John Halpin and I review EJ Dionne’s new book Code Red and find much to like there but something missing as well. That missing something is a new vision; we call it “a New Frontier for contemporary times.”
“Given the collapse of the Reagan-Thatcher economic model, Dionne argues, the time is ripe for both moderates and progressives to again work cohesively to reverse decades of deregulation, supply-side tax cuts, underinvestment, and rising inequality. He argues that each side will complement the other well. Progressives need moderates for their values of balance, pluralism, and aversion to extremism—“virtues that any successful democracy requires.” In turn, moderates need progressives for their energy, activism, and willingness to challenge entrenched power, the privileges of the wealthy, and the assumptions of conservative economics. To overcome Trump and his reactionary nationalism, the two sides need to reconcile their differences, reason together, and “get the country moving again by demonstrating anew our nation’s capacity of self-correction, social reconstruction, and democratic self-government.”
When it comes to explaining what this reconciliation would look like in terms of policy, Dionne is intentionally squishy. He embraces the political theorist Michael Harrington’s “visionary gradualism” as a good approach to resolving disputes, arguing that both sides should try to pursue a left wing of the possible. On the issue of health care, for example, Dionne says that while universal coverage must be the end aim, the left needs to recognize that a robust public option, which is clearly more popular with voters than a single-payer model, is not some sellout of the cause and goes far beyond the Affordable Care Act. But Dionne also argues that debt-free college and the “Green New Deal” are necessary goals to drive state and federal actions that will lower education costs and grapple with climate change.
Dionne’s goals-not-policies approach won’t please everyone, but he does put forth a compelling and historically valid model for progressive action. For example, the coupling of expansive progressive visions with pragmatic legislation and shrewd politics was the model for Social Security, which initially limited who could benefit but grew over time to include more people in more lines of work and developed into one of American liberalism’s crowning achievements. The same is potentially possible on health care, education, and climate change today….
We find little to object to in Dionne’s advocacy of a new synthesis within the Democratic Party. Indeed, in the current conjuncture, it really amounts to common sense and important practical advice.
But the…example [of 2018] also highlights potential limitations to the model of progressive-moderate dialogue put forth in Code Red. In 2018, it was enough for the party to be against Trump. But as Democrats select a presidential candidate, they need more than common sense, more than just a plea for all sides to learn from what works and discard what doesn’t. They need a unifying vision. Is there a thread that can and should unite the factions of the Democratic Party beyond the overriding desire to beat Trump?
We believe there is: a New Frontier for contemporary times, an optimistic vision of the future focused on making the U.S. again the world’s most innovative and advanced country with broadly shared economic growth. All wings of the Democratic Party already embrace elements of this plan. Both moderates and liberals believe that we should have a dramatic jump in public investment in infrastructure. The whole party should expand that support to new domains, like education, science, and technology, that will drive future economic gains and improve public services. It should explicitly commit to ensuring that, as FDR said, all Americans enjoy “the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”
This entails a massive national commitment to clean-energy development and deployment to meet the climate challenge, as well as a nationwide push to reduce and eliminate poverty and low-opportunity environments for all. Rather than promoting abstract theoretical arguments about inequality and social identity that often lead to public confusion and coalitional divisions, Democrats should put forth concrete plans to fight existing housing, education, and employment discrimination and break up concentrated wealth and political power. And they should develop new avenues for public service and civic participation and take seriously the need to rebuild trust in government through effective and honest public management.
America has an important opportunity at this pivotal moment—it can become the home to the industries of the future and the jobs they’ll generate, especially in areas of critical need like clean energy and public health. Democrats should call on America to be the undisputed international leader in scientific achievement and technological progress across the board, doing our part to cooperatively solve global problems like climate change, pandemic disease, and poverty; increase overall equality and opportunity for more people; and develop new knowledge for the benefit of humanity.
That is a positive vision that can be embraced by all wings of the Democratic Party. And it must be, if Dionne’s new synthesis is to be more than a tactical truce.”