"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Being Too Leftwing–How Radical Progressives Miss The Point And Are A Dying Breed

Richard Seymour wrote an excellent article in The Guardian (12.29.13) in which he wondered why, after five years of economic turmoil, the Left had so little impact in financial, economic, or social reform.  His comments are even more relevant given the Republican win in 2016.  Despite a progressive candidate in the primaries and a left-of-center Presidential candidate, the Democrats lost the Electoral College by a sizable margin and although their showing in the general election was significant, it was by no means the mandate they were expecting.  The country had clearly moved on from both traditional Democratic cronyism and business-as-usual and especially progressivism, whose platform was nothing less than a radical restructuring of American society along secular, distributive, interventionist lines.

Seymour suggested a number of reasons valid when he wrote the article and especially so now.  First, the Left has been too tied up in dogma and factional rivalries.  That is, it has adhered to and insisted upon a doctrinal purity; but at the same time has been characterized by an unwieldy array of interest groups. All members of the progressive movement worship with the same prayer book and read in unison verse on gender, race, class, distribution of wealth, social equality, and international peace; but the hundreds of leftist interest groups – water, air, LGBT, fracking, etc.- leave the church and start bickering over money, power, and influence.

Such diversity of interests not only has prevented progressives from unifying and maximizing their political clout, it has hurt their brand. While the many causes embraced by the Left are understood by them to be part of a grand scheme, opponents simply have a greater number of targets at which to shoot.  Ironically those many groups opposing gay marriage, transgender teachers, welfare, environmentalism, and universal health care come together in unity far more than the progressives who promote them. They sing in harmony: “We hate liberals”. 

In an era of sound-bites and short attention spans, the progressive agenda with its array of causes cannot possibly compete with the conservative one – Individual liberty, small government, low taxes, religion, and family values. 

Second, because of an overweening insistence on doctrinal purity, the ‘progressive’ Left has turned into an exclusive club, turning away moderates and those willing to take a longer view of history.  This was not so in the past. Lyndon Johnson, for example, compromised much of his grand liberal vision to get what he felt were essential elements of the Great Society – Medicare and Civil Rights among the most important. Johnson indeed had his eyes on the prize and not on the purity of the product. An equal society and one with basic social services were far more important than the purity of the product.

Third, the Left is simply politically weak. Conservatives have been gaining power and influence and filling their treasure chests faster than the opposition. 
By the time oppositional forces work out an analysis of what is happening, figure out some tactics and get their people in motion, the terrain has already been occupied by those in power.
Seymour suggests that the real problem lies elsewhere. While these explanations of why the progressive Left has been so ineffectual have a certain resonance, they miss the point.
I would suggest that there is a problem with a certain clichéd way of being leftwing, which consists of a backwardness, a refusal to accept unyielding realities, which undermines one's ability to respond to emerging situations.
This is indeed getting to the heart of the matter.  The progressive left has become hidebound, predictable, and harshly intolerant.  Progressive Democrats have become the party of No, not the Republicans.

The Deep South is a region that progressives love to hate.  Many Southerners are gun owners, religiously conservative, in favor of energy exploitation and economic growth, resistant to federal government programs, and reluctant to accept radical social changes. Not only are so-called progressives unwilling to listen to Southern arguments but dismiss them out of hand.  Southerners to them are caricatures - redneck, Bible-thumping, duck hunting, double-wide Creationists not worth anyone’s time.  Progressives are absolutists.  There is their way and no other way.

There is one even more fundamental characteristic of progressives not mentioned by Seymour – their deep and abiding faith in social progress, the perfectibility of Man, and the ability of secular forces to create a perfect world. In this context the individual counts little compared to the group; and the group only matters if it is subsumed within an even large collective entity – government.

Government is the patriarch of American society, the father who looks after his children, guides them along the right path, is gently critical when required, but infinitely tolerant and respectful.

This secular worldview is antithetical to that of conservatives.  Only God determines the course of human history, and the only relationship that matters is that between the individual and the Almighty.  Reason is a false god.  Only the Word of God indelibly inscribed in the Bible is valid.  If society is to progress, it will do so only through individual enterprise guided by divine wisdom and spirit.
The essence of liberty is the freedom to follow God, to be untrammeled in that pursuit by social and secular forces. The early tenets of Calvinism still apply – not only is there nothing wrong in the pursuit of worldly wealth, such acquisition is a sign of Salvation.

Progressives have not learned from history.  If the North had followed Lincoln’s way – a gradual and tolerant approach to Reconstruction – and had not gone down the path of the Radical Republicans, substantive positive restructuring of the slave economy might well have happened.  In fact, the punitive measures enforced by Congress simply drove the South into a different type of rebellion – a guerrilla war which lasted 100 years.

Progressives do not seem to realize that their demands simply drive conservatives farther to the right.  The enforcement of radical legislation, such as LGBT rights, is the one thing that will case-harden the opposition just as it did during Reconstruction.  During that period, the North was insistent that radical social change happen immediately; but Southerners who had lived with African slaves for 150 years found the ascension of illiterate, unschooled, former field hands absolutely incomprehensible and intolerable.

White Southerners took advantage of the Constitutional system, cannily worked the political aisles, exploited divisions at every level, and regained all of what they had lost.

Seymour concludes by saying that the Left is still hopelessly myopic in its attempts to counter the Right. It harps on the weaknesses of capitalism, and hammers away at its supposed excesses, predation, and inhumanity.  Yet, after five years of upheaval and financial paroxysms, capitalism is better than ever.  Stock markets are up, unemployment is down, housing starts on on the rise, Western Europe seems to have found its way, and the future looks good if not rosy.

The Left continues to rely on old organizational models, but the traditional progressive institutions which had political clout – most notably labor – have been replaced by more dynamic models of economic compromise.  The only old liberal institutions which are still in lockstep with the traditional Left are the universities; but academics, because of their protective Ivory Tower, are even more doctrinally pure and insulated from the rough-and-tumble of real world politics.

Finally the Left sees epiphany and resurrection in every social expression of progressive sentiments. Occupy Wall Street was the harbinger of a new liberal age.  It was just the beginning of what would be an eventual tsunami of progressivism.  Of course this never happened, and the Occupy movement is no longer. 

Only the term ‘The One Percent’ remains, but few on the Left have been able to capitalize on this critical sentiment because most Americans wish they were in the top one percent of America.

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