Matthew Yglesias's Rugged Progressivism

As a neoliberal shill, I was destined to write favorably about Matthew Yglesias's book One Billion Americans. But even I was struck by how much it resonated with me.

Yglesias's arguments are simple, but the framing is novel and worth dwelling on a moment: America risks losing its dominant position in the world. While your mind might leap instinctively to Trumpism or our many foreign policy boondoggles as potential explanations, Yglesias's is more fundamental: America isn't growing its population quickly enough. In the 20th century and for a good chunk of the 21st, this wasn't a problem. America was more populous than other developed nations and far richer than our more populous developing world rivals. But as the developing world, particularly China, modernizes, the second advantage is slipping away. With it, so might America's ability to shape humanity's future in a way that accords with our interests and values.

Assuming you buy this framing, you can choose one of two doors: Accept America's decline and manage it as best you can, or boost our population using the cocktail of progressive (and yes, neoliberal) policies that Yglesias advocates.

If you're active on left-liberal Twitter, you might impulsively reach for Door No. 1. America was never great anyway, you might say, and our decline is welcome. Maybe you add an ironic "Inshallah" since Twitter is a bizarre place. But if you're somebody who has benefited from the American experiment (or who wants to win political office), then Door No. 2 looks pretty good. It's easy to take America for granted, but it's still a great place to live. My parents are Egyptian immigrants, which explains almost entirely why my life outcomes are so different from my cousins' in Cairo. (It also explains why I find the use of "Inshallah" as a signaling device by American Twitter pundits so weird.)

The nice thing about Door No. 2 is that even if you don't like how it's decorated — even if you'd prefer a less patriotic frame, for example — you might like what's behind it: more immigration, more housing, more aid to families, more green infrastructure, more and better transportation — all the things we’d need to support and sustain a growing population. Indeed, the frame might not be for you. It might be for all the people who never would have considered this progressive policy cocktail in the first place.

In this way, the book is self-consciously political. Yglesias has been writing forever about the discrete policies he details here, and he articulates and justifies them ably. But he's now connecting them in a way that genuinely tries to appeal to a plurality of Americans. As though to underscore the point, the cover is red, white, and blue. Relatedly, while many books on policy seem to eschew discussions about trade-offs and priorities — important considerations in any political project — Yglesias welcomes them. Consider this example from his chapter on housing:

The best path forward is going to be pursuing multiple channels of reform across a broad front. And ideally the federal government should keep its eyes on the prize — the production of new homes in jurisdictions where the market price is high. An ideal federal policy would link a large sum of fairly flexible money to different jurisdictions' success or failure at meeting that goal, while remaining agnostic about the exact regulatory details. If more left-wing places want to build public or nonprofit housing or impose inclusionary zoning overlays, that's fine. If more right-wing places want to rely on a purely market mechanism, that's also fine. State governments, or perhaps even local ones, can decide exactly what kinds of changes need to be made. But at the end of the day, pricey places that don't see new units should face consequences.

In other words: Blue states can do their thing, and red states can do theirs. So long as we get more housing, we should be happy. Yglesias challenges us to identify our deepest commitments and stick to them.

Similarly, if you accept that the goal of US immigration policy should be "More Immigrants," then you should be willing to compromise on precisely which types of immigration we encourage. If a Canada- or Australia-style points system is more politically palatable, then we should embrace it. Thus, Yglesias not only gives our aspiring neoliberal shill a politically palatable framing for his or her desired policies, but he also acknowledges that in any universe where a fraction of these policies happen, we'd need to compromise — and that's okay! A banal point? Sure. But in a world where political discourse occurs mainly on the killing fields of Twitter, where purity is lauded above all else, it's an important reminder.

The book is heavy on pedantic reminders — and I mean that as a compliment. For example, in "Chapter 7: Curing Housing Scarcity," Yglesias reminds us that, today, we have the power to build different kinds of housing than we used to:

Once upon a time, the question of how to safely and conveniently house a large number of people on a fixed plot or on in-demand land was an unsolved technical problem. At a certain height, buildings were prone to falling down. And after two or three flights of stairs, additional verticality becomes highly undesirable as a basic lifestyle issue. If more people wanted to live in a given place, you'd quickly reach a point where they just couldn't — even though the transportation technology that prevailed before the automobile created very strong incentives to live in a desirable location. Today very little of this is true.

