North Carolina progressives have earned a good deal of deserved praise at the national level over the last year or so for their spirited resistance to the conservative political takeover that has afflicted our state. Let’s hope that resistance continues.
That said; there’s clearly a need for more than just saying “no” to the right. But how? Is there a way to get ahead of the current stampede to the right and start winning back some of what we have lost, as well as change the terms of the debate over the future of North Carolina? Moreover, what might our positive platform look like for the 2015 and beyond? And how can we be more unified in action?
Here are a few broad brush suggestions from a veteran observer:
#1 – We mustn’t live up to right-wing stereotypes – The far right loves to typecast progressives as “anti-Americans” and dour pessimists who’ve never met an environmental regulation, social spending program or foreign critic that they didn’t like.
While these criticisms are over-the-top, one must admit that they can be progressive tendencies at times. If we want to drive policies in a dramatically different direction, we must be affirmative and confident reformers – what one-time progressive icon Hubert Humphrey termed “happy warriors.”
And there is good reason for optimism; the American political pendulum has tended to swing back and forth regularly. Conservatives have long understood this. Progressives should pay heed.
#2 – We must be competent managers and honestly confront policies and programs that fail – Our commitment to real reform must be in the name of a kind of 21st century governance that is more transparent, accountable, cost-effective and customer sensitive. This means zero tolerance for fiascos like the Obamacare rollout and recent V.A. hospital mess. “Reinventing government” requires lots of innovative rethinking; good intentions and money can only take you so far.
Fortunately, there are precedents to build on, from Hawaii to Maine. Modern information technologies offer great hope for modernizing service design and delivery and banishing unnecessary bureaucracy. If progressives handle this challenge right, America’s mixed economy – public, private and nonprofit – will continue grow, interact and thrive and the unique roles of each sector will be clearer and much more comparable in terms of management talent.
#3 – We cannot be seen merely as “bleeding hearts” – We must stand for more than just taking the rough edges off modern capitalism and reacting to the woes that many people endure, due to events beyond their control. Conservatives are right that wealth and income redistribution will only take us so far. Development and growth make the largest impact on living standards over time.
Given that fact, our platform must be more investment-focused. We must be idealistic and realistic. Obviously, progressives have credibility in the education, training, and infrastructure fields, but we need to broaden our base to reach out to elements of the business community too.
Investment is the most important source of economic development and growth, job creation, product development, transformation and evolution, productivity, competition, and sustainability. Progressives must not fight economic development but rather work to ennoble it. By championing smart investment, greater economic equality and more environmentally compatible development, progressives bring out the best in the market economy.
#4 – We must be realistic about business incentives – Given the fierce competition among the states for more capital investment and the continual development of new subsidies, terminating or even significantly curbing the use and cost of locational incentives will be close to impossible. Progressive should however continue to can crank up the heat by loudly demanding vastly more transparency and fiscal accountability.
We must also promote “people-based” incentives that help “lift all boats.” Right now, North Carolina is losing too many good jobs and creating too many poorly paying jobs. We need to become the state known for its innovative ways of sharing in its wealth generation.
This means promoting sometimes “out-of-the-box” ideas like “gain sharing,” profit sharing and employee ownership.
#5 – We must look for new ways to package good ideas to resistant and fearful audiences. Charles Montgomery’s new book, “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” offers some helpful suggestions in this realm. He links the problems caused by urban sprawl and auto use with the emerging science of happiness. The surprising message of the book is that long commuting times, land use separation, uneven development, etc. are harming cites fiscally, undermining our middle class families, social capital and communities, while costing us more energy every year. Montgomery’s conclusion: “The happy city, the green city, and the low-carbon city are the same place, and we can all help build it.”
Can progressives pull this off? Can they advance an agenda that promotes both compassion and sustainable prosperity? If they want to halt the state’s rapid slide to the right, it may their best hope for success.
Bill Schweke is a retired public policy professional.