One of the most exhausting tropes in American conversation is that the Left has no ideas. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been informed that “all they have to offer is identity politics.” It is all the more exhausting because it is simply not true. Rather than look, conservative thinkfluencers have built themselves them a straw leftist: an irate, dogmatic, anti-semitic campus activist with a genderfluid agenda railing against the patriarchy and campaigning against white privilege. But the Right’s straw Left has become something of a comfort blanket: easy to beat up in op-eds and “own” in stand-up politics acts.
The shock win of 28 year old socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be a wake-up call. Because, whilst the Right was feeling smart watching the Ben Shapiro Show, the Left—the real Left that is, not the confused Democratic establishment—has been living through the most dramatic policy renaissance in decades. (Hint: it has nothing to do with bathrooms.) Not only is a populist policy platform coming together, but the Left has increasingly found the persuasive policy wonks—and the campaigners like the Democratic Socialists of America—to exert real influence among the ranks of the Democrats.
Whoever ends up running, a “Federal Jobs Guarantee” is the big idea already set to dominate the Democratic primaries in 2020. This simple idea would see the government guarantee a job to the 13.1 million Americans who are currently unemployed or underemployed. The go-to report on the topic, from the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, suggests a “guaranteed wage” would go with each one of these jobs, to the tune of $32,500. The program would cost $543 billion a year, but the authors suggest a significant chunk of the cost—over $220 billion—is in fact already being spent on public assistance programs that could be nearly eliminated.
For the Democrats, the like of which Ocasio-Cortez beat in the biggest primary upset of the year, a “Jobs Guarantee” would be new ideas enough. How are you going to pay for that? The emerging Left has an answer: by revolutionizing how we think about government spending.
The rise of Stephanie Kelton, the Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Stony Brook University, who advised Bernie Sanders in his 2016 campaign, is mirrored in the rise of her life-long cause: Modern Monetary Theory. According to Kelton, “money doesn’t grow on rich people,” but is in fact a product produced by the government, the only limits on which is inflation. Kelton, a founding fellow at the Sanders Institute and the latest Bloomberg columnist, is pushing the Democrats to embrace a fiscal revolution—immense deficit spending—because, she argues, this isn’t an automatic trigger for inflation and, crucially, that the government doesn’t have to balance the books for a resource it creates.
Transforming the American labor market and federal budget at the same time might seem like a lot. But the new Left is not done. The latest thinking, by two former Obama officials, has America’s financial markets in its sights. The big idea? Government bank accounts for all. In a new report, Treasury veterans Morgan Ricks and Lev Menand argue that every American citizen should be given an account at the Federal Reserve—currently a privilege only banks can enjoy. These “FedAccounts” would revolutionize banking, bringing the 35.5 million Americans with little to no access to the financial system inside, and insulating American citizens from the “too big to fail” curse. Predatory banking practices would be cut dead in one fell swoop. And since the Federal Reserve prints money and can itself never go bust, private banks would be freed to take commercial lending risks without the danger of losing ordinary people’s deposits.
And there’s more where that came from, as Sean Hannity was at pains to point out when he screened fourteen points of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform on Fox: single payer healthcare for all, higher education tuition for all, housing as a human right, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, supporting seniors, gun control, clean campaign finance, criminal justice reform, an end to private prisons, immigration justice, and abolishing ICE. And, of course, women’s rights, and solidarity with everyone who identifies LGBTQIA+.
Taking heed of all this, there has been a stampede of Democratic 2020 hopefuls voicing support for a “Jobs Guarantee.” Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker all support some kind of pilot or variant of the scheme.
But the Right has no interest in what is being developed at the Sanders Institute, or gamed out on the pages of Jacobin, the Nation and the New Republic. Ideas such as raising the minimum wage, breaking up the big Wall Street Banks, or forgiving student debt—these, in the right hands, could be genuinely populist and competitive in the places the Democrats need to win. Similarly, the more wonkish ideas, the likes of which have long inspired the Left if not professional Democrats—such as turning the postal service into a bank offering safe alternatives to payday lenders for the poor, financial transactions taxes, clampdowns on offshore finance, carbon taxes, massive green energy boosts, or breaking up America’s oligopolies with revivified antitrust laws—could also be made to sing on the stump.
America’s new Left is a long way from taking over the Democratic Party, but not notably more so than the radical Right was at this point in the last electoral cycle. And just like the Trumpist insurgents did, the new Left has something others in their camp lack: enthusiasm. They feel they know what’s wrong with America, what is going to happen next, and that they have the socialist-inspired solutions that can put it all right. Call it what the old school socialists on the Left still do: a theory of history.
Not all these ideas are brand new, but they are ideas. And beyond defending the border and the interests of the Trump family, it’s not entirely clear what ideas there are on the Right. After the wall, after the tax cut, and after, as looks most likely, the new Supreme Court Justice, where does the Right really go next? Into doubling down ever more on anti-immigration politics at a moment of maximal public backlash? What worked so well in Pennsylvania in 2016 was in contrast to a lukewarm Clintonism. How competitive is Trumpism, in Michigan, when both parties enter the populist age?
The Right, by beating up a straw Left, has not only missed the ferment among their opposites. It has missed how it has opened a door. Because by embracing everything about Donald Trump, it has embraced the idea that something is terribly wrong with America, and that the country needs big, beautiful solutions for terrible, awful problems. When the Right becomes populist, embraces deficits, dunks on free trade, and rails against elites, it suddenly becomes a lot tougher for it to ridicule a populist Left that is credibly offering more.
There are no killer “owns” on the Ben Shapiro Show for this.