The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Progressive Purity Test is No 'Revolution'

A Progressive Revolution. I admit it's an enticing thought; we NEED some kind of non-violent, progressive revolution in this country to return power to the electorate instead of the monied interests and career politicians. However, as JFK said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable", and we are increasingly finding it difficult to effect revolutionary change through peaceful means with corporations and their paid puppets running just about every level of national government, including voting. The system is rigged, those who rigged the system are in charge, and many people on the left are feeling as though we had better get our groove on fast or we'll lose the whole thing. I tend to agree with this position, but it seems that many want to take it further: they consider the system too broken to fix, and want to bypass efforts to work with what is left of it and just start a real-live revolution... "Damn the torpedos!" style.

American Revolution Drummers

Not to bore anyone, but I think a little bit of history is in order. We all know the story of the American Revolution: the oppressive British monarchy finally goaded Colonials too far, and the 1775 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" set off a battle that finally resulted in freedom from British rule. What most folks tend to gloss over, if they even know it at all, is that in the decades leading up to the revolt, the Colonial government repeatedly tried to "work the system from within". Representatives made the long ocean voyage back and forth many times trying to get the King and Parliament to see things their way. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often not. And more importantly, EVEN AFTER THE FIGHTING BEGAN, there were still attempts to work within the system, to bring about a peaceful settlement. It was only after such attempts were rebuffed and more and more violent acts by the British and their hired mercenaries occurred that such attempts slowed to a crawl; independence became the goal, rather than remaining under colonial rule. Even so, diplomatic efforts continued and even increased once France and others joined the American cause. Eventually, as we all know, the war ended and our country was born.

One lesson I take from this is that while many actively desired a clean break from British rule, many others were not quite so quick to want such dramatic change. For some it was loyalty; for others it was economics and business; and for others, it was simply that though things weren't all that great, they weren't all that bad, either. In other words, it wasn't a revolution made up of revolutionaries, it was a revolution made up of enough people who agreed with certain goals or ideas that they were willing to work together, even if they disagreed with, or were ambivalent to, some of the other goals or ideas held by their fellows.

We're fast approaching something similar in our time. The frustration among many progressives over what seems to be blatant corruption and systemic failure of our democracy at every turn has led to a number of calls for a Progressive Revolution, which may not sound like anything new, but there is increased pressure given today's severe problems to do SOMETHING. This frustration often turns against itself, however; many progressives, growing impatient for change, call for progressives to "throw out the bums": mainstream liberals, moderates, or even "pragmatic" progressives who seek change through incremental or "within the system" means.

The only problem with exclusionary rhetoric is that progressives NEED liberals, moderates, and "pragmatic" progressives in the same boat, not cast overboard. Just like in the American Revolution, there just aren't enough progressives in the entire United States, even if they were gathered in one place, to effect any real change based solely on "pure" progressive idealism. We spend a lot of time in our progressive echo chambers patting each other on the back and thinking we're part of a huge movement, listening to Thom Hartmann or watching KO and Rachel and getting all fired up, but if we were really that numerous we'd have no problem enacting changes like real universal single-payer healthcare, stopping the wars, repealing DOMA and DADT, implementing same-sex marriage, ending corporatism, enacting real climate change reforms, etc. Compared to the overall United States adult population, though, we're just a handful. We NEED others who at least agree in part with our goals and ideas to get anything accomplished.

And in today's gilded age of Internet Activism, getting enough people out from in front of their computer screens and marching in person in the streets, and especially in the National Mall in D.C. is a real challenge. When hundreds of thousands showed up to protest Vietnam, not for one big event but on a regular basis; when the Million Man March filled up the Mall; when President Obama was inaugurated and there wasn't a patch of grass more than a foot across without someone standing on it... that's the kind of real activism that gets national attention. If you gathered all the progressives in the nation in one big march, you would have the largest such march in history; but logistically, that simply isn't going to happen. And unless we as progressives work to reach out to, rather than exclude, mainstream liberals, moderates, and those among us who are more "pragmatic", then we never will have such a march... or anything even approximating it.

Which is why I choose to work with, even if grudgingly, the "incrementalists" and "work the system from within" folks. Because they outnumber us ten to one, for one thing... and because by doing so, we can pull more and more of them into the progressive camp rather than excluding them and making them see us as too radical, too "noisy", to work with. For moderates and most liberals, progressives have, until recently, been seen as the "looney fringe". But we're achieving some inroads into becoming "mainstream".

And that goal is being met without anything we're doing as progressives, per se; outside forces are doing much of the work for us. The economy continuing to trudge along precariously, more and more jobs still being lost, globalization and free trade agreements sapping what jobs are left, corporate money blatantly corrupting politics, a healthcare crisis that doesn't seem to have any end, a housing crisis that shows no sign of recovery, and on and on. All of these are helping people see that our progressive message, that "IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY", makes more and more sense, and they are able to break out of their status-quo thinking. Once they do, even if they don't become overnight progressives, they find themselves willing to support progressive causes.

But when some of us continue the rhetoric of "FU, we don't need you, you worthless sheeple" (as is the implied (and sometimes explicit) message being put out by many on the left), it shuts down this process and leaves potential allies seeing all progressives as, once again, the "looney fringe".

The Progressive Revolution, to succeed, will require people from all camps, and all across the spectrum, to come together and work for change. If they disagree in part, that's fine, as long as they support the overall goal. As in the American Revolution, we might have our equivalent of Jeffersonians on one side and Hamiltonians on the other, but they managed to work together, and so can progressives, "pragmatic" progressives, liberals, moderates, and perhaps even some conservatives and libertarians. Calls by some to "purify" progressivism will only lead to a complete failure of the progressive cause, just as efforts by conservatives to "purify" the GOP are leading to its irrelevance and imminent demise. The trite but true statement that "there is strength in numbers" has never been more true than today; but some progressives who call for a purity test, instant rather than incremental change, and working outside the system threaten to sap the growing strength of the progressive cause.

So it's no capitulation to progressive ideals and goals to "work the system from within"... it is in fact the only way that we will ever get enough people in this country over to our side. Without it, we will continue to be nothing but a tiny handful of folks on the left who want fundamental change in our government, but who are too intransigent to be seen as viable partners in enacting change by the vast majority of the rest of the country. Exclusionary rhetoric will ensure that our message is lost, and that our country will continue the slide into corporate fascism while a growing majority of Americans lose themselves to reality shows, mindless entertainment, and the meaningless, powerless distractions of partisan bickering.

For a revolutionary movement to succeed, it must have the people on its side. And that only comes about when we are willing to accept that some who join our cause may not agree with us on everything, or perhaps may even oppose us on many things. What is important is that our goals are clear, our methods are understandable and focused, and our message is inclusive.

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