It’s understandable why President Donald Trump apologists like John C. “Chuck” Chalberg would want to frame the 2020 election as a referendum on anything but the performance of a president who lost the popular vote in 2016 and consistently has earned some of the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history (“A referendum on progressivism,” May 24).

But yes, bring it on. Let’s take time to focus during this campaign on how liberal democracy and progressive policy has improved our lives and made our nation and state both richer and more fair over the last 150 years.

Chalberg reasonably offers some backhanded acknowledgment that liberal reformers since Republican President Teddy Roosevelt have sought to make our United States more “open and democratic.” Then he uses a conservative pivot that has been employed at every step of our progressive journey since the Civil War.

First, concede grudgingly that previous social justice and progressive reforms might have been necessary way back when (like ending Jim Crow and legal segregation, expanding voting rights, civil rights and women’s rights, banning child labor, investing in public health and education and retirement security and physical infrastructure, cleaning up the environment, etc.). But then incite apocalyptic fear around the next wave of reforms addressing inequality and economic insecurity (Medicare for All, expanded entitlement to higher education, a Green New Deal and aggressive climate action, and some form of reparations for ongoing racial discrimination).

We can take comfort that previous conservative prophets of doom were off not just a little but a lot.

Every step of the way conservatives hollered, as Chalberg does, about the “path to socialism” and the demise of capitalism. What has the last century of progressivism wrought? For one thing, capitalists are wealthier than ever and the stock market has done as well or better under liberal presidents as under conservatives.

Individual freedoms are largely intact, although freedom to pollute and to discriminate have been circumscribed.

Free enterprise and liberal democracies with well-funded governments and relatively high taxes are often in constructive tension, and should be. But they have worked in tandem pretty darn well for all the world’s healthiest, wealthiest and wisest nations, also known as industrialized democracies.

And finally, as Chalberg points out, Trump and bipartisan majorities in Congress just proved the progressive point once again, and used our powerful and expansive federal government — of the people, by the people and for the people — to rescue the private sector and millions of dislocated individuals with trillions of dollars in relief to respond to a truly apocalyptic threat to public safety and health.


Dane Smith is senior fellow and president emeritus of Growth & Justice.