We need more ambition in the parts of the country where progressives can win
What if blue state Dem coalitions just can’t do this? I live in a ‘nice’ town in NJ where every yard sign has a ‘in this home we [insert progressive platitudes]’ and black lives matter signs. But when a new apartment building is up for development you get 3-400 facebook posts of complaints about traffic and changing neighborhood character. I think these people are willing to read some books about racism and feel bad about themselves but any concrete steps would be a bridge too far.
Same thing with child care, public option, etc. They will never support a change in the status quo - they just want to ride out their good lives for the next 30 years while the state hollows out.
Democrats in Massachusetts certainly need a new vision to sell that sort of change. We (Priorities For Progress) polled Ayanna Pressley in a Democratic gubernatorial primary in a hypothetical 2022 matchup where Baker runs as a Democrat - he gets 62% of the vote, the Democrats get a total of 25% (AG Maura Healey gets 13%, Pressley 7%, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh 4%). SurveyUSA, A-rated pollster from 538, sample of 558 likely 2018 Dem primary voters fielded 8/12-8/16.
What we've found over multiple polls is a gap in values (voters mostly trust Democrats on values) and results (voters don't really think Democrats will make their life better. There are roughly three equal groups of voters in MA - straight GOP, Baker/Warren voters, straight Dem.
We certainly have the featherbedding stuff down - 1/3 of MBTA retirees are under 55 and the pension fund has some quirky/sketchy exemption from transparency and underperforms the state pension fund.
"Here’s a recent article in a tunnel-building trade publication..."
"Slow Boring" is officially the most brilliant blog title ever
Great article! Arlington, VA is a very well run blue county, and the taxes here aren’t even that high as compared to other places in the DMV, but it’s the housing costs that drive people out and into farther away places. I loved what one of our churches near the Clarendon metro did about a decade ago - it got permission from the county to expand upwards and build low/middle-income apartment housing on top of the church. After several years fighting off lawsuits from the surrounding neighbors (NIMBY), once they did it, it’s been extremely successful all around (for the church too). Always makes me wonder if other metropolitan religious institutions should get into the low/middle income housing business...
I agree 100%. As a former Mayor of an affluent Bay Area suburb, I always felt that our way to contribute to the national debate was by setting an example of effective local government.
In my neck of the woods there are some positive things happening, including the electrification of Caltrain and some softening of NIMBYism.
But there are a couple of challenges. First, ambitious young local government officials are way more interested in performative politics on national issues than on making tangible progress on less sexy projects. The incentives are difficult to overcome.
Second, despite a great quality of life, good economy, low crime, etc, the public's distrust of government continues to rise, driven by national politics. Affluent progressives complain constantly about their property values and the mismanagement of their taxes. It's quite depressing, and it's hard for local officials to believe they can make a dent in that perception.
Given the choice between grinding away at some incremental meaningful change for years, or making a quick symbolic splash on a national cultural issue, it's easy to see why people make the choices they do (although they are not necessarily mutually exclusive).
We need to change local politicians' incentives so that focusing on creating good government also helps their political careers. Anyone have any ideas? :)
The other point is that sometimes this is how national progressive policies get done. Canada’s single-payer system was not initially a national policy- Saskatchewan did it first at the provincial level. Other provinces waited and watched and after seeing its success decided to jump in as well.
Two (Long) Thoughts:
1. Most mainstream media publications have really foregone any focus of accountability on the efficacy of government programs which has understandably left a void that conservatives can fill with the message of “Democrats run government programs like their own patronage systems with YOUR money and don’t face any consequences.” As incompetent as Trump is; the message of “Democrats have been running some of these cities for decades and none of the problems they supposedly care about have been solved,” I was silently sympathetic to. NYT had that great article a few years back titled “The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth.” Those types of stories should be as frequent and ubiquitous as cultural critique articles are today. Without that, I think it becomes impossible to feel like there is anyone holding government accountable to executing and therefore people default to being against these things no differently than if you were asked to buy shares in a company without any promise of shareholder reporting or accountability.
2. I think Democrats suffer from trying to do too many things at the same time when designing these programs. “We need to build this transit line, but the firms involved must be American or based in (insert municipality), a certain percentage of the work must come from small businesses, it must create a certain number of jobs, it must take into account (racial, class, etc.) equity. That is a recipe for failure execution wise. This is a bipartisan problem when thinking about DoD programs at a national level. Executing to solve a problem becomes almost secondary to all the other goals that have more direct political benefits.
