President Obama is Time magazine's "Person of the Year" – the first Democratic president to receive two consecutive popular-vote majorities since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet these are clearly tough times for progressives. Everything progressives have fought for is seemingly on the chopping block nationally, and in many states and cities. Programs are being cut; public assets are being sold off; school teachers are losing their jobs; unions are being attacked; pension and health care benefits are being slashed – even Social Security is being challenged.
Progressives, in short, remain on the defensive.
No one would deny that defense is important. But even as every effort must be made to hold the line, how, specifically, might it be possible to regain the political initiative?
History suggests one powerful strategy – one that begins by getting clear about the checkerboard of power, and its possibilities.
Washington may be stalemated. But Washington is not the only space on the political checkerboard. The American system of federalism allows for political initiatives that can take the offense across a range of scales and locations, and politics involves many different squares on the board. Some are currently blocked, but others may be open for doing something interesting. A serious checkerboard strategy may also open the way to national solutions as well.
The steady city-by-city, state-by-state Progressive Era buildup to national women's suffrage offers one well-known example of a checkerboard offensive. Another involved the state-by-state buildup of work and safety regulations prior to the New Deal. In more recent times, numerous places on the checkerboard have demonstrated how progress on social issues can be made as well, square by square, over time, even in a very conservative era.
Prior to 2004, for instance, no state in the nation allowed same-sex marriage. Today, less than ten years later, same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, broader public opinion is slowly turning in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples. Step-by-step, further progress is all but certain.
Similarly, fed up with the harsh repercussions of the failed drug war, a majority of Americans now favor legalization or decriminalization of marijuana – and two states on the checkerboard, Colorado and Washington, recently voted in favor of legalization. (Many more already permit the use of medical marijuana).
Along with such highly visible successes on social issues, just below the surface of public awareness numerous important economic and institutional advances have long been developing in cities and states occupying different squares on the board. Although the increasingly hobbled national press rarely covers state and local issues, the advances include little noticed progressive policies in support of cooperatives and worker-owned firms, public- and neighborhood-owned land development, public power and internet delivery, new environmentally sustainable energy strategies and even public enterprise, including publicly-owned health care facilities.
Numerous additional policies operating in various parts of the country also could be turned to progressive advantage and expanded over time – if there were a clear strategic determination to do so (and a lot of hard work). Among others, these include: municipal investing strategies, state venture capital investing, pension and retirement fund investing, move-your-money and bank-transfer efforts, land and mineral revenues for public benefit and municipal methane-capture efforts. On a larger scale, public banking efforts similar to the Bank of North Dakota and progressive health care reforms similar to those recently adopted in Vermont are being pursued in dozens of states.
What is striking about the new range of possibilities is that most also introduce the concept of democratizing wealth ownership into practical and political reality.
There is obviously every reason, first, to learn about what is happening just below the surface of media attention and, second, to build up and steadily expand the number of squares on the checkerboard that are currently open to expansion. The goal should not only be to help people in specific local communities and states, but also to demonstrate possibilities to others working in other squares – and together to slowly surround the hold-back cities and states with what makes sense as they flounder and fail on their regressive path over time.
In certain cities and states a comprehensive strategic option also appears to be opening up – and here the issue is how it might be tested, refined, and then put forth as a serious approach in one or more cities or, ultimately, on a number of squares on the board – especially as economic difficulties and the fiscal crisis intensify.
Traditional progressive strategy for financing public expenditure has always tried to focus taxation at the very top to the extent feasible – both as a matter of equity and of good politics (keeping the middle class out of the line of fire and out of the political embrace of the opposition). There is nothing wrong with this approach except that it is obviously inadequate – as the ongoing right-wing budget program/salary-and-benefit-cutting bonanza so painfully remind.
The strategic way out of the box, logically, is an approach that draws on demonstrably viable checkerboard efforts to rebuild the local economy (and the local tax base) in ways that are effective, stable, redistributive and ongoing – and that also capture greater revenues and profits for public use. Which means a different form of "democratized" development – and a specific plan for how to implement it over time so as to secure funds for vital institutions and infrastructure (such as schools and mass transit), for obligations to past and future retirees, and for programs to conserve resources and protect the environment – all while preserving and expanding services for those who badly need them.
Numerous practical ingredients that can be included in a comprehensive checkerboard strategy include:
• The use of city, school, hospital, university and other purchasing power to help stabilize jobs, anchor wealth, support employee-owned businesses and cooperative ownership, strengthen local small- and medium-sized business and improve the local economy.
• The use of public and quasi-public land trusts (both for housing and also commercial development) to capture development profits for community use, and to prevent gentrification.
• An all-out attack on absurdly wasteful and costly – around $70 billion a year in public subsidies! – giveaways that corporations extract from local governments.
• The use of community benefit strategies – and community organizing, backed also by labor unions – to achieve traditional development but also, where possible, to democratize the local economy, stabilize the tax base and support public services.
• The exploration of further ways for cities to make money by directly managing resources and providing services, thereby offsetting costs and taxpayer burdens. These include taking direct public ownership over utilities (as cities like Jacksonville and Los Angeles already do) to improve services, reduce costs and secure added revenues; and expanding city revenues through city-owned land and other existing strategies that provide non-tax revenue.
Obviously, not all these approaches can be adopted at once. And they may be viable at the outset only on very specific squares on the checkerboard. On the other hand, practical precedents for every element in the mix are now operating in one or more city or state – and the stark reality is that times are getting worse and are likely to continue to get even worse in the coming years.
As problems and pain at the local and state level increase, at some point more squares on the checkerboard are certain to open up. And, as always, it will take some specific person or group of people to grab the reins, set the wheels in motion and flip the switch to light up that square with a new way forward.
Equally important – as the long developing pre-history of women's fight for the vote, the long developing pre-history of the New Deal, and now the developing state-by-state changes in connection with same sex marriage and marijuana all suggest – the pre-history of potentially much larger national change is all but certain to be developed through such efforts in local and state laboratories at various places on the checkerboard.
And the notion of democratizing ownership in general through such practical efforts – at a time when a mere 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together – is likely to be of additional political significance to increasing numbers as social and economic difficulties increase.
For progressives bruised by the battles of recent months and years, a cool look at other opportunities on the checkerboard offers a different way to think about change. Defensive struggles must continue. But forward movement is available on the board, and time and pain are on the side of a serious strategy.