Mr. Rogers’ Revolution

Reinventing America with the most important political thinker you’ve never heard of

| September-October 1996

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.”

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