaign finance in national elections in the past four decades is one of each party and its backers seeking new ways to raise and spend large amounts of money in spite of existing regulations” (p. 163). If this pattern continues, Democrats will find new ways to offset Republicans’ advantages arising from a changed legal and regulatory landscape.
But to many on the left this misses the point: even if Democrats can continue to be electorally competitive, hasn’t the influence of big money pushed them to the right and led them to promote policies that favor the rich? A common story is that over the last several decades the influence of liberals in the party has waned, while corporatist, “third-way” Democrats have triumphed.
Kenworthy considers this objection and responds by showing that, in fact, patterns of voting on economic issues by Democratic legislators at the federal level do not show a shift to the center. If anything, the pattern since 1950 shows a slight shift to the left (see p. 164). (This is partly due to the exodus of conservative southern lawmakers from the party in the wake of civil rights, but even if you factor them out, the pattern holds.) He concedes, however, that focusing exclusively on voting could be misleading since many important policy-shaping decisions are made before a proposal even comes up for a vote. It’s possible that if we could measure this we’d see that the influence of campaign contributions has successfully moved policy to the right. (This strikes me as a fairly significant caveat.)
Nonetheless, the Democrats, while historically more of a centrist than a true leftist party, remain electorally competitive, and the Democratic Party has historically been the main vehicle for implementing progressive economic policies. It’s also worth noting, anecdotally, that in the last few years there seems to have been at least a slight shift toward a more “populist” economic posture among Democrats, which isn’t what you’d expect if big-moneyed interests were all-powerful.
Another major obstacle that many liberals and Democrats would highlight is influence of a more radical and intransigent faction of the right on the GOP (i.e. the tea party). Kenworthy admits that the current GOP and its anti-government rhetoric pose a problem for a social democratic program like his. But he we can expect that the party will move back to the center. Reasons for this would be if the GOP loses an otherwise winnable election and the increasing importance of working-class whites as a Republican constituency. (In fact, last year’s government shutdown fiasco seems to already have provided something of a moderating influence.) Over time, he thinks, the GOP will find its way back to the middle and come to more closely resemble center-right parties in Western Europe. Its focus will then be not so much on how much the government does, but how it does it.
These claims will probably strike different readers as having varying degrees of probability, and some of the discussion does strike me as a bit Pollyanna-ish. But Kenworthy goes on to point out that, even since the 70s, headway has been made on a number of fronts (e.g., expansions in the EITC, expansions in unemployment insurance, expanded Medicaid access, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and others). Indeed, the Affordable Care Act, for all its problems, is probably the single largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ’s Great Society and shows that significant progress is still possible.
Next: Final thoughts