I still remember when the term “progressive” first started bludgeoning its way into my consciousness. I had been a self identified Liberal for sometime when all of a sudden people with whom I generally agreed with started calling themselves and each other “progressives.” Much like the communal George Soros checks, I appeared to have been left off the mailing list.
Eventually my buddy and co-blogger Mike from Comments From Left Field began selling me on this concept of progressivism. Generally speaking, progressives were ideologically identical to liberals, but a younger internet savvy generation combined with political strategies pioneered in no small part by Howard Dean, helped wrap that ideology around the structure of the netroots. Excitement in new young faces to the scene of political strategy such as Markos Moulitsas coupled with the emergence of fifty-state tactics pointed to an ideological movement that was turbo-charged by an appreciation for the political process. We were young, we were idealistic, and we were ready to upset the entire chess board.
But an important aspect in the multiple exchanges between me and Mike about progressivism surfaced. The fact of the matter was that the term “progressive” polled better than “liberal.” And there, I suspected, was the lynch pin of the whole thing. See, Liberalism in general has a tough time in the States, and I suspect this will continue for quite a while. All of this is due to no shortage of factors from the Cold War and Red Scare, to the culture wars of the 60’s. I remember another blogging acquaintance of mine once being (and to the best of my knowledge still is) very passionate about establishing a Socialist party that could compete on the national stage in this country. But it won’t work, not now, and maybe not forever. This is a country that still suffers from unresolved issues from the Civil War, there’s no way we could get over our generation long struggle with the Soviet Union so easily.
And let’s face it, American liberals haven’t proven to be the most efficacious of idealogues in the history of the world. Occasionally our team comes together to do something big and momentous and important, but far more often we alienate those outside the ideology if we can take enough time off from masticating our own out of some pathos forged from ideological purity. No one on the left really wants to admit it, but more often than not liberals tend to play the Keystone Kops of the political sphere.
But I digress. The fact is that whether we like it or not, liberals are not held in much esteem in this country, at least not once you get outside of our traditional epicenters. Progressives, on the other hand… In polling, at least at the time of my conversations on the matter with Mike, progressives didn’t have nearly as high negatives as liberals, potentially making them more salable to the general electorate at large.
In other words, what was being sold to me was that here was this new ideological movement that was focused on, well, progress. Moving the football. Omitting the sound and fury in lieu of techniques and tactics that would produce tangible results. What my skepticism addled mind believed, though, was that really the fervor to identify as a “progressive” was simply an old movement disguising itself as a better polling new movement.
And for a few election cycles it would appear that was I wrong. In 2006 Democrats took over congress in grand fashion, and in 2008 not only did they broaden their control of the legislative branch, they managed to elect the first African American to the highest office in the land. It appeared that finally liberals, or self-described progressives rather, and Democrats finally came together to become an electoral force to be reckoned with.
But we didn’t even have to wait until the President was sworn in to see cracks in this facade begin to form. It was clear from the start that there were no shortage of vocal leftists ready to prove their independence from and displeasure with someone they felt wasn’t pure enough in his progressive ideology. In the two years since it has become difficult to find left leaning voices ready to defend the Democratic president, and in this hyper partisan, take no prisoners, political environment, that means there are practically no voices ready to defend him.
Now I pointed out recently that the sound and the fury is not necessarily connected with the rest of the movement. The left, in general, has not abandoned the president wholesale. But the fact that the vocal left, or the professional left, or the netroots, or progressives, have creates the illusion that the left has abandoned Mr. Obama. And this has real consequences.
In November of this year, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives; a feat previously thought impossible by political analysts as recently as six months earlier. On the side of the Senate, Democrats managed to maintain control, but have lost a significant number of seats and are more or less only nominally the majority. As someone who scrutinizes electoral politics, it would be a brash overstatement to say that the turning of the professional left on the President was the leading cause of this, but it was a factor. And, as someone who does scrutinize these things, I do know that the fate of any one factor can change the outcome of an election.
Worse than losing control of congress is the fact that Progressives look as though they have fallen back into the mold of liberalism. The colorfully appointed circular firing squad has formed, and it would seem that it won’t be satisfied until all chances of achieving legislative progress in government have been utterly and completely crushed. All of this at the end of the first two years of the most successful progressive presidency since FDR.
