America’s in Its Cross-Partisan Era. Here’s Where It Needs to Go Next.

June 15, 2024

Fireside Stacks is a weekly newsletter from Roosevelt Forward about progressive politics, policy, and economics. We write on the latest with an eye toward the long game. We’re focused on building a new economy that centers economic security, shared prosperity, and rebalanced power.

In 2024, “politics as usual” needs some redefining. After a decade of progressive organizing post-Great Recession, a majority of Americans entered the 2020s with bigger expectations of what government can do to create the economy they want. What fewer expected was how quickly it could move when crisis struck, and what that taught us about how much our center has shifted.

Faced with a pandemic, policymakers responded in unprecedented ways, sending people multiple rounds of checks, expanding unemployment insurance, and covering small business payrolls. While a lot of those measures were temporary, their success helped lead to broader shifts in thinking about government’s role in shaping markets and rebalancing power. To catch up to global rivals advancing in vital industries, policymakers invested billions in green infrastructure and energy security. And if we loosen the definition of “crisis” just a little, they’re also eager to break up Ticketmaster so people don’t break the bank on Taylor Swift nosebleeds.

On their flanks, meanwhile, we’ve seen horseshoe alliances of progressives and conservatives tackling more evergreen projects: from making flying less miserable to holding failed bank executives accountable.

It’s a far cry from the markets-only mush of bipartisan neoliberalism, and a big leap into a new era, which the New York Times’ David Leonhardt calls “neopopulism.” With shades-of-gray views on trade and an embrace of targeted industrial policy, the cross-partisan neopopulist charge is channeling what Americans have long felt. “The term neopopulism is apt partly because polls show these new policies to be more popular than the planks of the Washington Consensus [alternately called neoliberalism] ever were,” Leonhardt writes.

By the time the pandemic hit, neoliberal policies had become deeply unpopular because they failed to reflect our realities—our strategic national interests, our economic needs, our values. Even in the best of times, deregulation and public disinvestment were leading to slower growth and greater inequality. Then we found ourselves in the worst of times: a pandemic that made business as usual impossible and demanded a reckoning with the gaps and vulnerabilities in our system.

A crisis of this scale made the bootstraps-fit-all approach morally and politically untenable. Entire industries and professions losing their livelihoods to a temporary shock would have been catastrophic for the economy, workers, and families. Americans were unable to bear the cost of unfettered markets and unwilling to sacrifice their lives and jobs for the neoliberal myth.

Policymakers—to their credit—listened, in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier. Clocking in at a historic $2 trillion, the bipartisan CARES Act kept families and businesses afloat; amid severe supply chain shortages, the federal government was a vital provider of COVID tests and masks, spurred the invention of a vaccine, and distributed it to millions. Though no Republicans voted for the American Rescue Plan (ARP) one year later, the $1.9 trillion relief and investment package managed to pass a 50-50 Senate with the votes of moderate Democrats, who were convinced at last that needlessly dragging out an economic recovery is actually a policy choice.

The results of this bolder approach speak for themselves: the lowest unemployment in more than 50 years, and a child poverty rate temporarily slashed in half in 2021 by the ARP’s expanded Child Tax Credit.

Of course, even with policy wins like these, the early pandemic years were still a time of government tumult, with elected officials sowing doubt and divisions about life-saving health measures and democracy itself. But in that strange moment, and even more so in the years since, we’ve seen that a certain kind of crisis can mobilize the middle.

Apart from COVID, China has raised the center’s alarms most often and inspired the greatest cross-partisan consensus. From TikTok’s AI-powered For You Page to an EV industry that went from zero to global leader within five years, China’s industrial planning success has jolted American policymakers into action. In response to these economic and geopolitical threats, they deployed public power to bolster American semiconductor research and workforce training, and largely supported their respective presidents’ moves away from free trade absolutism.

The common denominator in these measures has been a perception of imminent risk to the nation. But where policymakers still lag public opinion is on what constitutes such a risk. For the American public, the longer-simmering challenges of economic insecurity and inequality feel just as urgent—posing existential risks to our way of life and self-image of upward mobility.

While there’s increasing consensus among policymakers that government should play a larger role in addressing those risks, there’s no cross-partisan coalition that consistently agrees about how. A groundswell of populist sentiment on the left and right is allowing for new strategic alliances on specific issues, but the possibility of long-term partnerships will depend on whether we can get to sustained agreement on which risks to focus on and how to solve them. Those are hard issues that expose real divisions.

As Leonhardt notes in his great 2023 book Ours Was the Shining Future, progressives are the likeliest to push post-neoliberalism where it needs to go: “I do not want to exaggerate the significance of conservative populism. The primary energy behind a movement to reassert democratic capitalism will probably still need to come from the left.”

Luckily, progressives have a compelling playbook. As Felicia Wong and I outline in our recent Democracy Journal essay, today’s agenda draws from the lessons of the pandemic era, and builds on the wins.

First, let’s revive the lost art of public options, as Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott have so compellingly argued. From Social Security to public libraries, public options have a storied and popular role in our national history, and have helped guarantee economic stability. Moving past neoliberalism means acknowledging where markets aren’t working—see our broken childcare market and higher ed financing systems—and exploring where public options might best ensure economic security and/or bring needed competition to a sector.

Putting neoliberalism to rest and rebuilding the middle class will also require a new tax code, as Fireside Stacks’ own Elizabeth Pancotti wrote earlier this year. That means thinking beyond the confines of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s expiring provisions next year, and rewriting our tax system to give people what they want: higher taxes on the wealthy and more revenue for popular proposals—from universal pre-K to paid family and medical leave. Pairing those crowd-pleasers with a broader pro-competition agenda won’t just create a fairer economy but one that’s more productive and innovative too.

Given the populist right’s largely anti-tax stance and unwillingness to consider the full range of public tools available, progressives shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a cross-partisan coalition. Instead, we should continue to push the bounds of the center, and remind people that progressivism isn’t about government for its own sake. It’s about delivering for people, and building the government, politics, and economy we need.

Read more about the progressive playbook in “Getting There from Here: What Comes Next,” by Felicia Wong and me.

If You Ask Eleanor

“It is very difficult to put into words the liberal position, but I would be inclined to say that a liberal tries to see a question from as many points of view as possible and then decide which is the point of view which will benefit the greatest number of people.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt, If you ask me (July 1949)