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 redistribution belong to the industrial era. His “opportunity state” would support “equitable growth” by investing in infrastructure and human capital.
The magic ingredient in Teixeira’s “pragmatic utopianism” is economic growth. Rather than being “capitalism’s gravediggers,” he argues, leftists should become its “caretakers.” This is his most controversial point—the left needs to abandon any lingering antigrowth ideology and get on board with full-throttled capitalist expansion. Opposition to fracking, for example, has to go. Wind and solar are better, of course, but in the short term, natural gas beats out coal and oil. The chances for greatest progress will come from the clean energy revolution, which will both solve the global warming challenge and provide countless jobs and prosperity.
At one point, Teixeira says he is trying to recapture the optimism of his youth in the 1950s and 1960s. But the book ignores the political struggles of his own generation that led to real change. Much of his book is written as if politics—at the ballot box, on the streets, and in workplaces—doesn’t exist, not to mention wars and natural disasters. Developing political consciousness is a process; voters respond to real shifts in policy. Before the Great Depression, African Americans were for the party of Lincoln—until FDR came along and offered them a New Deal (even if it was still a better deal for whites). In the 1960s, LBJ’s support of civil rights cemented that loyalty, simultaneously triggering a revolt from white Southerners. Conversely, the decimation of unions, made possible, in part, by right-to-work laws, and restrictive voter-ID laws have reduced voting participation not only among white males but also among female people of color and others who might be part of Teixeira’s new majority.
Teixeira’s own evidence undercuts his faith in demographics. He acknowledges the very real support that the white working class has given to the right, and while he says their numbers are declining, it is clear that as a group they tend to show up to the polls. Of the four currently existing majority-minority states he points to as the way of the future, one of them—Texas—went to Trump with thirty-six electoral votes. Three of the six other states that will have a majority of minorities by 2020—Arizona, Florida, and Georgia—also lined up for the Republican. Additionally, minorities are not necessarily fated to pull the Democratic lever down the line—a Pew study found that, over time, with generational change and intermarriage, those who identify as minorities today might not do so in the future, making their voting patterns less predictable. As the 2016 election also showed, women’s votes can’t be taken for granted in Teixeira’s new progressive coalition. Clinton, the first female presidential candidate of a major party, did not get women to turn out in especially large numbers nor did she win enough of their votes in key states.
The idea of post-industrial professionals constituting a new progressive political vanguard has been a favorite among Democrats since the 1970s. Teixeira himself has been predicting it since he and John Judis coauthored The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002. Judis has since renounced the position; Teixeira remains a true believer.
While the preferences of these groups could match up with middle-out policies, they need to be mobilized as a voting bloc. The question is what comes first: the votes or the policies. If it is the policies, then the electoral gains that Teixeira prophesies will be hard to attain. As he also notes, the Democratic constituents tend to be concentrated geographically and gerrymandered into districts, both of which reduce their ability to win power in the House, while the Senate favors the remnants of the conservative coalition, giving disproportionate weight to Republicans.
Even if Teixeira’s progressive coalition is out there waiting to be forged, is optimism the message to do it? Trump won on a politics of pessimism, and it was Bernie Sanders who warned that “for too many families, the American Dream is becoming a nightmare.” Both campaigns showed that in today’s environment of extremism, much of the organizational energy resides on the political margins and aims itself at exactly the kind of moderation that Teixeira, and for that matter, Hillary Clinton and her husband before her, promoted.
Teixeira looks to history to provide backing for a thesis that has trouble reckoning with the present. He rejects the idea that the left advances in hard economic times. Instead of viewing the Great Depression as the engine of real reform, he looks to the Progressive era. While it is true that much of the historical scholarship sees the roots of the New Deal in the industrial and urban turmoil that plagued all Western countries in the late nineteenth century, it is hard to argue away the depths of the depression of the 1930s as the proximate political cause of FDR’s New Deal. Roosevelt’s coalition came into being not during the good times of the Progressive era, but only in the Great Depression and only with real evidence that FDR was their man.
Teixeira knows all this, of course, and his point about the need to not despair is well taken. If in fact it took about a half century to respond to the second industrial revolution, then we are due for reforms that address the dislocations caused by the slowdown in productivity, the rise of globalization, and the shift to a knowledge-based economy that started in the 1970s. But the country had to experience unemployment rates of 25 percent before the passage of basic economic rights like the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, not to mention the global war that enabled the GI bill—which is to say that political change does not come easily.
The experience of the Great Recession, by contrast, has not moved the country decidedly to the left. The Obama presidency saw serious progressive reforms. But after that came 2016, which has put many of those gains—especially those enacted by executive orders, like action on climate change—in doubt.
For all its limitations, I prefer Teixeira’s view that in the long run we will all be liberals to Keynes’s less cheery version that we will all be dead. In this age of Trump-induced anxiety, it is an important reminder that the basic demographics suggest an alternative political outcome is possible. But asking citizens to continue accepting the status quo—stagnant incomes, persistent inequality, rising healthcare costs, and a growing educational divide—in the hope that some long-awaited progressive coalition will finally emerge is a recipe for ongoing electoral defeat. Leftists have reason to be optimistic, not because demographics will save us, but because a growing number of progressives are rediscovering the value of good old-fashioned politics and grassroots mobilization. A better future is possible, but only if we fight for it.
Meg Jacobs teaches history and politics at Princeton University. She recently published Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s (2016) and is working on a new book on the Great Depression and the Second World War.