What this tells me is that the American Left is still content to lose. That it has yet to actually reinvent itself into a movement that is capable of establishing a long lasting vehicle for continuous progress. In short, progressives seem just as uninterested in actual progress than their ideological forebears did. For far too many people in the progressive/liberal movement, actual accomplishments take second stage to less tangible concepts as principle, integrity, and ideological purity.
Not that principle and integrity are bad things, mind you, but they mean little when they get in the way of forward momentum. Unemployment checks don’t get funded by principles. Healthcare costs aren’t brought down by integrity. These abstractions that fuel the left are not in and of themselves bad or counter-productive, but in order for them to mean something, a significant part of the movement has to be focused on turning that desire and ambition into real world results.
And thus it is clear to me that the American Left does need to be reinvented, in earnest this time around, not merely in terms of nomenclature. In my mind it seems to be a necessity that there be an emergence of a Pragmatic Left, one that is focused on the achieving of objectives and not, as sometimes appears to be the case, the demonization of pragmatism itself.
What I present is a list. Perhaps the beginning of a foundation for the new Pragmatic Left. It is by no means definitive, nor even complete, but instead built from observing and identifying the weaknesses in the current liberal/progressive political coalition. This is not the end all, be all, but instead merely the start, or at least what one hopes is the start.
Civics: One of the more frustrating observations I’ve noticed of the American Left has been a blatant, almost willful, ignorance of basic civics. In two short years it seems as though a vast majority of important liberal commentators have forgotten completely the mechanics of how our government works. It has gotten so bad that it makes you almost want to cram them all in a room and make them watch the Schoolhouse Rock presentation of how a bill is born. This apparent ignorance has led to criticism being unduly apportioned to the President, unreasonable expectations, and a host of other problems that are counter-productive, destroy movement cohesion, and waste an awful lot of energy.
For instance, an argument I hear far too often is that the President isn’t fighting enough, that he doesn’t use the so-called bully pulpit enough. The reality is that legislatively the President has little power. Technically, the President has no legislative power whatsoever, but modern America has embraced a stewardship style Presidency thus giving the President an illusion of power. The fact is, the President can rant and rail all he wants. Back before the twenty-four hour news cycle, when the President spoke he would get a significant share of the media coverage, part of what Teddy Roosevelt meant when he first coined the term, “Bully Pulpit.” But no matter how much the President speaks, he has no official power over congress, and members of congress are free to ignore him as they see fit. Further, the concept of the Bully Pulpit has become eroded if not evaporated completely. With the media structure as it is today, the words of the President don’t have a particularly special place. They don’t necessarily drown out anyone’s voice. We are living in the age where a half-term governor can gain more headlines than the President of the United States based on a faux controversy about a hair dresser.
No, all legislative power belongs in congress, and even that is tricky. Both houses of congress are paliamentary structures with a frame work of rules and regulations that can be dizzying. The most controversial of these is the Senatorial Filibuster which is actually not a rule so much as the exploitation of a rule which allows for indefinite debate. When it comes to championing legislation it is here, in these two houses beset with sometimes insane rules, where one must focus attention. It is the filibuster that should take up a weighty portion of the calculus. And understanding this dynamic and learning to work around it or at least alter the playing field to one’s needs should be the prime focus. (I’ll most likely have to express my thoughts on the filibuster at a later date)
The best way to provide forward momentum is through controlling legislation which means controlling congress which means…
Electoral Politics: We need to double down in a serious way on the fifty-state strategy, and I think liberals and progressives got away from this specifically out of disgust with blue dogs. But here’s the thing, you don’t just gain nothing by losing, but you actually lose ground more often than not. One of the most infuriating concepts to a pragmatist should be the concept of a protest vote (that is: voting against your own party or ideological movement because they did not adhere to a certain level of ideological purity).
In the house, a simple majority is necessary to forward legislation most of the time. In the Senate, the magic number is sixty votes. There was much excitement from the left because in 2008, it was believed that the Democratic party achieved both of these very important milestones. But the problem, as we would soon find out, is that not all Democrats vote lockstep (which we will discuss in more detail soon enough). If you want your agenda to be unimpeachable through congress, you need significantly more seats than the minimum required to pass any given bill simply because you will lose some from one bill to the next depending upon the nuances of the issues involved.
