The Progressive Wedge
Bernie Horn is policy director at the Center for Policy Alternatives . CPA is the nation’s only nonpartisan organization working to strengthen the capacity of state legislators to lead and achieve progressive change. CPA empowers state legislators by providing values-based leadership development programs, distributing user-friendly policy tools on a wide variety of issues, and building a strong, coordinated network of legislators across the states.
To win in 2006, progressives must frame the election as a choice between an equal opportunity economy and a trickle-down economy. “It’s the economy, stupid”—but unlike 1992, it’s not a matter of economic growth versus stagnation. This time it’s about fundamental fairness. While the rich are getting richer, for the rest of us, the American Dream is slipping from our grasp.
There are other issues that motivate voters, of course. The Bush administration and its right-wing enablers are making America less free and less secure. But voters are predisposed to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt on freedom and security. Equal opportunity is the American “value” most clearly owned by progressives.
So this year, progressives should focus on policies that are (1) principally about economics, (2) popular with a large majority of voters, and (3) framed in such a way that conservatives will have to oppose them. That’s the definition of a progressive wedge issue—a political position where we are strong and they are compelled by their corporate benefactors to side against the American public.
Where can progressives find wedge issues that yield proven results? In the states! State legislators have tested, debated and enacted a number of policies that promote equal opportunity and fundamental economic fairness. These issues would benefit any progressive candidate at the state or federal level:
Fair Share Health Care: Overriding a Republican governor’s veto, the Maryland legislature recently enacted the first Fair Share Health Care Act. Fair Share Health Care requires a state’s largest businesses to spend a minimum percentage of their payroll on workers’ health care costs, relieving taxpayers of that burden. Already, legislators in more than 30 states plan to introduce similar legislation. Nearly 80 percent of Maryland voters support Fair Share Health Care. In a campaign, this policy provides candidates with one response to spiraling health care costs, allows them to attack a politically-unpopular company (Wal-Mart), and offers an opportunity to decry corporate welfare and tout high-road economics.
Minimum Wage: Because the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour has not increased since 1997, its real, inflation-adjusted value is at its lowest point in 50 years. This minimum wage leaves working families far below the poverty line. So far, 18 states have responded by enacting a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. Because Americans believe in rewarding work, about 85 favor a higher minimum wage. Referendums in Florida and Nevada have proven that the cause is politically potent even in "red" states. It is a superb campaign issue not only because of voter approval, but because opponents can’t successfully mischaracterize the measure—voters understand the minimum wage and know that Americans can’t live on $5.15 per hour.
Energy Efficiency: Energy efficiency legislation exploded across the states in 2005, propelled by outrageously high fuel prices. There are two popular measures that candidates can use in 2006: renewable energy standards, which require utility companies to increase their use of clean energy sources like wind and solar systems, and green building standards, which require new public buildings to conform to a set of environmental guidelines. Voters are naturally inclined to favor energy efficiency—it’s common sense. More important, efficiency reduces demand which, in turn, reduces price. That provides candidates with an opportunity to get red-faced about energy prices, which is obviously good politics.
Privacy and Identity Theft: Under this administration, everyone’s privacy is at risk. States have responded with two types of privacy legislation. The first is identity theft protection—requiring companies to notify individuals when a security breach makes them susceptible to identity theft and empowering consumers to place a security freeze on their credit reports. The second is financial privacy—requiring financial services companies to obtain affirmative permission before selling customers’ nonpublic account information. Voters almost unanimously side with progressives on these issues. Privacy and identity theft legislation allows candidates to champion individual privacy, attack sneaky corporate data-sharing tactics, and lead the fight against the fastest-growing type of crime in America.
Prescription Drugs: Medicare Part D began in January 2006 and it is quickly turning into a political disaster. By November, voters—especially seniors—will likely resent the profiteering pharmaceutical companies and welcome alternative policies. There are several good state prescription drug measures which encourage bulk purchasing plans, disclose unethical drug company gifts to doctors, and prohibit the practice of selling lists of prescriptions written by individual doctors to drug company marketers. Any prescription drug legislation that sets progressives against pharmaceutical companies and the conservatives who do their bidding will benefit our candidates in 2006.
A warning: Progressives must not get caught on the wrong side of the eminent domain debate! Americans strongly oppose the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London . Progressives should follow the California legislature’s example and support a moratorium on takings of homes in the name of economic development. We can’t allow eminent domain to become a powerful wedge issue for conservatives.
Nationwide polls demonstrate that American voters strongly believe the right-wingers in Washington have steered our country onto the “wrong track.” Polls consistently show the popularity of progressive economic policies. And progressive leaders in state legislatures have given us a roadmap toward success.
The opportunity beckons. Let us elevate progressive wedge issues. Let us talk to persuadable voters about policies that they both understand and appreciate. Let us frame the 2006 election as a debate over an equal opportunity economy.