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The Progressive Problem

By Herb Bowie

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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:

  1. A set of shared beliefs, practices, institutions, images and stories…
  2. that help to guide our personal growth as well as the smooth operation of our society…
  3. that are passed down from generation to generation…
  4. and that provide for their own continued evolution.

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.

  1. Many elements of our modern life seem to be going from bad to worse. Things like housing, child care, education and health care seem to continually get more expensive. Decent jobs are disappearing or are out of reach. Taxes are high, especially for those with lower incomes. Our society is continually being disrupted by new technology. Terrorism is a constant threat. Rural and semi-rural lifestyles seem impossible to maintain as people, businesses and jobs continue to migrate to densely populated urban centers – cities in which homeless people, traffic jams and trash seem to be everywhere.
  2. The news, which used to be something we could easily catch up on in the morning or evening, has now become an endless, 24-hour barrage, coming at us from all angles, continually keeping us on high alert, telling us of terrors that have just happened, are unfolding as we speak, or are likely about to befall us.
  3. All around us we see familiar, traditional institutions being eroded. People no longer speak English. We see cars on the road with names we don’t even know how to pronounce. On the one hand we see human flesh everywhere covered by tattoos, while on the other we see women from foreign lands covering as much of their flesh as possible with clothing from head to toe. Brightly painted e-bikes and scooters invade our neighborhoods like plagues of locusts. All cultural norms seem to have been abandoned.
  4. And then we hear that the slogans for our country’s largest companies are phrases such as “Move fast and break things,” and “Every day is day one!”
  5. If this is progress, then you can keep it!
  6. And so, with much of the culture we have inherited seemingly dissolving daily around us, we look for familiar cultural artifacts that we can hang on to. The Bible. The Church. The patriarchal family. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The flag. Statues of past leaders. Things that have survived for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. And we find ourselves drawn to spokesmen who are passionate about defending some of these same artifacts and institutions that have been passed down to us.
  7. And then, when the progressives come to call, they don’t seem to be for anything, other than the freedom of every individual to do whatever they choose, and the supposed rights of every individual to have handed to them everything that we and our forebears have had to struggle for and earn through the sweat of our brows. (Open borders, free college, a guaranteed annual wage, and who knows what else.) But those same freedoms and rights seem to be the very forces that are tearing at the fabric of our communities.
  8. And while none of us are experts on what it takes to maintain a functional society, and most of us have probably never heard of George Santayana (“didn’t he pitch for the Marlins?”), deep down we know that something of inestimable value is slipping away from us, and so we hang on tight to whatever we can, whatever symbols and signifiers are still available.

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

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