I’ve considered myself a Progressive for a long time, even though, sadly, the label has rarely felt like something to boast about freely. Quite the opposite actually; even in a group of friendlies I find myself almost waiting for a safe word or secret handshake before offering up my thoughts on politics, like how I believe in the power of a properly run, proactive government to improve the quality of life of its citizens. I know I’m not alone in this. So many Conservatives are more than happy to tell you who they are and what they stand for, even if you hadn’t bothered to show any interest. Why can’t Progressives be just as bold? I mean, we’re not talking about praising something clearly detestable like Communism, where the government simply takes everything away from its people; we’re talking about a government investing in its people so that the citizens can reap the dividends. How is believing in the government that you participate in not something to speak about proudly? How is believing in the potential of your fellow human beings not something to declare with full voice, without hesitation or reservation?
Despite a long history of truly American success stories, Progressives have somehow been convinced that there is reason to be timid about expressing what we believe. Surely this is an intended consequence of the Conservative media machine, and their decades-long campaign against the Progressive philosophy. And that media machine has been doing what it had to do, because Conservative ideology by itself has proven to have serious flaws. Without a means of perpetual messaging (read: brainwashing), those flaws would be obvious, and Conservatism would quickly become unpopular and morally unappealing. (Which is why there has been a war on facts – because the facts about Conservatism would naturally bring about its demise.)
Did you know that traditional Conservatism relies on the principle of hierarchy? The foundation of Conservatism is based on society needing different classes of people – a hierarchy – to maintain order and function properly (basically the polar opposite of equality for all). Think of the caste system in India, but much more subtle, and held together by a propagated message of “this is the way things have always been, so that’s the way they should stay.” A system based on this way of thinking clearly runs counter to empowering people fighting to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder.
The natural extension of that reliance on hierarchy is the development of the “trickle-down” economic theory, which has become integral to Conservative and Republican agendas. Without a government-supported class of elites, this theory can’t work. (The historical data prove it doesn’t work anyway.) Here is a link to a great article by Gwynn Guilford about the flaws in “trickle-down” thinking, including its history of being conjured up by a man strong on narrative but very weak on the use of actual economic data: https://qz.com/895785/laffer-curve-everything-trump-and-republicans-get-wrong-about-trickle-down-economics-and-reaganomics/.
In order to win with such a weak hand, the Conservative strategy had to include a merciless campaign of discrediting all other philosophies, including the ones that allow for a rational, human-centered, egalitarian way to govern.
I believe the success of Conservative media has been from convincing people that there are (and have to be) social classes, and that they belong to the privileged class (if you’re watching us, you must be part of our class of elites and people in the know!). Meanwhile, those same people are still somehow suffering from a lack of opportunity, debt, health problems, etc., all problems that the true elites don’t suffer from. No wonder they’re frustrated – they feel they should be better off being part of that “privileged class”. Meanwhile, they remain totally ignorant as the politicians they have supported keep stripping away their job benefits, chipping away at their wages, making it harder to get good health care, and basically doing very anti-Progressive things that hurt them and their prospects for improving their lives.
There has been a resurgence in public activism with Progressive leanings, but my worry is that it will stay an Anti-Trump movement and not blossom into a constructive movement that can actually produce long-term positive results. To avoid that, there are a few things we, as Progressives, need to do.
First, we should see this as an opportunity to rebrand. Most progressives operate within the Democratic Party, which for some reason has been content with living with the symbol of a donkey since Andrew Jackson was happy to accept being characterized as a stubborn jackass in 1828. Really? Nothing says Conservatism like keeping things the same way for almost two hundred years for the sake of tradition. Andrew Jackson is nothing close to the standard bearer for the modern Democratic Party. New mascot anyone? How about the gray wolf? Wolves are incredibly intelligent, live in highly effective social groups and are celebrated in Native American heritage. (By the way, when is the last time you saw a free-range elephant roaming the United States? And, for the record, the American bald eagle belongs to all of us.)
Second, we should remind ourselves that Progressivism is steeped in a long history of improving the lives of all human beings, including Americans of all ethnicities, genders and social classes. Progressives are responsible for:
- establishing the constitutional right of women and minorities to vote;
- building the vast infrastructure that has made America the one and only global superpower;
- putting in place protections for employees and workers, including the institution of the eight-hour workday and the forty-hour work week;
- putting in place protections against forced child labor;
- reforming banking many times over to help small businesses and farmers, and for creating federal insurance for bank deposits;
- creating and protecting national parks, becoming the first to be considered conservationists and environmentalists;
- creating the social safety nets like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that have protected our most vulnerable citizens;
- the creation and protection of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR);
- enacting provisions to help educate Americans and ensure their prosperous futures, including through programs like the G.I. Bill;
- countless other acts of proactive patriotism, encouraging the government to invest in American citizens for the sake of producing a more perfect union.
The following link is to a BillMoyers.com article by Professor Harvey J. Kaye that illuminates the history of what FDR accomplished in equally trying times in American history: http://billmoyers.com/story/time-to-recall-a-progressive-truly-great-first-100-days/.
The war on Progressivism will likely continue for a long time to come, but the more we find ways to cut through the meaningless distractions, and get to the debate about governing principles and views on how to treat our fellow Americans, the sooner we’ll be able to right our ship of state. And in that debate, never be too timid to bring up our proud Progressive history, because actions speak louder than words.