Great post, and if anything an even bigger priority for New York, which has been losing population (forecast to lose 2 congressional seats after the census is done). In addition to the housing policy driven cost of living issues that Matt identified, these blue states have higher tax rates than a lot of the destination states that their population outflow is going to. You can maintain higher tax rates, but only if you are perceived as providing higher quality public services, and that’s not happening in New York now.
I'll give another example of progressives shooting themselves in the foot. "Single payer" Germany has universal coverage with most people getting their healthcare paid for by a system of non-profit sickness funds linked to their employer. If you don't have a job or can't afford insurance you're routed to the German equivalent of Medicare. A similar system exists in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, etc.
There sure was a lot of ink spilled on "single payer" vs. universal coverage when there doesn't seem to be any great advantage to one system over the other. Again way too much focus on a meaningless shibboleth and not nearly enough focus on the operational outcome.
As a German guy with Austrian parents, I found the part about the sewer socialists in Milwaukee particularly fascinating. I think it'd be fun if you expanded on that in a future post. In any case, the comparison to Vienna public housing seems apt - Vienna really showed the power of left-wing ideals if applied courageously and with a focus on practicability. Austria is pretty much a center-right country, but socialists/Social-Democrats in Vienna are still easily winning municipial elections a hundred years later without really having to do much for it. Turns out it's really hard to dismiss left-wing ideas if you see their positive ramifications everyday in your commute to work.
This is exactly the kind of insightful commentary I'm here for. I live in Berkeley, CA, which one might say is to California as California is to the nation. We have a pretty constant ultra left (relatively speaking) mandate and can try things here that won't get traction in other places. We were the first community in the nation to voluntarily bus our students (as VP-Elect Harris has spoken proudly of), we were one of the first places to tax sugary soda, one of the first places to have curbside recycling pickup, and many more. We have also tried things that failed, which is fine - I'm glad we tried them.
We are also in the crosshairs of the controversy over zoning restrictions and density that you often discuss, Matt. I serve as Chairperson of our Zoning Adjustments Board, so I see the conflict play out firsthand. Unlike the above examples, we are not exactly on the forefront of YIMBYism, but are doing our best to balance the obvious need to build more housing with preserving neighborhood character (I know that phrase is probably like nails on a chalkboard to you, Matt, but it's a real thing that I can't dismiss in our community).
Anyway, I appreciate your insights as always. I'm especially interested if you have any ideas how we could realistically reform some of the issues you highlight regarding expenses of using union labor while still promoting living wages and workers' rights. You bring up real problems, but politically, it seems like a nonstarter. I don't know the way out, but I imagine you have thoughts!
Good article, about the sorts of things that really aggravate me about Blue America. We really do have a problem of talking the talk but only walking the walk a little bit on issues other than some social policy issues. I feel like a dive into the specifics of these metro areas is worth doing, since a lot of the issues are very local indeed.
There are multiple problems, as I see things. The first is that, in a lot of these states, the Democratic Party is so dominant that they don't have much incentive to go with bold fix-it initiatives. Instead of jumping on the obvious opportunity, a lot of the state GOPs (thinking about CAGOP specifically) have decided to run as far to the right as they possibly can, dooming them to be even worse and more irrelevant. The lack of competition can stifle things, though obviously this is different in MA with Baker and MD with Hogan, but I'm less familiar with how things are in those states.
The second is when you consider who the most politically powerful group is in most of these metro areas-upper middle class suburbanites (including, admittedly, my own family), who have little to no incentive to change things for their own benefit. Given how much sway these groups have over local and state politics, it's no wonder how stuff like land use policy ends up being so skewed in their favor. My neighborhood, in the suburban East Bay, is 100% one of those "progressive platitudes on lawn signs but will turn around and oppose densification" places. There are a great deal of such places in the US (and Canada). These are also the newest converts to the Democratic agenda on the federal level, which I think creates more weird incentives on both ends.
The nationalization of politics creates a situation where a lot of activism is focused purely on national-level stuff, or general social policy. This is all fine and good, and still very much a good thing to work towards these goals, particularly during the disaster that has been the last four years, but it also creates a situation where the lawn-sign people can feel progressive by believing in a federal-level progressive platform while opposing or being apathetic to things that would actually have a direct impact in their own life in any way. The unholy alliance between NIMBYs and left-wing groups who have somehow convinced themselves that any development is bad because of the environment/gentrification/capitalism is particularly aggravating in this regard.
