Reinventing America with the most important political thinker you’ve never heard of
For years, people have been saying that the left lacks new ideas. Anyone who makes that claim today hasn’t heard from Joel Rogers.
A professor of law, political science, and sociology at the University of Wisconsin and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, Rogers is bursting with ideas about how to reinvigorate democracy and win back voters to the progressive cause, which he spells out in a steady round of speeches, books, and alternative press articles. He is also a founder and national chair of the New Party, which has gained impressive ground in local elections in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Maryland, and Montana.
The MacArthur people weren’t the first to tag Rogers with the “genius” label. After an Irish Catholic boyhood in Middletown, New Jersey, he sprinted through Yale in two years, graduating with a triple major in philosophy, political science, and economics. (Asked if anyone had ever done that before, he replies, a little sheepishly, “I don’t think so.”) He also took a law degree at Yale before moving on to Princeton for two years to get a Ph.D. in political science and then to Heidelberg in 1977 for further study of philosophy.
Yet Rogers, a remarkably young-looking 44 with unruly reddish hair and a sly grin, didn’t spend his entire youth sitting in seminar rooms. He marched through the streets of New Haven in anti-war protests, volunteered as a draft counselor, and was a rock-concert promoter. In his spacious old house in Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, a public interest lawyer, and their daughters, Sophia, 6, and Helen, 8, you’ll find as many books about rock ’n’ roll and soul music as about political philosophy.
In a way, as an academic whiz kid from modest origins who was shaped by the political tides of the ’60s, he resembles Bill Clinton. (A friend from college said everyone who knew him half expected Rogers to wind up in the White House.) So what does Rogers think of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? “I think Clinton is the most talented politician of his generation,” he says, “but he’s without a clear and confident moral center. He is, I guess, basically a good guy in many ways but he is not prepared to stand up to the unbridled corporate power now stomping this country.”
Rogers’ own political vision holds onto an important ideal from the 1960s that Clinton and most other Democratic Party leaders have dropped: the simple notion that everyday people must have a major role in shaping the decisions that affect their lives. “While liberals often have reasonable views about political outcomes (some equality, some decent living standards, some personal freedom), they are elitists as to means,” he writes (with MIT political scientist Joshua Cohen) in the Boston Review (April-May 1995). “They don’t believe that people of ordinary ability and intelligence are capable of running the society themselves. . . . The thought of turning power over to citizens is horrifying. . . . The difference between liberals and progressives is that progressives actually believe in democracy. They think that the people, if [they are] properly organized and equipped, can govern themselves, and that if they do the results will be better than if they do not.”
Rogers points out that liberals’ squeamishness about challenging corporate power restricts them to mopping up environmental and economic problems after the fact, sometimes quite expensively, rather than controlling damage in the first place. That’s why Republicans so effectively smear Democrats as “tax and spenders,” with few people standing up to defend embattled liberal leaders.
These troubles notwithstanding, Rogers remains optimistic. “America remains blessed with abundance, free of external military threat, and populated by a spirited and resourceful people no more stupid or corrupt than any other,” he writes in the British journal New Left Review (March-April 1995). “Our problems are political and admit political solution.” Following are some of the ideas, drawn from interviews and articles, that Rogers proposes as the solutions to our political problems.
What we can do to revive progressive politics:
“The same forces that have made American politics ugly—a generation of economic decline and failed government response—have also created an enormous political market for what should be the signature issues of a new progressive movement: imposing some social and environmental values on the economy and building a democracy strong enough to enable their realization under the competitive conditions of the world economy. But progressives are blowing this opportunity with single-issue politics, holier than thou political correctness, and inattention to the field of activity in which most people express their political values: electoral politics.
“So what we need to do is create a values-based, electorally sophisticated organization, forge an egalitarian political program appropriate to present circumstances (taking measure of the ways in which the world has changed since the heyday of the New Deal or Great Society), focus on economic reconstruction and democracy as issues, and make the political debate between those who want these things (most of the public) and those who don’t (irresponsible business and its apologists). This fight we can win. There is mass discontent with politics as usual and mass hunger for some alternative.”
How to do that right now:
This is where the New Party, which Rogers calls “the best-kept secret in American politics,” comes in. Founded four years ago by Rogers and a group of fellow political activists, the party has fielded 139 candidates for local offices around the country and won an impressive 94 of those races. New Party members have working majorities on the city council in Missoula, Montana, and the county board in Milwaukee, and they serve as water commissioners, school board members, city council members, and state representatives of Illinois, Maryland, Arkansas, Missouri, New York, and Minnesota.
In order to keep from drawing votes away from worthy democrats and thereby putting Republicans in office by default, the New Party runs its own candidates “only where they have a serious chance of winning,” says Rogers. “Where they won’t have a chance to win, we generally do nothing or informally endorse the better of the major party candidates or, where the law permits, formally endorse the major party candidate (the candidate willing, of course) on the New Party ballot line.”
The latter strategy, Rogers explains, is an electoral innovation called fusion. Widely adopted in the late 19th century under pressure from populist reformers, it was later rescinded in most states. Fusion is still legal in about 10 states, most notably New York, where it has fostered lively third party politics since the 1930s. “The beauty of fusion,” he says, “is that enables people to have distinctive political views and to express those views without wasting their votes.”
The most important thing to be done to make all these ideas possible:
“It’s important that we get together again, get beyond the politics of fragmentation that now defines progressives. We are currently weaker than the sum of our parts. It’s important that we learn how to speak to people who don’t identify themselves now as progressive, but who in fact share our values. And it’s important that we get ourselves together in how we conduct business with one another. I think it is important that the culture of the progressive movement should be a learning culture—one that supports wide-ranging discussion and that is resolutely nondogmatic in its willingness to confront changed circumstances. And it should be more kind, forgiving, and fun. If being ‘progressive’ means simply going to boring meetings for another round of assignments and abuse, we’ll never get anywhere with the public, and really shouldn’t.
“We need to find ways of genuinely enjoying, not just respecting, each other’s company again. That doesn’t require that everyone do the same thing in common—a giant left sing-along. It does require that we build into our organizational plans some explicit space for quiet, for informal get-togethers, for family activities and parties (sedate and rowdy), for discussion groups, rock bands, street theater, softball teams. We should be much more inviting. Come on in, let’s take the country back, this is going to be a kick—that should be the message people get, along with no apologies for the extreme seriousness of what we’re about. We’re fighting now for democracy, for the dignity of our own lives. And we are losing. To win, we need to get serious, come together, and get moving.”