This, therefore, doesn’t call for a narrower tent, but instead a wider one. At the same time progressives started calling for the heads of so-called Blue Dogs, liberal and Democratic activists should have been helping more get elected because of…
Demographics, Regional Preference: This is more of a continuation to the last point, but significant enough to warrant its own discussion.
In the great attempted purging of Blue Dog Democrats of 2010, it was clear that progressive activists were angered by Democratic politicians not voting with the party on key legislation. Most notably, of course, was the case of the Public Option which ultimately didn’t survive into the final Healthcare Reform due in no small part to the lack of support from certain congressional Democrats.
And it feels good to demonize these folks, just like it does to demonize every Democrat that votes against your bill ever. I did it when my congressman failed to vote for Healthcare Reform. But when all was said and done, I went and cast my ballot for him anyway, because of where I live.
Blue Dogs, those Democrats, often from the South, that tend to tack more conservative than the rest of the party, have their role to play, and it’s an important one. The key thing to remember about Blue Dogs is that you aren’t going to get their support on every vote. In fact, the more Blue Dogs you have, the more Blue Dogs you need in keeping with the last bullet point discussed. But they are vital nevertheless because they tend to be the only kind of Democrat that could hope to get elected in their district.
Which gets us into the meet of demographics and regional preference. To listen to liberal commentators is to ultimately come to the conclusion that everyone in America that doesn’t religiously watch Glenn Beck is a liberal just waiting to shine. This isn’t true. In fact, it’s very very far from true. As I pointed out in the overly long preamble to this post, liberals almost always face an uphill battle.
And when we get into pushing legislation through congress, or electing people to congress, we have to realize that the demographic make up of a region will significantly affect the type of person that can be elected in that region. Sure, if you get a conservative Democrat elected to represent San Francisco’s district, that person could and probably should be primaried and replaced with a far more liberal Democrat (actually, this is at least for the time being moot considering this would be the district currently represented by Madame Pelosi). But, let’s take the Virginia 2nd District. It was held for twenty-six years by Republicans; Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore being made up of a significantly conservative population. As a result, electing a Democrat that won’t always vote the party line is perfectly acceptable.
This is so because he’ll still vote with the party on lots of other things, that and the alternative is much worse. Think about it this way, given the demographics of their district, every Blue Dog you curse and would work to defeat would probably be replaced not by their more liberal primary opponent, but instead by a significantly more conservative Republican general election opponent. Given the state of today’s Republican party and Conservative movement, I’ll take the Blue Dog any day of the week.
Looking and understanding Demographics is important not just in electoral politics, but also in understanding how our politicians act once in office. It’s easy to get frustrated when our elected officials don’t do what we want, after all, we’re their bosses. But far too often the people who shout, “You work for US!” really only mean, “You work for ME!” The “ME” can mean “US” but only if you hold the same beliefs as “ME”. As pragmatists, we have to look at the greater picture and understand that every politician doesn’t just represent the ideological base that put them there. President Obama is not merely the president of the progressive movement; his constituency includes every citizen in the country, whether they voted for him, agree with him, or even spend most of their waking hours calling him an Evil Communist Muslim Terrorist. I know it would feel cathartic to ignore these people, but as unpleasant as it sounds, elected officials do represent them as well.
Criticism vs. Destruction: At this juncture I just want to make the point that progressives need to learn how to criticize their own. I don’t think we know how to criticize without destroying. We don’t know how to say someone could do something better without going off the deep end and calling for someone’s ouster. This does not help anything.
Reconciling with Compromise: Liberals aren’t the only victims here. We’ve allowed our political system to devolve to the point where compromise is indistinguishable from capitulation, and considered a sign of weakness. And yet, the only way to fairly and effectively govern a pluralistic society is to do so through compromise. Thus we have engineered the guarantee of our own failure.
That political alliance which has rediscovered the art of compromise and engages in it without shame is the political alliance that will forge a path of success in the future.
Objectivity: Another concept that needs to be infused with the progressive movement. In short, look at the final scoreboard to determine the efficacy of your agenda, don’t look at anything else.
