By Herb Bowie
For progressives in the US – and, indeed, in many parts of the world – recent events have called into question our faith in the goodness of people, and in our continued march forward towards a better tomorrow.
It’s only been roughly a decade since those of us in the US were celebrating in amazement the election of Barack Obama as our president, an event that seemed to usher in a new era of progressive values.
Since then, however, we’ve seen the election of Donald Trump, an event that daily seems to repudiate all the victories we thought we had won, all the bridges we thought we had crossed. And now in many states we are seeing new abortion laws that represent a fresh resurgence of a repressive Christian right.
No wonder zombie movies have been popular of late: so many of us feel like increasingly isolated survivors having to fight off forces that we thought were previously vanquished and long buried, forces that seem to be arising all around us, springing at us from all sides.
Many of us believed Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Increasingly, though, that arc seems to be bending towards nationalism, populism, racism, mass murder, environmental collapse, and a sort of modern corporate feudalism.
What went wrong?
I won’t pretend that there is any single, simple neat answer to this question.
For today, though, I’d like to approach this question from a broad cultural perspective.
What do I mean by culture?
I’ll offer you a four-part definition:
It’s hard to overstate the importance of culture to us humans. Without a viable culture, we are no more than animals. Culture is the source of all of our super-powers. Discard or degrade our culture, and we all suffer. Without culture we can no longer communicate effectively, we can no longer trust each other, we cannot learn from the past, and we can no longer work together towards complex, common goals.
Culture is not static. It evolves. But just as genetic evolution works by keeping most of what is passed down, making only a few small changes at a time, cultural evolution works in the same way, keeping many elements that were passed down from prior generations, then changing a few things to better adapt to our ever-changing environment. This is why George Santayana famously declared:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
And so, with this understanding as background, we are finally ready to consider the state of our culture under the care and custodianship of progressives.
Let’s first consider same-sex marriage. This can fairly be considered a progressive success, since public support for same-sex marriage in the US has been rising strongly over the last decade or so, with 67% of the US now supporting this institution, according to a Gallup Poll done in 2018. But then, this is a good example of starting with a cultural institution that’s been passed down to us, and then making what are, after all, relatively minor changes to it. We’re still supporting marriage, and still supporting families, as they’ve existed for millennia, but are just expanding these traditions to be a bit more inclusive, including spouses and parents who are part of the LGBTQ community. So this is a great example of progressive cultural evolution.
But what else do we find as we look around our modern progressive landscape?
One of the interesting things we see is a plethora of institutions all branding themselves as progressive activists. Counting groups like Indivisible, I’m sure I get at least 20 emails a day from different organizations all looking for my support to help advance a progressive agenda. And we’ve got over 20 candidates now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as Howard Schultz, a centrist independent, who also says he supports many progressive values.
And what unites all of these leaders and organizations under a progressive banner? What do we believe in? Where can we look for a statement of our foundational principles? What of value has been passed down to us, and how do we hope to further improve upon it?
In other words, what are the key elements of our progressive culture?
I mean, other than opposition to Trump and the political party that he now leads?
And here’s the problem: It’s hard to say. As an example, look at this paragraph from the Indivisible About page:
Brought together by a practical guide to resist the Trump agenda, Indivisible is a movement of thousands of group leaders and more than a million members taking regular, iterative, and increasingly complex actions to resist the GOPs agenda, elect local champions, and fight for progressive policies.
So that’s it: resistance to Trump and the GOP. And what do they mean by “progressive” policies? They don’t say. Not just here, but anywhere. Read the rest of the page for yourself if you like, but you will nowhere find any attempt at a definition of what they mean by “progressive,” nor any reference to any other guiding document.
And so, when we ask ourselves why in the world people would vote for Trump and the Republicans, we must consider how things might look to a large portion of our population.
Do you start to see the problem we progressives are facing?
We are peddling resistance to the Republicans, and are offering as an alternative… what, exactly? Freedom is a great thing, and limitless rights are easy things to assert, but these rights and freedoms are wholly insufficient when considering the essential elements of a viable culture, utterly incomplete when thinking about the elements needed to keep our society intact, functional and moving forward.
Here’s one symptom of the problem I’m pointing out: when naming the documents we progressives most often refer to as our touchstones, we tend to cite judicial interpretations with pedestrian names, such as roe v wade and brown vs brown.
Really? We progressives want to be taken seriously as the people with the answers, and this is the best we’ve got? Where are our noble foundational documents, our declarations, our manifestos? Lincoln had “The Gettysburg Address,” Karl Marx had “The Communist Manifesto” and Das Kapital, Hitler had Mein Kampf and we’ve got… what – Becoming by Michelle Obama?
And even though I’ve taken my own shot at something that might serve as a set of progressive principles and values – something I call the Practopian Core Beliefs – my goal today is not really to recommend my particular set of words, but rather just to point out that we are going to need something more that what we seem to have today.
After all, we may call ourselves Progressives but – in order to actually achieve any sort of real progress – we are going to need something more than mere resistance to Trump and the GOP. We will need something to guide and sustain us after we’ve defeated the GOP, unless we’re eager to experience the zombie apocalypse all over again.
We’re going to need to declare what we stand for, and not just what we stand against.
And while equality and egalitarianism are a good start, we had better find a few other things we can agree upon if we’re serious about leading a modern, complex society towards a greater future.
Published 2019 Jun 10