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The problem with "progressive"

As the right flexes its muscles in Washington, putting the screws to the American middle class, the left is still wondering why so many working families in the heartland continue to support Republican candidates. As a left-wing agrarian, I offer some modest commentary upon the failures of the American left.

Berkeley scholar Lillian B. Rubin (via A&L Daily) rejects the "Thomas Frank" approach, which she says blames voters for their failure to understand their own interests. (On Frank, see Steve Sanders.) Instead, Rubin explains the left's failure with what I'll call, perhaps unfairly, the "Joe Lieberman," the "DLC," or the "David Brooks" approach. Basically, the left is in the weeds because of its insistence on political correctness and its unwillingness to listen carefully to its critics.

Rubin's piece is much better than I'm making it sound. She is correct that the left's infatuation with political correctness (if not with identity politics generally) has been crippling. She does not, as do Brooks and Lieberman and others of their ilk, suggest that the left should back away from its fundamental positions and compromise with the fundamentalist right.

However, I do think Rubin fails to explain why the left has been so ineffectual. After all, the right has made the exact same mistakes, but it has not been made to pay for them. Why? The right's pet mantras inaccurately describe reality (just like the left's), and the right-wingers have perfected the art of selective deafness to citizens' concerns (perhaps more so than the left). I'm looking to solve the symmetry problem here, folks: I want an explanation of the left's failures that explains why the right's identical behavior hasn't led it into the same trap.

Here's my own best guess. We start by assuming that the majority of people want stability first, and improvement second. No sense putting the cart before the horse, we say.

Next, we recognize that the past few decades have been enormously unstable. Social norms have been revolutionized by the liberation movements of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The economy has been revolutionized by globalization, technology, and massive deregulation. This instability has been severe enough to lead the majority of people to focus most intensely on security, and much less so on innovation. (See, for example, this book.)

Finally, we note that while both the left and the right have recognized this instability and have tried to address the need for stability and security, they've talked about it in different ways. Very simply, the right has told us that they support stability. The left hasn't talked about it as much.

The right has made preservation and continuity the centerpiece of their rhetoric, while the left has continued to rely on the rhetoric of change and improvement. Both sides have, of course, continued to work for the kind of changes that they prefer. But while the right has described this work as "preservation" (of tradition, of morality), the left has continued to describe their work as "progressive." People don't want progress until they feel secure. They don't want to fall two steps back with each step forward.

I'm not saying that both sides haven't talked about change and progress. I'm saying that the left has emphasized it more than the right has. I'm also not saying that the left hasn't talked about preservation of worthy things from our past; I'm only saying that the right has talked about it more. Much more.

If I'm right, both about what voters want, and about what the left and right have been saying, the next steps are obvious.* The left must talk more about stability and security. This does not mean that it must talk about "traditional values" as they've been defined by the right. Instead, they need to talk about protecting the nation from the radical changes that the fundamentalist right is proscribing: removing economic security, aggressively eroding local communities in favor of corporate-style globalization, polluting our entertainment culture with Rupert Murdoch-style crap like Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity.

They can do all of this without, as the Clintonistas at the DLC suggest, surrendering their commitment to equal rights, protection of the disadvantaged, etc. The right has demonstrated that radical changes can be sold as tradition. Perhaps a fairer way of putting this is that all the innovations pushed by the right wing have been justified by appealing to their connection with tradition: the tradition of family, the tradition of personal responsibility, the tradition of authority.

The left's innovations are also connected to tradition: the tradition of human dignity, the tradition of autonomy, the tradition of justice.

It's not a matter of deceiving anyone. It's just a matter of recognizing that the rhetoric of "progressiveness" isn't going to carry you very far when people are watching the world collapse around them.


It's been said in many different ways, but as long as the Democrats are popularly perceived to be the party of gay marriage, inner-city minorities, and the ACLU, they will be a minority party. The best solution (in the spirit of the politburo) is to dissolve the people and elect a new one, which as flippant as it sounds, is precisely why so many on the left favor unfettered immigration.

There's a great article in the current issue of the Atlantic by a guy on the editorial board of The Nation. He criticizes the Democratic leadership, and the progressives generally, for focusing almost exclusively on cultural issues. At the same time, he says, they've mostly pandered to the corporations on economic issues, so they've utterly ignored any kind of economic populism whatsoever. Result: their entire message is culturally elitist, whereas the Republicans have a message that's economically elitist and culturally populist.

Frankly, I think that if the Dems would counter this with a "culturally elitist" AND economically populist message, they'd get the votes they need to put them over the top, without giving up on many of the things they care about.

But that would require that they quit pandering to corporate interests, which they're unlikely to do anytime soon.