Things progressives can do


From our overstocked archives, Although this was written over a quarter century ago, it still describes some of the hurdles that progressives find difficult to get over.

Sam Smith, 1989

1. Get an agenda: One of the reasons that George Bush was able to define liberalism his way was because liberals hadn’t done it first. In recent years political progressives have made no serious attempt to sit down and decide upon an agenda. If progressives can’t state clearly what they believe in, who can blame the public for being confused? There is a need for a progressive platform, preferably one that can be written on one side of a sheet of paper.

Since the sixties there has been a tremendous splintering of progressives into groups specializing in a single issue or a cluster of single issues. This has produced a high level of expertise on these issues, raised the national consciousness on many of them, and provided a cadre capable of writing and criticizing legislation. The bad side-effect has been that progressives have forgotten how to work in coalition with one another and seem incapable of providing a holistic vision of that for which they are striving. Like G. K. Chesterton’s description of liberals, they can’t lead; they won’t follow and they refuse to cooperate.

An annual conference at which progressive organizations came up with, say, a 12-item agenda would let someone other than the right define what it is that we are about..

2. Don’t be afraid of popular issues: One of the striking differences between old-style liberals and new-style progressives is that the former had a knack of finding popular issues. With a few exceptions, such as environmental issues, contemporary progressives feel almost guilty if they get involved in anything that will take less than years of activism to win general support. This is not to say that unpopular causes should be avoided, but simply to suggest that it is okay to leaven the difficult and the controversial with things people want. If we had done so over the past few years, we would be hearing today much more about national health care and less about abortion, more about housing and less about gun control, and more about leveraged buy-outs and less about furlough programs. The game is not only to win the national debate but to determine what the national debate is about.

3. Describe a future worth fighting for: Optimism is deeply ingrained in American culture. Progressives are in a tough spot in this regard, because they tend to bring America the bad news.

And America, in the classic tradition, kills them for it. We need a lot more skill in motivating people to correct what’s wrong without simultaneously casting a pall over their vision of the future.

Progressives should not surrender optimism to the reactionaries. Thomas Jefferson said, “My theory has always been that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair.” And it was the Democrats, after all, in the runaway election year of 1936, who labelled Republicans as “disciples of despair” floundering in a “fountain of fear.” Roosevelt himself got considerable mileage by the unsupported assertion that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. More recently, one of the characteristics of the sixties was its vibrant, if unrealistic, vision of the future. It wasn’t just the demonstrations that changed things; it was the dream of an Age of Aquarius.

4. Go for redemption before recrimination: Andy Young went to South Africa back in the seventies and was roundly criticized for it. In response, he recalled what Martin Luther King had said about segregationists in the south: you had to work on the assumption that one day you would be friends with the people against whom you were fighting. The south is a much healthier place today because King believed in redemption in politics as well as religion. Progressives have to fight so hard to win that they sometimes forget that the antagonists are, in the end just wrong, a universal, if disappointing, human trait. Thinking of those opposed to us as potential converts rather than certain enemies may increase the former and lessen the latter.

5. Speak United States: This dictum was delivered by my high school math teacher, Herman Breuniger, whenever we would offer a garbled or jargon-ridden comment. I think of it often in this city where so many, including progressives, speak in the artificial tongues of governmentese, poligabble and media slang. The people we are trying to convince speak United States; it helps to talk the same language.

6.Think symbolically: Progressives are too rational for their own good. They are living in an age in which symbolism rules the world and they keep spewing out data instead of dreams. Michael Dukakis ran through his supply of images with his dilapidated snow blower and the public soon lost interest. Politics at its best has always contained a healthy helping of theater, but many progressives seem determined to leave show business to the reactionaries. No wonder so many progressive acts close on opening night.

7. Don’t fight your own kind: The progressive movement is one of the few organisms that feeds on its own parts. The left has a long tradition of acting as though it believed a day without schisms was like a day without sunshine. In fact, progressives have enough problems from reactionaries, conservatives and extremist moderates without fighting amongst themselves as well.

8. Don’t be too pure: It’s okay to be a saint but don’t expect many others to follow you into self-deprivation, moral perfection, supererogation or martyrdom. A handful of Ralph Naders and Mitch Snyders is all the movement needs. Be happy if someone votes the right way, writes the letter you want or shows up for the meeting. And if you find some anti-abortionists who are against our policy in Central America, don’t knock them; put them on a committee.

