The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Progressives: Making Progress or Points?
Something-Or-Nothing vs. All-Or-Nothing


In the United States (as opposed to most other democratic nations on earth) we tend to have a pretty one-dimensional political spectrum. There is a bit of two-dimensionality about it, and nobody fits entirely into one category (and in fact some fit two or more, depending on the issue), but basically it looks like this:

There are extreme right-wing radicals.
There are libertarians.
There are conservatives.
There are right-leaning moderates.
There are centrists.
There are left-leaning moderates.
There are liberals.
There are progressives.
There are extreme left-wing radicals.

(By the way, these are not my terms; these are definitions provided by most political science texts).

The terminology of "extreme" and "radical" seems easy to nit-pick... it's all a matter of opinion, right? Not really. The key characteristic that most social scientists use when applying the "extreme" and "radical" labels to the political spectrum is based on two measures:

1) "Extreme" is based on the size of the population per capita that hold such beliefs, and;
2) "Radical" is based on the rigidity of the beliefs (ie. ideological purism)

What this means is that those who fit either end of the spectrum and earn the labels of "extreme" and "radical" are people who represent a tiny minority that is uncompromisingly hidebound to their beliefs. They see any deviation from ideological purity as (at best) selling out or (at worst) treason. They refuse to believe, or even deeply investigate, explanations that do not fit within their worldview. They eject anyone from their "inner circle" who openly disagrees with the circle's views (or who accepts the views of those outside of the circle). They are easily convinced that there are "those in power" who seek to "squash" their "movement" or ideas, and the most radical tend to encompass the realms holding the highest concentrations of conspiracy theorists.

Trust me, this little political science lecture really does have a point; before I get there, though, let me indulge in pointing out where I think things have gone horribly wrong.



I have listened carefully to the arguments presented by well-respected leaders within the Progressive Movement who argued strenuously against passing the new health insurance reform bill. I have read the links, the articles, the interviews, and pros and cons. Many of the arguments are very impressive and quite detailed, some tend towards the passionate and away from the factual. But none of it is convincing me that some of the folks on the Left who opposed passing this bill give more than lip-service empathy about what's going to actually happen to PEOPLE.

Here's why:

Every argument I've heard from the Left's "kill the bill" folks is that this is a huge giveaway to insurance and Big Pharma. That Congress-Critters will be filling their pockets and glad-handing themselves over how they got away with another big handout to the corporations. That anything that does anything good for people is only going to empower the corporations more.

Strangely, I hear very little, and nearly nothing specific, about the good things that will happen for real people when the bill's provisions take effect. If anything, even many of the good things are twisted around to actually seem bad... a "sop for the masses", "doesn't go far enough", or even that they will backfire and actually turn into a monstrous hundred-headed hydra upon the American people.

In fact, I hardly hear a peep about the affect the bill will have on your average, normal citizen. Some breast-beating about premium costs going up (which is not necessarily accurate, more of a wait-and-see issue) and that individuals won't get the benefits of ending pre-existing conditions and recissions for many years (largely true, except for certain groups like children). Overall, I have heard lots and lots about corporate giveaways and the power of corporations: little about people.

So I've studied this issue over the last few weeks as the final versions of the bill got hammered out and we got closer to passage, and I have seen this recurring theme:

"It lines the pockets of the powerful and political, therefore it is bad. That's all you need to know; what else is important?"

In some extremes, I've even had it more plainly spelled out: "We've got to HURT these soulless, heartless corporations. They're evil incarnate. We must damage them utterly. Down with the corporate overlords!"

It has seemed to me, from all of the rhetoric on the Left's "kill the bill" side, that they are far more concerned with making an example of corporations than actually helping people. It comes across as a 21st Century version of the hippie era's "sticking it to the man"... making a political point for ideological reasons is more important than anything else (including making any kind of actual progress).

And that's just as heartless, just as soulless, just as evil as the corporations supposedly are being. It is holding an entire nation of people in dire need hostage to a political ideology... for no other reason than to prove a point.