Asides like these feel like a nudge to rediscover the message that's always been at the heart of progressivism: We don't have to take any of this for granted. Society can still be changed. Sometimes Chesterton's Fence is there for a reason, but other times it's just a fence.

Indeed, while the book is nominally a set of policies with a China-skeptic gloss, I view Yglesias as engaged in a much deeper project: the creation (or recreation) of a new political ideology — one I call (somewhat hackishly) "rugged progressivism."

Like its more famous cousin, rugged individualism, Yglesias's philosophy says that America should be great. Unlike rugged individualism, which puts the onus on the individual to do hard things, rugged progressivism says our government — and by extension, all of us — can also do hard things. It might be difficult to remember after decades of technocratic failure, but this was once true! To make the point clear, Yglesias even invokes JFK's famous "we choose to go to the moon" speech. Whereas our current progressivism takes America's decline as given and maybe wants to cut folks a UBI check, Yglesias's progressivism asks us to start with big national priorities: de-carbonizing the economy, boosting the rate of innovation, closing the gap between the number of children people want and the number they have. Then we ask, "How do we get there?" If our institutions or our regulatory agencies need to be redesigned, then fine. Better than giving up. If France can build subway tunnels at 1/10th the cost of New York, we shouldn't stop until we crack the Gaulic subway code. (Maybe more generous immigration policies can even entice some of that European transportation talent to move here and help us out.)

To make this concept more concrete, consider a small example currently swirling through the progressive discourse (one that doesn't appear in Yglesias's book, I should add): college entrance exams. Many well-meaning progressives see the disparity in scores between white Americans and Black and assume (perhaps with some justification!) that the tests are racially biased. So in the name of equality, they say, the tests must go. But that's an easy way out. It misses entirely why America welcomed the testing regime in the first place. College entrance exams were intended to open up our elite institutions, to pry them from their WASP-y masculine grip and make them more, rather than less, accessible. Does anyone think that doing away with college entrance exams — making the process more opaque — will reduce the power of the privileged to game admissions? 

On the other hand, a more rugged progressivism would look at the testing disparity as a problem to be solved — a problem we can solve. The gap would become an uncomfortable but useful reminder of all the ways that American society continues to fail Black Americans. It would be a push — hell, a scorecard — that forces us to address zoning, child care, and our profoundly twisted approach to higher education. Indeed, this logic leads you down a far more radical path than the one that ends with colleges simply chucking the test. Granted, this path would be longer and more tedious, and it certainly wouldn't play as well on Twitter, but screw Twitter and all the ways it's poisoned our progressive discourse. We can still do hard things. We can still tackle deep-seated problems instead of their surface-level manifestations.

Am I too unfair to Twitter and the symbolic pursuits that dominate on social media? Probably. Our decrepit institutions and the modern Republican Party are more to blame for our inability to do hard things. But to the extent that books are an attempt to nudge the discourse in a particular direction, it seems important (and again, banal!) to point out that the discussion of Yglesias's book will happen on social media. An environment endlessly focused on what should come down (e.g., the SAT, Confederate statues) but precludes any conversation of what should go up. After all, there are an endless number of slights — both important and unimportant — to rail against. I'm happy the Confederate statues came down! I'm also anxious about whether police reform can move beyond a tedious discussion about what exactly people mean when they say "defund."

I fear that Yglesias's book, which strikes me as an effort to transcend this environment and restore a pragmatic, solutions-minded orientation to the progressive conversation, will be chum for Twitter's algorithm. With any political project, there is always so much to pick apart: the framing; the allusions to compromise; the prioritization of policies; the red, white, and blue cover. One can quibble endlessly, and quibbling endlessly is what social media is all about. It was, after all, Twitter's algorithm that aroused a blood feud between Warren and Sanders supporters even though their candidates wanted to enact essentially the same set of policies. This feud could unfold entirely in the realm of symbols and aesthetics and intent without ever stopping to ask what was good, right, or true. The good, right, and true are disastrous for engagement.

I sometimes think of social media as a kind of financial sector for attention. One of the arguments against having so large a financial sector is that it absorbs too much talent. A bunch of people who could have been curing cancer are trading derivatives or whatever. Similarly, I worry that the gaping maw of social media demands endless sacrifice and dunking while yielding little in return: a woke, progressive generation that has no framework for organizing their beliefs.

Maybe Yglesias's rugged progressivism is the beginning of one. Maybe it will push its adherents to demand more of themselves and their institutions.