We Cannot Buy Golden Opportunities With Tin-Cup Budgets

by Paul Wellstone and Bill Dauster

The Progressive magazine, January 1999


From the beginning of this century, the progressive movement sought a better society and better government. The movement, and this magazine, advocated laws to shield workers and consumers from unchecked industrialization and corporate monopolies. They fought for open and honest government and to broaden popular participation. And they advanced the ethic of improving the human condition.

We have so come to rely on what they accomplished that we take their achievements for granted. Progressives led the fight for child labor laws, the eight-hour day, tax reform, old age security, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage, occupational health and safety, and health insurance. Progressives gave us the universal right to vote, the direct election of Senators, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

The progressive movement also manifested a confident belief in the affirmative development of society. Many progressives strove to build "The Beloved Community," a corner of God's kingdom right here on Earth. We need to rededicate ourselves not just to progressive policies and programs but to progressive values, to a conception of public life that is democratic and fulfilling.

People are still looking for progressive change. It's time to reclaim our confidence. The mid-term elections were a lesson for Republicans. Voters told Congressional Republicans that they did not want to hire 535 private eyes and prosecutors. Congressional Republicans failed to show how they would advance the interests of working families. Most Democrats showed that they cared about bread-and-butter issues-education, health care, and Social Security. Because they fought for progressive goals, Democrats benefited as in no other midterm election in memory.

But the elections were a lesson for Democrats, too. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington, D.C., Democrats think the lesson was: Our message was better, so we won, end of story. But it's not about "message"-a word that describes the shallow incrementalism of the Clinton era.

In the long run, Democrats cannot inspire voters' imagination and regain power merely by appealing to whichever group of swing voters this year's consultants make fashionable.

In the long run, the success of a political movement depends on doing something of consequence. Progressives must step to the plate with real proposals again.

For years now, Democrats have been downsizing our policy agenda. Instead of universal health coverage, Democrats have focused on patients' protections. Instead of recruiting the vast new corps of teachers our schools desperately need, Democrats have settled for a modest 30,000 new teachers. Democrats risk becoming conspirators in support of the status quo.

Democrats should find no reassurance in winning half of the votes cast by the 37 percent of voters who turned out in November. It was great to see such progressives as Wisconsin's Russ Feingold and California's Barbara Boxer win elections. But don't lose sight of the 63 percent hole in the electorate nationwide. When almost two-thirds of eligible voters choose not to vote, something is seriously wrong. The non-voters are telling us they are disillusioned with their choices. They are saying that no one speaks for them.

The election's lesson was not just that the Republican Party should wake up, but that Democrats should, too. Vast majorities of the electorate found no reason to vote for the status quo. Both parties ignore that lesson at their own risk. If they continue to ignore it, third-party victories like Jesse Ventura's populist surprise in Minnesota will become more frequent.

As the Irishman Charles Stewart Parnell said a century ago, "No man has a right to say to his country-thus far shall thou go and no farther." Democrats need to return to their progressive roots, to an agenda promising real change with real positive consequences for working families.

Incremental policies will not bridge the broad and growing chasm that divides a prospering, affluent group from the vast majority of Americans who continue to struggle to make ends meet.

We need to advance a coordinated strategy to improve wages for working Americans, not just the few at the top. To do so, we need to raise the minimum wage and enact living-wage policies, such as those in Minneapolis and other American cities today.

We need to enact labor-law reform so that working people can regain their bargaining power.

And we need to do more to develop workers' skills throughout their lifetimes.

As Franklin Roosevelt said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Yes, Democrats should support changes like reducing class size and repairing schools. But in education, as in other areas, we need to do more. Just when more than a million teachers are nearing retirement, the coming decade will see an 11 percent increase in the number of high school students. This provides a golden opportunity to inspire, train, and hire into the public schools of our communities a new generation of bright, young teachers fresh with new ideas and new energy. But this nation cannot buy golden opportunities with tin-cup budgets like those we have now. We need to inspire a campaign to bring smart and creative young Americans into teaching. We need to champion the vision of a new education century.

We also need to address families' biggest and most expensive concerns-child care and health care. Without quality child care, many parents are now forced to work in shifts; they and their children are robbed of time together as a family. We need to take bold steps to expand the availability of child care for the 8.5 million children now eligible to receive assistance who do not get that aid.

Above and beyond the lack of patient protections, health care remains a crisis for many Americans. In 1990, fewer than 14 percent of Americans went without health insurance. Today, more than 16 percent are uninsured. Even assuming good economic times, close to 48 million Americans will have no health insurance coverage by the year 2005. Around the country, many elderly Americans pay more than 30 percent of their monthly budget on prescription drug costs alone.

Progressives must call for insuring the uninsured, guaranteeing affordable, comprehensive insurance for all, requiring quality health care, and covering prescription drug costs under Medicare. Washington took the issue of universal coverage off the table. Progressives need to put it back.

Finally, money prowls the corridors of the Capitol and the halls of the White House. If we do not take big money out of politics, then that money will divert, frustrate, and ultimately deny our nation's historic movement toward economic justice.

Clean Money Campaign Reform, which has already passed in Massachusetts, Arizona, Maine, and Vermont, provides real hope for driving big money out of election campaigns and inviting ordinary citizens back into effective participation in politics.

But we must reform not just politics. We must renew democracy itself. We have to fight cynicism and inertia and restore faith in the advancement of our country.

To do that, progressives need to rejoin the debate over an overarching set of values in government. For too long, we have left that battlefield to the right. Progressives have a long tradition of fighting for values like equality, civil liberties, opportunity, and justice. We need to recall the values that have spurred broad-based efforts like the civil-rights movement-values that today can spark a new movement for social justice.

We must sound the clarion call to improve the human condition. As British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, "The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery." If a political party wants to avoid being buried, it must become a champion of change.

Let us make the Democratic Party the party of the people again.

Education, living-wage jobs, child care, health care, electoral reform, and public values: The Republicans don't get it. Do the Democrats? Our job as progressives is to make sure that they do.

Let us move ahead boldly into a new Progressive Century.

Reforming the System