America's Silent Progressive Majority
The world heaved a sigh of relief this month when the feared "red wave" of Republican victories in the US midterms failed to materialise. While the Republicans took the House of Representatives by a narrow margin, the Democrats held on to the Senate. American voters seemed to reject Republican extremism and hypocrisy, denying victories to the many Donald Trump-backed candidates who had lied about the outcome of the 2020 election and called into question fundamental democratic principles.
To be sure, there is always a danger of misreading an election outcome, given the complexity of factors motivating individuals' votes. But from my perspective, the average rational voter will have recognised the Democrats' historic successes from the past two years. Thanks to US President Joe Biden's recovery bill (the American Rescue Plan), the US had the strongest recovery of any of the world's advanced economies, reducing childhood poverty by almost half in the space of a year.
Biden also oversaw the passage of the first major infrastructure bill in decades; America's first major legislative response to climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act; and a major industrial-policy bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, which explicitly recognises the government's key role in shaping the economy. And these landmark bills all passed despite a historically unwieldy Congress.
Nor were Biden's accomplishments limited to legislation. He appointed the first black woman to the US Supreme Court, and he issued executive orders to alleviate student-loan debt, to improve antitrust enforcement, and to update financial regulations for the era of climate change. He brought America back into the Paris climate agreement and made notable gains in restoring American leadership on the world stage. Though he has gotten very little credit for it, history will likely show that his management of the Russia-Ukraine issue has been masterful.
Now that the American electorate appears to have rejected Republican extremism, some will argue that Biden should tack right to capture the elusive middle. But that is the wrong way to read the 2022 midterm result, because the electorate is not seeking some kind of Solomonic splitting of the baby.
Consider the issue of abortion. It is not as though America's "middle" came out and said, "Draw the line at four and a half months, with exceptions for incest but not for any other cases of rape." Whatever their beliefs about abortion – no one is enthusiastic about it – Americans have consistently signaled a general agreement that the decision should be left to the woman, not the government.
Centrism is the wrong approach to most other big issues facing voters. It is not left-wing extremism to note that the American economy has not been serving most Americans. And the sense of injustice is compounded by the fact that we should be doing much better than we are. The US is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and far wealthier than many other countries that are providing better living conditions for their citizens. America's failures are a matter of choice. Or, more accurately, they are the result of decisions made by a political system that does not reflect the interests of the majority of its citizens, because it has been captured to serve special interests.
Hence, while an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the federal minimum wage should be increased sharply – at least doubled – it has not been raised since 2009. Likewise, most Americans believe that everyone should have access to health care as a basic human right, even if they differ over the best way to deliver it. It is also generally agreed that everyone who is able to benefit from a college education should be able to pursue one, regardless of their parents' income, and without being burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And all Americans want a secure retirement and access to decent affordable housing.
It is not left-wing extremism to demand policy solutions to these problems, or to protect our environment, enhance our economic security, strengthen competition, and ensure that everyone's voice is heard in our political system. While those on the right try to paint this progressive agenda as radical overreach, most voters aren't buying it. If anything, the progressive agenda has become a centrist agenda.
One basic principle underpinning the progressive agenda is that most big problems – especially in the twenty-first century – are best tackled collectively, rather than individually. Another principle is that successful collective action must be arrived at democratically and inclusively.
The isolated farmers of the past may have been rugged individualists, but even they needed collective action to protect themselves from theft and violence, and government regulations to ensure the proper functioning of the markets in which they traded. Today, we face natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change – all threats that transcend individuals and borders.
Today's techno-libertarians ignore all this, because they fail to see – or refuse to accept – that one person's freedom is likely to be another person's unfreedom. One person's right not to wear a mask or not to be vaccinated impinges on another's right to safety from a contagious virus. An individual's right to carry an AR-15 has all too often impinged on many other individuals' right to live. When asked to weigh these rights, most reasonable people will come down clearly on one side.
Innovative, well-designed public policy can enhance everyone's scope of action, radically expanding the realm of freedom. There is a subtle irony here: by forcing people to pay taxes, we can expand the opportunities available to them. Everyone can – and mostly does – benefit. Of course, everyone naturally would prefer that others' bear the burden of taxes – what economists call the free-rider problem – but even in our divided society, I think there is widespread agreement that those who are more able to pay taxes, by dint of having more, should bear a greater proportion of the burden.
The 2022 election shows, at a minimum, that a large share of the electorate wants to move on from Trumpian politics. They sense the challenges ahead, and that we can do a better job of addressing them together through civil, informed debate. Americans are tired of the name-calling and the scare tactics. Whether they realise it or not, most Americans support a progressive agenda and its promise to deliver higher living standards for all.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor at Columbia University and a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.