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The Neoprogressive Moment and What to Do With It

There's one constitutional amendment that could change the entire dynamic of American politics.
July 12, 2020
The Neoprogressive Moment and What to Do With It
Donald Trump talks to reporters while departing the White House May 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What happens after Trump?

There are a number of possibilities, some more likely than others. In the near term, these will be determined by the outcome of November 3. If Trump wins, we move to one universe of outcomes. If he loses, we move to another. And if he is defeated decisively, with Democrats also holding the House and capturing the Senate, we then move to a third universe.

This last set of outcomes is the most interesting to contemplate because it offers the largest number of chances for substantive change in America’s political system. Because a realigning election is one thing, but a realignment taking place in reaction against a sitting president is something that happens once or twice in a lifetime.

What could America do with such a realigned government? Political conditions of the last half century have made non-incremental forms of political change nearly impossible. (We’ll get to this in a moment.) But full control of the White House and Congress would offer the chance to implement constitutional and policy reforms that could make substantial changes for the white working class and destroy any remaining vestiges of Trumpism among Republicans and the nation at large.

So if governmental syzygy is achieved, we should think big. Really big. What we should hope and work for is an episode of change on a level with the Progressive Era, which brought American government into the modern age. We need a Neoprogressive Era that will bring American government into the postmodern age. Think about it this way: The upheavals of the Sixties threw many moderate liberals into the arms of the Republicans, creating neoconservatives and a lasting center-right coalition. Well, today the Trump disaster is pushing many moderate conservatives into the arms of the Democratic party and creating neoprogressives. And these groups, too, could create a lasting coalition.

But in such a moment of political syzygy, long-delayed, non-incremental reforms would be possible. And this is where the real change would have to happen in order to bring along the Trump constituency. Such synergy can redistribute resources to those who have lost out in the processes of globalization and capitalist creative destruction.

These left-behind Americans have been a key constituency for Trump and addressing their legitimate grievances is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for dismantling Trumpism for good.

Why is a neoprogressive moment needed?

Because our American system is no longer capable of non-incremental change.

America’s interest-group politics has obvious collective action problems. Because no one faction is concerned with any interest except its own, our system has trouble generating public goods.

We face:

  • The exploitation of large, unorganized interests by narrow, better organized ones
  • Difficulty in redistributing the results of economic growth
  • Increased economic inequality
  • Weakness in creating public goods
  • Ineffective responses to the dislocations of creative destruction and globalization
  • And inept responses to public health dangers, such as pandemics

To some degree these problems are the byproduct of good things, such as our pluralistic politics and the Constitution. But they are problems nonetheless and cannot be addressed by incremental changes such as tweaking current legislation or passing new legislation that is marginally better.

So how do we do better?

The most obvious route large-scale change has historically been been bipartisan cooperation. But the sorting out of the political parties into relatively uniform organs of ideological movements created enough polarization that this approach may no longer be realistic.

Another approach is the idea-based/entrepreneurial model, which depends on the development of a consensus of expert opinion on a thorny policy problem (such as pollution, tax, or welfare reform). Building consensus can take decades, but when it crystalizes, policy entrepreneurs put it to good use. Their task is to translate the expert consensus into a public idea for use by non-experts in a way that remains faithful to the original insight. Phrases such as “the right to clean air,” or “end welfare as we know it,” are examples of public ideas that created a climate of opinion in favor of change that became powerful enough to create their own coalitions to secure passage.

The idea-based/entrepreneurial model was effective from the early ’70s through the late ’90s, but has been less so since the turn of the millennium. It depended on the development of an expert consensus that all parties respected. But the rise of the internet has meant the death of expertise, making an authoritative consensus much harder to develop or popularly leverage even if it finally crystalizes.

So the mechanism that is most amenable to non-incremental change would be a realigning election that ushers in a period of unified government. We can call this the presidential/majoritarian model. And we might well see it as the last arrow in America’s constitutional quiver for producing big change.

And if a Democratic landslide did produce a moment of institutional unity? What should be done with it? I would argue that we should focus our energies on improving the capacity of our political institutions for collective action through constitutional reform.

There is a long list of proposed constitutional amendments waiting for their chance, ranging from the elimination of the Electoral College to an amendment that would allow the president to submit a legislative agenda directly to Congress, which would be required promptly to vote the entire package up or down, without amendments, on a strict majoritarian basis.

But if we’re going to go the difficult route of amending the Constitution, the change ought to be even more fundamental: an amendment which changes the amendment process itself.

This idea has, in various ways, already been incorporated into most state constitutions and therefore received ample road testing. The Article V process for amending the Constitution is notoriously daunting, and far more difficult than the amendment process of any other liberal democracy. Why do we assume that this is the optimal design?

State constitutions are vastly more malleable than the federal Constitution. Our federal Constitution has been amended only 27 times—the first 10 being immediately passed as the Bill of Rights—yet only 19 of the states still have their original constitutions. Most states have adopted three or more constitutions. In total, the states have held over 230 constitutional conventions, adopted 146 constitutions, and added over 5,000 amendments.

The constitutions of 14 states require that the question of whether to call a constitutional convention be periodically referred to a statewide ballot. Thus most state constitutions have amendment provisions that are vastly less daunting than Article V.

We could seek to make such periodic review possible at the federal level.

Given the extraordinary stasis of our federal Constitution and the great store of plausible reforms extensively tested at the state level, more constitutional experimentation at the federal level seems highly desirable.

Florida’s system of convoking a commission of constitutional revision every 20 years is exemplary. Commission members are appointed by state-wide officials and submit proposed amendments directly to the voters for approval.  But even a commission process that referred proposed changes to the states rather than the electorate would be an improvement over current practice which, as a practical matter, amounts to a near ban on any significant constitutional change at all.

This election may provide a political window of opportunity for non-incremental change that could easily include constitutional reform. A realigning election, united government, and the abundance of analogous practices at the state level, could make it plausible that a constitutional commission amendment could overcome the obstacle course created by Amendment V.

If the window of opportunity provided by a moment of syzygy can be leveraged to address the structural barriers to collective action, a new era in American politics will open up, one in which the constraints on effective government action will be much reduced.

Thomas J. Main

Thomas J. Main is author of The Rise of Illiberalism  (Brookings, January 2021).