Political Equality First

I just wrote a new essay — “Political Equality First” — for The Progressive Alternative.  I attempt to make the case that the Democratic Party’s revival of the economic message of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism (the idea that state power should be deployed to ameliorate disparities in economic power) will fail if we do not revive Roosevelt’s political message that political equality — restoring political power to the people and away from the grip of monied interests — must be achieved first:

Although the same sentiments are expressed, President Obama and his fellow “New New Nationalists” have echoed only half of Roosevelt’s program. They have failed to articulate the role political equality plays in achieving economic equality. The progressives of the First Gilded Age understood that if they wanted the New Nationalism to work — if they wanted state power to be able to occasionally counterbalance free-wheeling economic power — they had to ensure that state power was free from the control of economic power. They had to fight for state power to be deployed democratically, in the interest of the public sentiment of equal citizens.

In the Gilded Age that Roosevelt faced, state power was not deployed democratically. In practice, there was not an equal distribution of political power. Worse, the disparity in political power mapped on to the disparity in economic power, so that those with economic power had political power and those without economic power did not have political power. The government was not in the control of the People; rather, it was controlled by those with the economic power. Our nation — conceived as a democracy of citizens with equal political power — suffered a crisis of immeasurable political inequality.

Today, with the crisis of economic inequality in the spotlight, but the crisis of political inequality sidelined, we must finally address this second strand of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and give the cause of political equality its due. Even more, we should call forPolitical Equality First: the strategic prioritization of equalizing our distribution of political power. If we want to use state power to better achieve income equality, wealth equality, or structural equality — or even gender equality or racial equality — we need political equality first. We need to wrest back control of state power from those with economic power.

Practicing a strategy of Political Equality First comes with important benefits. Whereas a sizable portion of Americans are — rightly or wrongly (in my view, wrongly) — philosophically opposed to efforts to increase economic equality, most Americans believe in the democratic principle of political equality. Political equality takes the relatively popular sentiment of “the rich deserve their economic power” off the table and centers focus on the even more popular sentiment of “the citizens deserve their political power.”  Whereas most efforts to increase economic equality will immediately affect the direct experiences of only a segment of Americans, the 90+% of Americans who have little to no voice in government would — given efforts to increase political equality — immediately experience increased political power.

Read the full essay here.

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