I remember when the Healthcare Debate was at its hottest, and I remember going to a lot of different sources to read up on opinion and whatnot. Of course, liberal blogger Jane Hamsher experienced a meteoric rise as she early on staked a vocal and destructive stance against the President and Congressional Dems unless Healthcare Reform included the much lauded Public Option. But what I will never forget is in all the opinions I read over there, one thing was clear; a lot of people were very angry because the bill didn’t punish insurance companies enough. Now I will probably write more extensively about the way we view corporations later, but for now, what struck me was that here was a vocal and active portion of the liberal base that was ready to spare no tactic going to war not necessarily because the bill fell short of helping people, but instead because it didn’t hurt insurance companies enough.
Simply put, this is a ludicrous stance to take. Objectively, the healthcare bill helps people. It is, ultimately, a net positive. And there is nothing, literally nothing, preventing progressive activists from building on the achievement at a later date.
Objectivity, in truth, is something that should spread throughout the foundation of Pragmatic Liberalism. It should color the way we look at electoral politics, seeing the electorate the way it is instead of seeing it as some closeted liberal wonderland just waiting for the right liberal Moses to show it the way from Fox News Egypt. It should temper the way we look at the way bills are created, and where the fulcrums of power truly lie, and how to lean on them just right. Objectivity should tell us that Blue Dogs have their place, and that, as long as you adequately account for their behavior, they can be an integral part of a long lasting progressive agenda. Finally, Objectivity should inform us that there’s never an end.
This last thought is one that struck me reading an article from Paul Krugman, who, lambasting the most recent Tax Compromise, revealed that this compromise isn’t the end, as though this were some great surprise. Seeing the world for what it is, we should know that there is always something that comes after, and in fact this is the greatest argument for slow, deliberate pragmatism.
Each moment, each political event should be viewed as nothing but a foundation for future achievement. This is the core of the wrong headedness of those like Hamsher that abandoned the president over Healthcare reform. These folks act as though there can never be more Healthcare legislation ever again until the end of humanity. In truth, failure to passage would have resulted in no improvements to our current system and would have had the added effect of taking Healthcare Reform off the table for potentially decades (as we saw happen the last time it was attempted). Instead of that disaster we got help for lots of people now, and there’s no law saying we can’t come back to healthcare in the future and work on important things like the Public Option.
Objectively, each political event is foundation for the future, and it would behoove liberals and progressives to come to grips with that. We need to stop acting as though every bill is the swan song of that topic, and start realizing that most legislation can and should be treated as a stepping stone to success. We must begin to see that progress, no matter how small, is still movement in the right direction. Given our nation’s ideological and political make up, sometimes not moving at all is still, figuratively speaking, moving in the right direction.
Conclusion (for now): Ronald Reagan has been deified by modern Republicans and conservatives (despite, one must admit, a record that doesn’t live up to the canonization). For progressives and liberals, it’s hard to find much of anything of worth from his administration, but there has always been one thing that I have respected and admired about him. It’s his eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not harm thy fellow Republicans.
I think this is something that liberals (let’s face it, I find no necessity to differentiate progressives at this juncture) would do well to internalize. Thou shalt not harm thy fellow members left of center. We are proud of our individualism. We are proud of how quick we are to argue and debate and call out our own side if we think they are wrong. And, to a certain extent, this can be a good thing, but our romanticization of this… instinct has created within us our own worst enemy. There should have been no conceivable way for Republicans to have regained power this quickly, none, but they did, thanks in large part to the tendency of the left to cannibalize itself.
And in harming our own, in trashing a president who has objectively done much for progressive goals, in severing blue dogs who are perhaps the last stronghold against extremist conservative candidates, in doing all these things we willingly cede our own power. Because we can’t criticize without demonizing, because our integrity and principles are more important than any tangible result, we end up setting fire to that which we build, and we salt the earth to prevent anything growing their again.
It’s a pity, really. Because I think when all is said and done, too many liberal activists think the game of politics is somehow beneath them, or not worth playing. And so, instead of learning to play by the rules, they would rather upset the board and say the game isn’t fair. The problem is, very rarely, if at all, does anything get done this way, when, instead, if we would all learn how to play we could really start seeing some progress.
Maybe, if the liberal movement took a long hard look at itself, embracing pragmatism, embracing the myriad systems through which we govern ourselves, maybe, if we could stop cursing the darkness long enough to light even the dimmest candle, well, then maybe we could set ourselves on a path of continued success. And if we manage that, then, maybe, we might have earned for ourselves the right to actually be called progressives.