Conservatives are getting the attention as they duke it out in this GOP primary season. But on a surprising range of issues, there’s an important, if quieter, conflict between two progressive camps.
You could call it nostalgia liberals versus accountability liberals.
The priorities of nostalgia liberalism are community, social cohesion and preservation of New Deal and Great Society programs. Accountability liberals put more stock in market forces and individual empowerment. Their debate is sure to sharpen over the next four years.
It plays out in such big, emotional issues as saving Social Security, and in wonkier ones like high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on interstate highways. Nostalgia liberals often look at the other camp as traitors — or in any case not true progressives — while accountability liberals sometimes see their rivals as dinosaurs or special-interest captives.
In truth, both camps have strong arguments, and many progressives, including President Barack Obama, have a foot in both.
The roots of the debate go back at least to the Clinton days. But demographics, fiscal reality and technology are reshaping the divide.
A few examples of the split:
Accountability liberals say reform is needed to save Social Security — and that the only way to protect benefits for the poor is to scale back expected benefits for the wealthy.
Nostalgia liberals worry that more means-testing will transform Social Security from broad-based social insurance into a poverty program that will gradually lose political support, and therefore funding.
Accountability liberals believe that failing city schools represent the nation’s biggest challenge, since they deprive a generation of mostly minority children the opportunity to move up. Charters, vouchers — whatever it takes to break them out of that prison is justified.
Nostalgia liberals deplore those failing schools, too, but say traditional public schools are where America’s cherished melting pot comes to a bubble: the only right response is to fix them.
Accountability liberals like the idea that people who drive more should pay more. HOT lane fees will discourage driving, which is good for the environment, and keep bicyclists and transit riders from having to subsidize highways they don’t use.
Nostalgia liberals agree on the need to discourage gasoline consumption, but they hate what they call “Lexus lanes.” Wealthy people shouldn’t be allowed to buy into better versions of public goods — be they parks, public safety or highway lanes with less traffic — than other citizens.
Accountability liberals favor more merit pay and less lifetime tenure for public employees. Nostalgia liberals put a higher priority on shared benefits and shared protections.
Accountability liberals would redirect the tuition subsidy that public universities give to all in-state residents to poor families who need it most. Nostalgia liberals would say that in-state tuition is part of the package that makes people feel part of their community and therefore willing to pay taxes that support higher education.
On most issues, both sides make both a principled and a tactical argument. For nostalgics, the principle says that, in a democracy, we’re all in it together; government shouldn’t be pulling us apart. Allow HOT lanes today, and they’ll be charging admission at your neighborhood playground tomorrow.
Tactically, they argue, the more clearly you target benefits to those who really need them, the more quickly conservatives will reduce those benefits. Who will advocate for those poorest kids when everyone else has migrated to charters? Who will defend Social Security if it’s just one more anti-poverty program? Accountability liberals are serving, wittingly or not, as dupes for conservatives who just want to cut.
Accountability liberals respond that social programs too often transfer wealth from working people to the more comfortable or from the young to the elderly. They provide cover for lobbies such as AARP or teachers unions for whom general fairness, given their specific constituencies, is not the primary goal.
And, the accountability liberals say, we can no longer afford to subsidize everyone in order to ensure we’re subsidizing the poor. To protect these programs, instead empower their beneficiaries. If you give a poor mother a $12,000 check to take to the best school she can find, and tell principals they’ll be out of a job if they don’t attract enough students, suddenly that mom will be treated with respect.
Though immigration helps offset the trend, America is going to have fewer and fewer working people supporting more and more retirees. A failure to focus pension, health and social welfare programs will condemn coming generations to pay impossibly high taxes or force benefit cuts for everyone — with the poor suffering most — or both.
Technology, meanwhile, will allow more and more differentiation, from automobile devices that can measure every mile driven to learning tools that permit every child to progress at his or her own pace. There won’t be classrooms of 24 10-year-olds, all learning the same math on the same day.
Rather than mourn the demise of the traditional classroom in the traditional neighborhood school, progressives in both camps should be thinking of new ways to promote community. Rather than clinging to programs the nation can’t afford, they should be seeking to embed progressive values as those programs are reshaped.
Fred Hiatt wrote this for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.