I was in conversation concerning the recent health insurance reform bill with a friend who eagerly and angrily denounced people like Dennis Kucinich, Anthony Weiner, Alan Grayson, Michael Moore, Dr. Howard Dean, and others as "corporatists" "sell-outs" and "back-stabbing charlatans". These leaders, who had been on the front lines for single-payer healthcare, who had reluctantly agreed that a public option compromise would be better than nothing, and finally in the end supported the final bills because they at least provided a stepping stone towards future changes that probably wouldn't come again for a generation, were, in my friend's opinion, "no better than Republicans" and had "caved".

When someone tells you that everyone who formerly fought for their cause but now has decided to accept compromises that move us forward is a sell-out or traitor, you are hearing the words of an "extreme radical". On the Left, it is most certainly NOT the mark of a liberal/progressive. Why? Because both liberals and progressives know when to keep fighting even against all odds, and when to make peace and accept the ground they've won. That is, by definition, what "progressive" means. "Extreme radicals", on the other hand, will continue the battle to the last person standing, set fire to any form of truce or peace treaty, and send any fellow warrior who even suggests accepting a reduced form of the prize to the firing squad.

It should also be noted that those who slip from either the far-left or the far-right into the "extreme radical" category join a very small and very exclusionary club, which only serves to drive away anyone else who is more readily accepting of compromise and mutual agreement between rivals.

Which makes it really odd to hear these folks who are either headed in that direction or already there call themselves "Progressives". They're not. They are the left-wing version of the Tea Party. Progressives, as the term would suggest, seek progress, and are willing to achieve it over time, not demand it all now, all at once, exactly as prescribed, or no deal.

I am a progressive. I believe in making progress, not making political "points" that achieve nothing. I believe it takes time, effort, and perseverance to do so. I believe it takes convincing people, not shouting them down, and that to do so requires a willingness to accept that even if they hold opposing views, it doesn't necessarily make them wrong, it means I need to educate them. I believe it requires patience, and an real understanding of history and the political process (both of which are a lot messier and more complicated than most of us understand).

If you believe that it is unthinkable to accept compromise and be willing to accept that we may have to take this step-by-step over many years; if you believe that passing no HCR bill was preferable to passing a flawed bill even though it helps 32 million people and ends some of the worst practices of our current health-scare system; if you believe that anyone who disagrees with you is a sell-out or at best a mindless automaton of the corporate state; if you believe these things, then you are NOT a Progressive, you are an extreme left-wing radical.

If you believe these things, then you are in the margins of society, you have given up your right to be taken seriously along with your willingness to compromise, and you will never see those things happen in this country that you and we so strongly desire. We will never achieve these things, because by continuing to identify yourselves as "Progressives" when in truth you are not willing to accept "progress" but only "All Or Nothing", you are Fifth Columnists within the Progressive Movement; you are using your small numbers and remaining influence to disrupt, damage, or kill the efforts of those less rigid than yourselves, hurting us all as a nation and a people by trying to blend your more radical message along with ours.

You have forgotten that political change is about helping REAL PEOPLE, not a CAUSE.

So please either stop the radicalization, or stop pretending you're Progressives. We'd prefer the former, so that we can work together on meeting the enormous challenges we all face today; but if not, then get out of our way and quit sabotaging our efforts to improve the lives of millions of people in America.

1 comment:

Freedem said...

In observing the so called political spectrum I have recently managed to see something very interesting.

Having followed the work of George Lakoff, and his distinction between the Strong Father and Nurturant Parent families as a basis for governance, and Bob Altemeyer's observations about authoritarians and how those on the left do not get along well with the rest, while those on the right are readily embraced.

By applying what I have come to call the Lakoff razor (after Occam) the spectrum ends up looking very different. The "extreme" "left" gets more heroic figures like Gandhi, or MLK, and the authoritarian mindset of what was either end arrive at the far "right" where the names change but the policies are very similar, much as the cults of Islamist, and Domionist have far more in common than differences, though they would have you think they were opposites.

There are many frames that Progressives need to break and escape, but the old Left/Right or State vs Individual that is also pushed need reframing as much as any.