Recently, what with all the Snowden/NSA mishegas, some of my friends have run with their prejudices to climb on the ZOMG! Spooks! Everywhere! bandwagon, and have accordingly become furious with me for failing to join them (the logic for which I posted previously).
Among the characterizations cast by some of these critics has been the suggestion that the reason I do not agree with them is because (they say) I am a “centrist” (or, sometimes, a “liberal”), while they style themselves “progressives”.
Well, let’s take a look.
I support marriage equality and absolute civil equality for women and racial, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities; absolute abortion rights for women and birth control rights for everyone; guaranteed publicly funded universal health care; a 90% top taxation rate; the Buffett rule; a carbon tax; enforceable and stringent international climate protection rules; reassertion of Glass-Steagel; a hard cap on total corporate executive compensation at 50x the income of the lowest-paid employee; a cap on inheritance at $10 million per beneficiary; affirmative action; withdrawal from GATT and the WTO; predication of foreign aid on recipients’ meeting stringent human rights standards (and no free pass to Israel in this regard); an end to the death penalty; a livable minimum wage; rigorous consumer, workers’ rights, environmental and workplace safety regulations; immigration reform; sharp reductions in military spending (and reallocation of those funds to programs to improve the infrastructure, opportunities and quality of life of the American people); a guaranteed post-secondary education for every American who completes high school or an equivalent and wants one; universal voter registration; a paid holiday for every American on election days; overturning Citizens United; solely public funding and time limits (say, 3 months) to all political campaigns; elimination of the definition of corporations as “persons” under the law; an end to all subsidies and tax breaks to nonrenewable energy industries and agribusiness except family farms occupied and worked by the owners; re-application of the Fairness Doctrine in all televised and radio media, broadcast or not; a ban on private ownership of any firearm less than 3’ long, able to hold more than 6 rounds at a time or able to shoot more than one round in a firing; mandatory, scientifically correct sex education for all students, whether their parents want them to have it or not; legalization and taxation of marijuana; an end to the “pledge of allegiance”; a transaction tax on financial transactions such as security sales; an end to supermajority legislative requirements of all kinds and at every level; elimination of tax deductions on contributions to religious organizations; and removal of all references to “God” from US money and US elected legislatures at every level: period, full stop.
If that’s a centrist, I guess Eugene Debs and Abbie Hoffman were, too.
So okay, the characterization doesn’t hold water (duh!) But thinking about it, I got onto the larger question: what is a “progressive”, really? Is it a just a checklist of policy positions, or is it something more?
I’d say that politics isn’t a thought problem. It’s not about taking a pledge, joining a club or talking like the rest of the cool kids.
It’s about results.
It’s about what happens in the real world.
And that means that the only meaningful definition of a progressive is “one who acts to advance societal movement in the direction of fairness, justice, the common good, environmental stewardship, a robust, informed democracy, ensuring that all citizens are safe from privation and have opportunities to improve themselves, peaceful resolution of differences when possible, working, efficient, up-to-date and well-maintained public facilities and services, and personal liberty up to–but not beyond–the point at which it infringes on those of others or the common good.”
There are two moving parts in this definition. It requires not only a set of values, but also behavior in a manner intended to cause policy and society to move in the direction of those values. And here is where a deep chasm opens between me and the friends who want to characterize me as “not progressive”.
I see little evidence that these friends expend much consideration of what policies are workable, politically feasible or even actually put into place. Their politics aren’t about doing anything: they’re about taking a position. More than anything, they are about how they wish to understand themselves and to be seen as opinion holders. The politics they articulate are about their view of themselves—their chosen identities—rather than about actual intent to accomplish social change.
Unless it completely implements the ideal they claim to support, the folks I’m describing will castigate policy movement in a positive direction as weak tea, and trash those who achieved such movement as having “sold out”…up to and including accusing such policy makers of being in the pockets of the very interests the new policy reins in.
