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A Review of : "The Future of American Progressiveism," by Roberto M. Unger and Cornel West

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink
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In this short, intense but sharply focused book, entitled "The Future of American Progressivism," the authors put before us the major problem of our times: If Francis Fukayama's claim that (at least in principle) democracy represents the endpoint of our political evolution, then it is high time that the rest of the world line up to get aboard the fast moving Western democratic train, right?

Well, not exactly according to this book, as these two scholars see enough cracks developing in the "Western democratic project" that those considering adopting it should take a more careful second look at the problems of Western democracies before jumping aboard. Using the USA as exhibit one, they engage in a high-level and spirited critique that points out what the major problems are with Western democracies. They then offer both theoretical and specific practical suggestions as to how those problems might best be overcome.

As they see it, the preeminent problem of Western democracy is rampant inequality coupled with social and economic insecurity -- which, if not handled delicately and properly, can end up repeating the experience of a dehumanizing elite hierarchy imposing its will on the rest of the population. It is the same experience we have seen repeated so often in Third world autocracies.

The question this book poses and then attempts to answer is this: How do peoples of the world successfully jump aboard the democratic train while avoiding its inherent traps and defects, traps and defects that are rapidly emerging in the contemporary American example? The general answer they give lies in seeing that true progressive ideas again find their way back into the market place of ideas. The specific and practical answers they give are that the U.S. and aspiring countries must:

(1) Invest in the real economy and in the "common good" rather than having the rich serve themselves.

(2) Broaden the gateways of access to the vanguard of innovative knowledge-based production. And disseminate advanced experimental productive practices among the small and medium size businesses that form the heart of the American economy.

(3) Make available to all Americans a type of education that accords priority to capabilities, both conceptual and practical: of analysis, synthesis, and recombination of ideas and of things.
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(4) And to this end, reconcile local management of the schools with national standards of investments and quality.

(5) Engage society in the competitive provision of public services as the best way of enhancing their quality, while using the powers of government to ensure a universal minimum of provisions.

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(6) Insist on the high level of taxation required for the financing of such alternatives. (What matters in the short term is the overall level of the tax take and how it is spent. Later on, it can be made more progressive through a steeply progressive tax on individual consumption); and

(7) Above all, take politics out of the shadow of money.

Their analysis of American democracy boils down to the current defects in the existing two-party system.

The Republican Party imagines that only if government becomes less costly and restrictive -- i.e., with lower taxes and fewer regulations -- economic growth would make up for inequality. When Republicans are in power, they imagine that trickle down economics will take care of any inequality. But history has shown that this has been little more than just a Republican "wet dream." The truth is that under Republican rule, we have seen inequality increase enough to threaten freedom and prosperity as well as democratic progress. The Republican program thus is not so much a viable answer to the problems of democracy as it is a sop to America's wealthy elites.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, proposes no new direction. Its idea is simply to put a human face on Republican programs, in an effort to implement their programs with a rhetorical humanizing facelift. Even democrats agree that this is less a project than it is an abdication of the progressive voice in the American political dialogue.

Both parties agree that the bond markets should be left unrestrained and thus should get what they want: They are allowed to be reckless so long as they do so only on behalf of the rich. Both parties also agree that fiscal and monetary stimulus should be used to make up for the absence of any consequential broadening of economic and educational opportunity. But only the democrats believe that the bitter pill of disempowerment should be sweetened with a touch of tax fairness however modest its effects may be. The Republicans simply don't care; they want the rich to pay no taxes and for business to operate as if the American economy were their private preserve and thus still the Wild Wild West.

These authors understand too that our democratic process has been reduced to a four-year ideological Kabuki dance orchestrated by corporate money. It is corporate money that underwrites the campaigns of those in both political parties. The two parties are thus handcuffed to each other, sentenced to march in lockstep down the political aisle with the politics and ideology of their corporate paymasters.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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