The Importance of Progressive Activism

19 Apr 2021 · 6 min read

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faces of many hues, all looking to the right

It was just a little over four years ago that I remember sitting in front of our TV with our neighbors, watching the election returns, preparing to celebrate.

I think it was the New York Times website that I had open on my iPad, showing a dynamic chart tracking the projected probability of victory for each presidential candidate.

And then, within what seemed like only a few minutes, those two lines – one red, one blue – changed direction, crossed one another, and reversed positions.

So much for the value of political prognostication.

It was a month or two after that when our son sent us an email with a link to a Google doc that was publicly available. I followed the link and it looked interesting. It was a little treatise describing practical ways for citizens to influence their elected representatives.

A month or two later I had the good fortune to hear one of the authors of that document in person, speaking here in Seattle, to a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered downtown in our venerable Town Hall. His appearance had been hastily arranged by a local political player who had met him just a few days earlier, at a party in San Francisco, and persuaded him to make a quick detour to Seattle, to speak to a small group here.

I don't remember much of what he said that night, save for one memorable detail. He said that after the surprising popularity of their little Google doc, he and his partner were forming a modest organization, and they would be emailing us from time to time – but would never ask us for money.

A couple of years later, when both founders were appearing in Seattle, this time to promote their new book, I had a chance to ask his partner, as she was signing my copy, what she now thought of that statement. I can't recall her exact words, but it was something like “Well, that wasn't very realistic.”

And now, here we all are, after an amazing Democratic trifecta in DC, with our new president off to what seems like an astonishingly effective and progressive start to his first term.

So what remains to be done?

Everything.

I am gratified and amazed when one of my stories takes off on Medium – I'm like a kid in a candy store, checking my stats every few minutes, and then happily announcing, to all who will listen (primarily my wife and my dog, who are both incredibly tolerant), “Can you believe it, the numbers are still going up!!”

I've published 66 essays (aka “stories”) on Medium over the past couple of years, but two of them have been read and applauded more than all the others combined. The first was “Why a Centrist Candidate Won't Win the Presidency” (originally titled “Is There Any Middle Left?” prior to editing) and then, much more recently, “The Decline of the Republican Party – First Gradually and then Suddenly.” And I'm delighted with the numbers of people who have read and shown their appreciation for both of these.

At the same time, however, I'm aware that both of these pieces – although they were not intended this way – might be viewed as a species of progressive wish fulfillment, as a sort of soothing balm that might lull liberal fantasists into sweet and soothing dreams of our rosy futures together.

Which brings me to this piece, which I offer as a sort of bracing corrective.

First, let me say clearly that, without the untiring work of progressive activists all across our country over the last few years, we might all be sitting here today wondering how Trump could have been elected to a second term, or wondering how Biden could possibly get anything done with the Republicans still in control of the Senate, or – worst of all – wondering what to do after Trump and his minions had successfully manipulated the reporting of election results in order to keep their leader in office for another four years.

What actually happened, instead of these alternative outcomes, was not due to an unstoppable wave of progressive sentiment sweeping across our nation.

No, it happened because leaders stepped up and dedicated themselves to the cause of progress, and because volunteers stepped up to help in any way they could – by writing letters to their representatives, by writing letters to prospective voters, by sending text messages and making phone calls to strangers, and yes – even by responding to emails asking for financial donations.

But none of our recent gains are secure. There are more elections coming, more votes to be counted, more roll calls to be taken. And if we've learned anything about our American political process over the past several years, we have learned that elections are often decided by razor-thin margins, that the all-important swing voters often make decisions that cannot be explained by entirely rational means, and that, for various odd and sometimes nefarious reasons, enjoying a popular majority is not always enough to win you an election or a critical vote in our legislatures.

But there's one more thing I've come to realize. I've learned that progress and prosperity and peace and justice can never be taken for granted, but always require – always have required, always will require – ongoing effort.

Here's the way Albert Einstein put it, when addressing the Chicago Decalogue Society back in 1954:

The existence and validity of human rights are not written in the stars. The ideals concerning the conduct of men toward each other and the desirable structure of the community have been conceived and taught by enlightened individuals in the course of history. Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man – and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts. A large part of history is therefore replete with the struggle for those human rights, an eternal struggle in which a final victory can never be won. But to tire in that struggle would mean the ruin of society.

There is always more to be done. More education. More reaching out. More discussions with strangers. More work. More growth. More action.

But none of this should be disappointing to us, or disheartening. The good news is that we all have a chance to make a difference, and that this opportunity is always in front of us, and that the work, when undertaken with others of like minds and open hearts, is its own reward.

And so, just two more things before I surrender the pulpit for today: a request and a pledge.

First, the pledge: I will donate my Medium earnings from this piece, as well as my prior one (you know – that really popular one) to the Indivisible organization.

Next, the request: never become complacent, and continue to strive for progress, contributing in whatever way you can. There is always more to be done, and a host of progressive organizations around eager to welcome you and make good use of your contributions.

What's left to do?

Everything.