Re-igniting Progressive Politics: A Compact Manifesto

In corporate America, and especially at the big banks, no one is expected to act like adults, they understand it is about stuffing your pockets at everyone else’s expense.

If pressed, how would you distill, then energize the new wave of “progressive politics”? The 20th C. foundation remains for me the second half of F.D.R.’s Four Freedoms, boldly declaring “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” as government-fostered, inalienable, universal human rights.

Martin Luther King grounded that vision a generation later by dramatizing a powerful triad that framed racism, jobless poverty, and endless war. Thus were propelled the lasting rights breakthroughs for minorities and women, protection for workers, withdrawal from Vietnam and, more recently, half-a-loaf medical insurance, gay marriage and marijuana triumphs.

As Sam Pizzigati’s brilliant, constructively optimistic narrative of systemic change makes clear, “The Rich Don’t Always Win.” Updated, any progressive core must still honor compassion, for struggling neighbors, for all living things and the whole of nature. Albert Einstein nailed it: 1) “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  2) “Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

It was such idealistic “striving” by which Hubert Humphrey set the “moral test of government” – how we treat those who “in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” To ground our political being, Paul Wellstone captures the “three critical ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics.” Finally, any disruptive movement demands a rousing call to arms, and Frederick Douglas delivers that message:

Had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

Do not these values orchestrate what Founders laid out as government at its best, dedicated to “the common welfare” and driven by “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Spurred by the Populist Era, the New Deal and the Great Society applied real-world legislative muscle. Did not 20th C. America “progress” with Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation, public housing, social safety nets, job training, and state pump priming? Does evolution not invite another populist wave against want and fear?

When Idealism Ends, Realism Begins

Despite the subsequent reactionary uproar (that the savvy F.D.R. foresaw), he was no naive idealist when delivering the Four Freedoms. What SOTU since then dispatched a vision not “of a distant millennium” but a “definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation”? Until Reagan reversals wrecked 50 years of solid advances for working and middle class, this nation had a progressive road map.

Decades of poisoned government do not invalidate the quest. Freedom from want still requires decent food, jobs, and housing that would “secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.” Talk about visionary, not just here but across the globe, committed to sharing resources fairly, rich and poor alike. Bolder still, F.D.R.’s freedom from fear imagined a “world-wide reduction of armaments” so that no nation will “commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.” And that optimism poured forth while World War II swirled.

That constant, global tensions undermine “peacetime” does not invalidate the goal. Nor banish idealism for big-picture progressives aware whatever vice mankind has wrought can with effort be repaired (slavery, debtors prison, voting abuses, eventually Citizens United). Remember, only 74 years have passed between 1941 and 2015, still short of Lincoln’s “four score and seven years ago.” Arguably, despite double the world population, the absence of a third catastrophic world war points a direction, along with this mixed resource blessing: more earthlings live better today than at any time in human history.

Tragically, King’s comprehensive mindset has not taken root: few compelling voices tie the stubborn plague of racism first to economic paralysis, then chronic, foreign military aggression. Thus, David Friedman’s quip applies, “The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.” A triad still downplayed during his national holiday celebrations, King understood the explosive fusion of racial conflict, the despair of unemployment, and endlessly droning war.

But our task today isn’t scrutinizing the past, good and bad, but corralling key terms and assumptions that inform a workable progressive consensus. My colleague in the Pitchforks Against Plutocracy movement, Patrick Walker, asked for language that could embrace more leftwing consensus, so here’s an opening to kickstart a discussion of what progressives shares – and why it matters.

Climate Change Changes Everything

Certainly, the science of climate change reframes all traditional issues (like income inequality, injustice, and oligarchy), and no sane, political movement excludes global threats, as in warming, overpopulation, resource and ocean depletion, let alone planetary carrying capacity.

Without unity there is not common ground, thus insufficient critical mass to renew progressive energy (and distinguish it from discredited liberalism). Is progressivism not dead if we stop asking the left to unify, work together, and translate better agendas to more voters, whatever their party labels?

Katrina vanden Heuvel dramatizes that winning hearts and minds is less the problem than organization and political leverage:

most Americans share what one could call core liberal or progressive values: investment in health care and education over tax cuts; fair trade over free trade; corporate accountability over deregulation; environmental protection over laissez-faire policies; defending Social Security and Medicare over privatizing them; raising the minimum wage over eliminating it. The country prefers progressive alternatives to the failed policies of the conservative right.

Two more final thoughts in support of consensus, the first from celebrated activist Jane Addams, “Unless our conception of patriotism is progressive, it cannot hope to embody the real affection and the real interest of the nation.” And Einstein, again, far more than just a great scientist, “Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.”  After all, the coming attractions of some truly focussed group of activists, right or left, will come true.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.