Demographic Delusions

Demographic Delusions

Tower One, Recreation Room, 2014. © Jim Goldberg. Courtesy of the artist, Pace/ MacGill Gallery, NY, and Casemore Kirkeby Gallery, SF.

The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think
by Ruy Teixeira
St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 272 pp.

Reading Ruy Teixeira’s The Optimistic Leftist is like watching the adult version of the Jetsons, and imagining that, within your lifetime, you’ll be flying around with a jet pack. Technological wonders are within our reach, Teixeira argues, and they will bring with them a virtuous cycle of growth, social justice, and happiness. “[B]etter days are coming,” he promises. His central argument is that the left has too long been the voice of gloom and doom, and no one likes a party pooper. His advice, given in the dedication of the book, is simple: “cheer up!” As he lays out in his chirpy and easy-to-read treatise, progressives have a lot to feel optimistic about, and optimism, as Ronald Reagan knew well, sells.

So what exactly is Teixeira peddling? What does this futuristic world look like? It is one premised on economic growth, shared prosperity, upward mobility, and the removal of structural and cultural obstacles to success. Talking to his readers, whom I imagine consist of highly educated professionals still reeling from the 2016 election, Teixeira offers an alternative view of our contemporary situation. Yes, Teixeira is profoundly aware of right-wing populism’s resurgence. But no matter, he tells us: a new New Deal is just around the corner, bringing with it what he calls an “opportunity state.” Soon enough—the date he gives is the 2024 election—progressives will take back power, instituting policies that will guarantee universal pre-kindergarten education, tuition-free college, subsidized child care, paid family leave, billions of dollars in infrastructure, all while heralding in a clean energy revolution.

How will we get there? No sweat, says Teixeira. The path to victory starts with a post-industrial progressive coalition drawing on the support of an educated, knowledge-based, highly skilled workforce. Joining together with professionals are immigrants and minorities, highly educated women, singles, millennials, and secular Americans. (There is more than a little overlap between some of these categories.) This, proclaims the author, is the way of the future, not trying to win back white working-class voters, who went overwhelmingly for Trump. As he puts it, “the right populist movement is riding on demographic borrowed time.”

Only this progressive coalition, Teixeira argues, can solve what he calls “the Piketty problem”—the divergence in wealth and income that has marked the last few decades and led to rising economic inequality, slow growth, and stagnant living standards. Like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Teixeira champions so-called “middle-out” economics—an investment in education, wages, and social insurance. According to Teixeira, platforms supporting economic redistributi...