Progressives need a constituency not disciples. Besides, most people aren’t as interested hi this stuff as you are.

They’re like Oscar Wilde, who said he could never become a socialist because he liked to keep his evenings free.

9. Be frugal: Both liberals and conservatives spend too much money on the wrong things — when they are in office.

But the liberals get 99% of the rap. Here is another case of the left stipulating a conservative definition. Frugality, at the moment, is an untouched political field. Progressives need to shuck the assumption that spending money in the name of something is the same as spending money for something.

Billions are spent by Washington in the name of good causes; considerably less actually serves those causes. A number of states have dealt with this problem as it applies to charities, placing a limit on the bureaucratic overhead a non-profit can have and still claim tax-exemption.

Progressives should seek a similar standard for government.

It could cause a recession in Washington but would easily mean more money for housing, health, farmers and so forth.

Few things would change the popular impression of progressives more than if they would begin to concern themselves with the efficient use of the taxpayers’ dollars.

10. Think small: The large federal government has done wonderful things for America, but it doesn’t follow that it gets better as it gets bigger, or that there aren’t other ways to do wonderful things. Progressives need to shed their preoccupation with the federal government. Progressives should encourage decentralization of the federal government, should seek to empower neighborhoods, smaller towns and communities; and find ways of bringing small business into the progressive fold. These are important constituencies that neither Democrats nor Republicans have vigorously sought as yet..

11. Think Green: The Green movement is the most important new political philosophy since the advent of the social welfare state. The green principles of democracy, social responsibility, ecological wisdom, decentralization, peace and human decency are already having an indirect effect on people as distant as George Bush, who keeps insisting he’s going to be not only kinder and gentler but an environmentalist to boot. He didn’t dream this up; his marketing office told him that’s what America wants.

Strangely, the Green gestalt has made minimal headway among many traditional progressives who continue to see politics as a continuation of the New Deal/Frontier or the Great Society. The philosophical paradigm of the world is undergoing a massive change and the Greens are the first to integrate this change into a philosophy that makes profound sense. A progressive movement that is going to make a difference is going to be also a green movement.

12. Rescue patriotism: Many of the most familiar symbols of patriotism have been seized by the right. But the substance of patriotism, interestingly, is largely downplayed or ignored. The republic, for example, comes in second to the flag in the pledge of allegiance. The left prefers not to discuss the subject at all and, as a result, tends to encourage intimations of crypto-sedition.

There are, however, ways of discussing and symbolizing love of country without the hypocrisy and cant  of an American right that practices the cynical wisdom of Hermann Goering: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders… All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.” Years ago, Woodrow Wilson, speaking to a group of newly Americanized citizens, said that they were pledging allegiance not to a particular set of laws, not to a flag, not to one administration or even to the American government in general. They were pledging allegiance to a set of ideals that are particularly American.

Progressives tend to ignore the wealth of American history that could provide anecdotal, symbolic and substantive support for their positions. In the warehouse of the American past lies a vast array of tools for the contemporary activist, largely unused. This is, I suspect, in part due to a rejection of history because of the wrongs that occurred during it, but the creative calling upon the past is an extremely effective way of reminding people that one is very much in the American tradition. One of best speeches of the last campaign was delivered by Mario Cuomo in Texas. He gave a five minute history of Texas neatly edited to support his own vision of the future, easing the transition for his audience from what they already knew to what he hoped they would learn.

Finally, progressives can meet the flag-wavers with their own symbolism. The progressive symbol of love of country could be the land itself. We should use photographs and graphics that suggest the physical magnificence of America and we could adopt such songs as America the Beautiful and This Land Is Your Land as the patriotic songs of the progressive movement.

 Far more than the flag, the land itself is the primal symbol of America and at a time when we need to save that land from rampant destruction, using that symbol would remind people of that need, and by extension, of a similar need throughout the world..

13. Be serious, not solemn: Russell Baker once pointed out that Americans had forgotten the difference between being solemn and being serious. Many progressives suffer from this confusion. Remember that Emma Goldman, a serious radical, once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”



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