Opinion writer

Conor Lamb’s astounding apparent win deep in Trump country showed that with the right candidate and message, a Democrat can rally progressive and center-left Democrats and perhaps peel off moderate Republicans. Now while each candidate will have to tailor the message for his or her district or state, the center-left group Third Way has some strong suggestions for policy positions that can unify Democrats and attract disaffected Republicans. Third Way posits: “To help people with the massive disruption happening today, we need a modern economic agenda that boldly redefines government’s role in expanding the opportunity to earn. The way to do that is through a new social contract for workers that would: 1) reimagine investment in good-paying jobs; 2) reinvent postsecondary education and skills; and 3) redesign the pay and benefits of work.”

Its agenda includes everything from broadband for all to reemployment insurance to a regional minimum wage. I asked Third Way’s Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs, about the plan and about the challenges of work in the 21st century. Here is the first part of our conversation. I will post the rest tomorrow.

I love the emphasis on work and relocation for work. The American Enterprise Institute has pushed similar ideas. Is there convergence on importance of work between right and left?

The defining domestic political struggle of the coming decades will be over the direction of economic policy in the Digital Age. There are policy voices on the left (us) and right (AEI) talking about this. We argue that a central focus must be on the dignity of work and the need for a new generation of ideas around work, skill acquisition, and pay and benefits.

But there are also challenges to this modern viewpoint on both sides. On the right, the problem for the “reformacons” is that their political party has gone in a radically different direction under [President] Trump. While they may be talking about modern policy ideas to help people adjust to the new economy, their party is now focused [on] backward-looking things like steel tariffs, as if we still live in the 1950s, and supply-side tax cuts torn from the 1980s. And on the far left, many are calling for a Universal Basic Income and envision a future without work.

On trade and immigration, I think many on center-right and center-left know we need more of both but have to figure out how to deal with downsides. Is this just too hot to handle right now?

These issues are fraught because Trump has used them to create divisions and stoke populist fervor. Attacking immigrants appears on page one of the Right-Wing Demagogue’s Playbook—we are seeing this all over the world, as Yascha Mounk’s new book makes clear.

On trade, Trump’s ham-handed “America First” policy, which now includes openly lying to our closest allies, is terrible economics. But the problem is that trade is working well for people in offices and less well for people in factories. So protectionism is pretty good politics, especially for a guy who cares only about his #MAGA base.

In the near term, we have to stave off catastrophe: the deportation of Dreamers and a ruinous trade war. It’s not clear we can make any progress until we get some degree of stability on these issues.

I tell my conservative friends that if Americans want a lot of government we have to pay for it. Do we need to increase taxes?

Yes, on people who can afford it. The tax cuts that Republicans rammed through without even proof-reading them are ruinously expensive, regressive, and ill-conceived. They should be repealed and replaced and used as the first serious national down-payment on the kind of new social contract for the Digital Age that we are proposing. Just imagine that instead of giving a giant tax windfall to the wealthy, we were eliminating taxes on the first $15,000 in income for the middle class and creating a Paid Parental Flex Plan. We need government to spend money to ensure the new social contract for this era, but it must be spent wisely.

What’s the role of business in all this? Do we need to rewrite the social contract with three parties — government, business and workers?

Absolutely—business has an enormous role to play. Some of the changes will require government fiat: regulation, taxes, etc. But some should come from businesses recognizing that they can thrive only if their customers have the resources to live lives of dignity and comfort. Our ideas and any new social contract must ask something from business, workers, and government alike, as that is the core of what actually constitutes a social contract.

Right now, we’re living with a social contract built for the industrial age, and it’s clear that it worked well for many, but not all, Americans for much of the last century. But it is out of date and failing them now. A Digital Age social contract would ensure that there are a lot more good jobs despite the rise of robots and automation, that you can get the skills you need for those jobs, and that pay and benefits reflect the true nature of work in the information/gig economy.

We’ll have the remainder of the conversation tomorrow, covering the future of democracy and the upcoming elections.