Sunday, January 3, 2016

What Does It Mean To Be A Progressive?

"My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief. They've voted in record numbers. They have invested faith, hope and trust that they have in us. The Democratic Party must send them a signal that we care."  To Be Revealed Later

What does it mean to be a progressive? This isn't a rhetorical question. I came to my political awareness in the mid 90's; back then, there were very few self described progressives in my circle. I was in my twenties, and most of the people I knew identified as liberal. That was before the right-wing think tanks and commentators masterfully shifted what it meant to be a liberal. If being a progressive means being a Bernie supporter does that automatically make Hillary supporters liberal or neoliberal? This might seem like a frivolous line of questioning, but it matters more now than it did in 2008. The choice between President Obama and Hillary Clinton wasn't as politically pronounced as the choice between Bernie and Hillary is today.   

I don't know if Bernie can win in a general election. This is more than a statement grounded in political uncertainty. It's a thinly veiled question some in our ranks ask themselves. Bernie Sanders is an ideological Rorschach test. To his young, enthusiastic base Bernie represents a clean shift from the status quo they learned about in history and Political science classes. He resonates with their desire to try something completely different as a way of avoiding the economic outcomes they see on the horizon. For his older, somewhat politically jaded, supporters he represents the hard left turn they've been waiting for the Democratic party to take. Many pragmatic- dare I say conservative- Democrats have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the argument that Bernie can't win in November. Maybe he can't; maybe the country isn't ready for a Democratic Socialist. Labels matter; the fact that Socialism has been such a loaded term for so long might affect his ability to gain the moderate and independent vote, but what if now is the perfect time, politically speaking, to usher in an era of progressive politics? How many of us could sleep knowing we missed our chance? 

This isn't an endorsement for Bernie or a hit piece against Hillary. I'm convinced that both of them would be far better stewards over the economy, better for the long-term national security of our nation, and would pick better Supreme Court Justices than their Republican rivals, but most of us already believe this. If Bernie doesn't get the nomination, but forces the national conversation to move to the left on government spending, Social Security, minimum wage, and affordable college would Hillary use that political cover to advance the progressive agenda? How many progressives are supporting Hillary because they're afraid our ideas are still too far ahead of the electorate? 

These questions matter. We have to be honest about how far we're willing to go in the direction of progressive ideas. We have to be clear about what our priorities are. If Hillary wins the nomination how do we force her to move from the center to embrace Bernie's supporters? If the centrist argument against Bernie hinges on the perception that he can't get votes from the center then wouldn't the same argument work in the opposite direction against Hillary? I've talked to young Bernie supporters who view the Clintons as Republican lite. Whether their critique is right or wrong is a immaterial to the fact that they believe it. If a portion of Bernie's supporters sit out of the 2016 election, and minority turn out is low in purple states the game is over. Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio will be the next president. If Hillary wins the nomination we can't ask Bernie supporters to make all of the concessions necessary to form a winning coalition. We need to create an atmosphere where Hillary has to move left to embrace them.

The far-right is dominating the media. Many national on-air personalities no longer question negative statements made about Progressive policies- no matter how false they are. The quote from the top of this post was from Jesse Jackson's speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Almost thirty-two years later those words still describe many in our ranks. Too many of us are getting crushed under the weight of a global economy that demands a more productive and cheaper labor force, and the cost of college and health care are still rising. How much further down this moderate path will we allow the Democratic party to pull us before we admit that walking on the Republican path gets us where they want us to go just at a slower pace?