In the eyes of people who think like this, a step forward doesn’t count. Only the ideal on the wish list counts. So the significant step forward of the Affordable Care Act is, in their eyes, a “sell-out to the insurance industry” because “Obama is a corporatist puppet”—which provides them the double pleasure of staking out a position of moral superiority to the product of the dirty, dirty world by contrasting it with the bright shiny ideas in their heads, and of casting themselves as having “higher standards” which have been disappointed by the failure of those who are in the trenches and doing the work.
Indeed, few of the folks I’m talking about have ever invested much time or energy in engaging the legislative process or participating in electoral campaigns. Adamant as they may be in their opinions they also, by and large, dismiss our public institutions and the systems we have for pursuing political change as irretrievably corrupt. To the degree they have advocated for policies, it has generally been from the sidelines in ineffectual but personally satisfying symbolic gestures like protest marches.
Their opinions are rooted firmly in convictions about “how things should be” but generally uninformed about how they are. And as such, their concept of the nature of American politics is an oversimplified cartoon in which Big Interests Own Politicians (of both major parties, because They’re All The Same) and Buy Elections, resulting in Orwellian Institutions which want to Exploit And Control Us All.
In this, they have a lot in common with the Tea Party, actually.
As someone who has actually been in that world and done stuff in the political sphere, I have a different view.
I’m here to suggest that if what you do undermines progress, you aren’t a progressive.
Trashing the character, competence or motivations or those who got you half a political loaf when you wanted a whole one isn’t progressive.
Setting the bar of acceptability at a pie-in-the-sky level and then erupting in outrage when you don’t get it isn’t progressive.
Starting with an assumption that public officials and institutions are corrupt, ill-intentioned or incompetent and seizing on every opportunity—however flimsy, however improbable—to confirm it in your mind and the minds of others is not progressive.
“Standing for principles” in a manner which makes it impossible for those principles to gain traction in the political sphere is not progressive.
Dismissing a policy maker as a walking dungheap because he hasn’t done exactly as you would like on every issue is not progressive.
The only thing such behavior does is to make progress less likely to occur. It saps voter enthusiasm on the left and undermines the openness of moderates and swing voters to seeing progressive positions as reasonable and viable.
I can also tell you that such backseat driving tempts those who do the heavy lifting which actually results in progress to chuck it all and get a job in the private sector. Policy work is hard. You may think being in Congress or a state legislature is all cocktail parties and being showered with lobbyist gifts, but it isn’t that at all, and particularly not for progressives, who don’t generally align with interests loaded with money.
We’re fighting against the odds anyway. When a policy maker who is pouring out the productive years of her life in the name of the greater good starts having to dig friendly fire out of her back, it’s not a surprise that she might want to quit and let her critics try to do better.
Unsatisfiable self-righteous outrage doesn’t do a damned thing for our country or the world. It is a self-indulgence, and one we can ill afford.
It is the antithesis of progressive. It sabotages progress.
Progressives don’t need to agree with everything an official or an advocate—or a blogger—does or says to forbear from impugning his character. They can express their desire for different policies than those under consideration without framing those working on these policies as betrayers, cowards, traitors, incompetents or criminals.
Progressives don’t have an all-or-nothing approach to politics. They understand that improvement happens one step at a time: you work for a gain, nail it down, celebrate, thank your allies and gear up for another one. That’s how history works.
Progressives don’t leap to endorse thinly-sourced conspiracy theories just because they confirm their prejudices.
You can choose to do those things, if you get some kind of satisfaction out of it, but I’ll tell you this: by no stretch of the imagination is it progressive.
Progressives help to create progress. They don’t impede it, belittle it, or undermine its exponents.
A left-wing concern troll is not a progressive.
Ralph Nader (at least, the version we’ve seen in the past 20 years) is not a progressive.
Dennis Kucinich is not a progressive.
Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uygur and Glenn Greenwald are not progressives.
They are something else. Whatever it is, it is not progressive.
At publication, the Dragon was THINKING