Conservatives may always make fun of us anyway, but they'd make fun of us a hell of a lot less if we actually delivered on the social democratic stuff or infrastructure we keep saying we want. I have no idea what the holdup is for some of these things. Is it a lack of ambition or imagination? Bad budgeting issues? Just general bungling (CAHSR or just everything about the NY coronavirus response comes to mind)? In any case, it needs to be fixed. I just wish I knew how.
Feels to me like progressive Democrats are almost scared of actually ever enacting their agenda. I've been thinking about the primary debates a lot, and just the insanity that the issue of whether or not to abolish private healthcare got exponentially more airtime than the Senate filibuster/democracy reform writ large. I'm a young progressive but I feel very distrustful of the Democratic party leaders because I feel like their progressive policy talk disguises a true, secret inertia. I'm encouraged by Biden's student loan debt exec. order, but it sort of feels like nothing else on his campaign website is really going to...happen? And on the state level, I would love to see something like you proposed coming out of Mass, but it seems like there's inertia with Dem state leaders as well. Why hasn't New York legalized weed? Why is the NYC municipal government so dysfunctional even though it's dominated by self-avowed progressives? It feels like as Democrats we're constantly negotiating against ourselves to try to produce a moderate, watered-down version of a progressive policy that might be palatable to Republicans, and I suspect part of the reason behind it as that our party leaders are actually not entirely convinced of the agenda they claim to support.
Matt, have you considered actually reaching out to the sandhog unions and having a policy conversation with them about the tunneling cost issue? If there was a serious proposal to, e.g., cut tunneling costs in half but build four times as many tunnels (and therefore employ twice as many sandhogs) would that appeal to them, or are they genuinely wedded to the current system? Those unions must employ some policy people who have some thoughts re why moving to a German cost structure is or is not feasible.
Having followed California housing politics (and, tangentially, high-speed rail), I'm really pessimistic that progressives in blue states can realistically deliver public works projects that require major new infrastructure.
Obviously the implacability and structural power of the NIMBY forces is formidable. What's even more dispiriting is the unholy alliance they've been able to make with the activist left, which here in the Bay Area mobilizes against everything from market-rate housing to, I shit you not, *bus lanes*, in the name of anti-gentrification and -displacement. It's remarkably counterproductive--at least the NIMBYs arguably advance their underlying goals when they block this stuff--but worse, it gives the NIMBY entrenched-homeowner camp both political cover and a story they can tell themselves about why they're doing what they're doing. The result is that the lane of folks who broadly speaking *want stuff to happen*, and not in a massively-contingent way, is actually really small. And you have multimillionaire mansion-dwellers like Dean Preston who become Supervisors, tirelessly advocate in their own self-interest, and become hailed as "progressive" heroes.
I don't know how to fix that, other than something like SB50, which *sad trombone*. The local YIMBY leaders think that there's a coalition to be had with the left-activist set, and so if you go to meetings you will hear them make mouth noises around how the folks fighting for social justice and against displacement aren't the enemy, it is instead rich people on the west side who talk about "neighborhood character." But the two are sadly symbiotic.
All of which is just to say that the people we think of as being in the "progressive" camp--the big-city-dwelling "we" in Matt's post--seem to overwhelmingly have commitments that are going to override major zoning reform and building public-services infrastructure, even if they can be convinced it's a good idea in the abstract.
I'd love to know how this sort of thing plays out elsewhere. Would also love to read more on the union angle, about which I know next to nothing beyond the sketch in Matt's post.
To me, your thinking on the housing issue is predictably backwards. The key to making America a better (and bluer) place is to increase the number of great places to live, rather than making it so that everybody can afford to live in one of two great places. Your view is also very alienating to those who live in and enjoy other parts of the country. Did you know that Chicago has museums that rival anything in New York? Did you know that Cleveland has one of the world's top orchestras? From your coastal bubble, you probably don't know these things. Rather than peddling in "how can EVERYONE afford to live in New York or California?!" rhetoric, you should explore solutions that address the geographic inequities that plague us ... especially if you want to fit 1 billion people in this country! And from a political standpoint ... move a few million urbanites to midwestern cities, and the entire midwest is blue forever, with fewer wasted votes in already-blue states.