Why we need a “left flank”: Reflections on the Kansas Legislature, 2010

When I was reading The Woman Behind the New Deal last summer, I found myself thinking about the Kansas Legislature’s 2010 session during the section on the role of the Townsend Movement in the legislative battle for Social Security.

Yes, that’s how my mind works.

The book relates the story of how, when congressional support for the Economic Security Act (retirement support, unemployment compensation, mothers’ pensions, and other key measures in our social welfare system) was waning, passage was ultimately secured, in part, due to pressure from supporters of a more aggressively liberal proposal: the Townsend bill. These campaigners wanted $200 per month for retirees, and they sent letters to Congress, held events around the country, and, most importantly, influenced the debate over economic security legislation, such that a more modest pension plan like the one supported by the Roosevelt Administration was ultimately seen as a compromise measure, not a radical initiative.

And that’s what made me think about the Kansas Legislature.

During the 2010 debate on new revenue measures, the factions coalesced around the “no new taxes/cut and cut and cut” pole, versus the “sales tax increase to avoid further cuts” camp. The increase revenue side eventually won, and the legislature passed a budget which included a sales tax increase (and an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit, so all was not bad!) and no new cuts in education or social services. It was actually quite amazing how a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans came together to support the package, which none of them thought was perfect but all of them preferred to cuts upon cuts.

But.

Reading about this history of the role played by the Townsend Movement (whose goals were, ultimately, not all that reflected in the final version of Social Security that won approval in Congress) made me wonder…

what if?

What if there had been a strong, coordinated push for a truly progressive revenue package, with an increase in the income tax (especially on higher earners) and additional rollbacks of corporate tax cuts? What if there had been an effort to light a fire in middle-class and working-class households and communities, where people are feeling the simultaneous squeeze of declining incomes (which reduce their ability to absorb a sales tax increase) and the effects of reduced services? What if there had been the kind of movement that resulted in all of those letters to Congress from older adults, and the Kansas Legislature had felt some real pressure to enact a progressive revenue package? And what if that coalition, or maybe even a slightly different one, had then had to tack to the left in order to accommodate that pressure, and we had ended up with a revenue base that would have not only put us on sound financial footing for the coming budget year but also promoted the kind of just economic policy that is its own reward?

Too often, we put forward these “reasonable”-sounding policy proposals that we think can garner bipartisan support, as though there were some kind of advocacy bonus point system for sounding reasonable, when what we really need is some outlandish proposals that make even the huge victories that we ultimately ‘settle’ for look modest by comparison.

Townsend reportedly told his wife, who wanted him to quiet down as he was ranting about the world’s injustices (my husband could probably empathize), “I want all the neighbors to hear me! I want God almighty to hear me. I’m going to shout till the whole country hears!”

Of course, he did. And his legacy, while perhaps unrecognizable as a shadow of his actual vision, looms huge in U.S. social policy today.

So, for next year’s Kansas legislative session, and on the national stage too, I’m proposing a whole lot more shouting. We need to revive (and perhaps invent anew) a bunch of crazy-sounding ideas (amnesty, perhaps? guaranteed incomes? universal free higher education?) that make aggressively progressive proposals look tame and more restrictive ones look radioactive. 2011, when the deck is already stacked against us after the 2010 elections, just might be the year to go out on a limb. What do we have to lose?

Those are the kinds of compromises I can get excited about.

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