Rearguard Strategy for Progressives

Trump, Putin, Stalin, and Hitler - each on the cover of Time as "Person of the Year"

Time’s Person of the Year is in familiar company.

Here’s a friendly heads-up to my progressive friends. The political clout of the progressive movement is currently, at best, at a 70-year low. 100-years is probably more like it. The KKK is literally marching in the streets. Enemies of civil rights, clean air and water, worker’s rights, and the social safety net control the Senate, the House, 2/3 of the state legislatures and governor’s mansions, and – soon – the entire Executive Branch of the government and the Supreme Court.

They have the keys to the kingdom, and we have snarky think pieces in Slate and HuffPo.

Regardless of how normative our views are among educated elites, in terms of actual political power, and likely in terms of majority sentiment, we are in the minority.

When you are in the minority, it is tactically absurd to further weaken your position, or to waste energy on soft or useless targets.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, stop attacking fellow progressives and our allies.

Did someone fail to nuance their ideas in a way that fully encompasses your position? Bummer, but unless they are threatening to force LGBT persons into shock and/or conversion therapy, they’re not the biggest threat we face.

Did someone’s efforts for advocacy seem to you to be more a product of their own guilt, or their own privilege, than the purity of your own motives? Wow, that’s annoying, but unless they’re planning to undermine the freedom of the press and use bullying tactics to silence you, they aren’t exactly our biggest problem right now.

Did someone fight too hard for a cause you think is less important, and not enough for the cause dearest to your heart? That must make them seem like they’re not a true ally. However, if they’re not trying to pump chemicals into your drinking water, they’re probably a better friend than the people we’re about to entrust with our lives.

Fringe-right theocrats and plutocrats have outmaneuvered us time and again, and we are now fighting a rearguard action to preserve what we can until we are able to fight back. Now is the time to build coalitions and shore up alliances. Now is the to strengthen our weaker comrades, not push them from the fold for their lack of ideological purity. We know what we’re going to have to fight for:

  • clean air and water
  • safe workplaces
  • living wages
  • healthcare
  • civil rights
  • freedom from religion
  • reproductive freedom

Let’s put all our energy into these issues, all of which are grievously threatened. The rest can wait until we get to the point where we’re actually in a position to influence government policy again.

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Government Shutdown Not About Compromise

Let the Free Market decide if your son should breathe!

(c) Drew Sheneman – http://blog.nj.com/njv_shenemans_sketchpad/index.html

Please, please stop saying that the government shutdown is because “both sides won’t compromise.” This is simply not the case. The Affordable Care Act is the result of HUGE compromises on the part of Democrats. The ACA is a very conservative, capitalist-friendly bill that was conceived by a conservative think tank and initially implemented by a fiscally-conservative, Republican governor.

And yet, having gotten everything they wanted in the bill, Republicans now want to know why Democrats won’t “compromise” with them while they are holding the federal government hostage.

Imagine that you and one other person make up the board of your homeowner’s association. You think the nice old lady who plants flowers around the entrance sign should get a little compensation for her efforts. You think she should get $100. The other board member thinks she should get nothing. You two “compromise” on $20.

After it’s settled, voted on by the entire homeowners association, and then also approved by the local gardening club for good measure, the “compromise” amount (on which you conceded nearly everything – it’s basically a token amount compared to what you initially tried to accomplish) is written into the association budget.

Then, the following year, the other board member refuses to sign ANY checks to ANY vendors – including the ones who have already provided services to the association – because you won’t “compromise” with them on the $20 you had already decided on the previous year – as the result of considerable compromise on your part.

This isn’t about “compromise” – this is about Republican grandstanding on their bankrupt ideology of protecting the very wealthiest elites at the expense of hard-working American citizens.

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Thoughts on the 2012 Presidential Election

President Obama on Election Night

Following the Facebook, Twitter, and old media discussions of the 2012 presidential election results has led me to an unsurprising conclusion:  many Republicans, including some of my friends, are horrified that President Obama has won.  Considering the tenor of the race, I expected as much.  What confuses me in reading their comments, is that the President Obama they are vilifying has nothing in common with the man who has led our nation for the past four years.  In response, I have a few observations about the President and the direction of the GOP:

 

President Obama is a Christian

It’s time to let go of the argument that “President Obama is not a Christian!”  This is the one most squarely in my area of expertise, and the one that is most offensive to me.  Perhaps it is only an issue here in the Deep South, where religion permeates everything, but I am at my limit with the “We must remember God is in control, even if we don’t have a Christian in the White House” comments.  They are as insipid as they are absurd.

Where to begin?  First, President Obama is a Christian.  Plain and simple.  He is not the caricature that fundamentalists insist defines the religion, but fundamentalists do not speak for Christianity.  In fact, they rarely seem to even understand it, historically or biblically.

Which leads to my broader point in this regard.  Not only is it indefensible to attack the President’s faith, it is equally irrational to claim that there is one singular “Christian” perspective on specific political topics.  Opposition to same-sex marriage is not the “Christian” perspective on the issue.  Opposing abortion rights or reproductive freedom is not the “Christian” stance.  Capitalism is not the “Christian” economic system (despite embarrassingly ludicrous claims to the contrary).  Individual Christians, and Christian denominations, have vastly different perspectives on all of these issues.

Interestingly, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Christians tend to agree on all of them.  So, if you’re looking for an adjective that describes unanimity on those views, “Christian” is inaccurate.  “Fundamentalist” is spot on.  Billy Graham’s regrettable decision to privilege what he calls “biblical values” over actual Christianity is the perfect example of this.  Graham was willing to functionally endorse the Mormon candidate (who, Southern Baptists are very clear, is not a Christian – see here as well) over the Christian candidate because Graham’s narrow, fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture is more important to him than historic Christian faith.  This privileging of politics over actual Christian theology has become the norm in fundamentalist Christianity, leading to their willingness to ignore enormous theological differences in order to push their agenda of intolerance.

Christians as a whole, however, have a broader understanding of the gospel and our Scriptures.  With 42% of Protestants and 50% of Roman Catholics voting for President Obama, it is time to move past the myth that one party represents the Christian view or Christian values.  The language is a code anyway.  What people – on either side of the fence – mean when they say “Christian values” is:  “my values, which I defend using religious language.”  As a result, the descriptor is meaningless, and it demeans the breadth and complexity of our tradition.

The only real consequence of fundamentalist claims to an exclusive “Christian” platform is that it inspires fierce, partisan disdain for the other side.  Rather than being a political opponent, members of the opposite party become theological adversaries.  They are not just the enemy of our ideas, they become the enemy of our God as well.  Instead of analyzing and evaluating ideas on their own merits, people unequivocally and passionately reject them as heresy.  This kind of thinking has never ended well – during the Inquisition, in Calvin’s Geneva, or under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  More importantly, and to repeat, it is simply not true.  Christians have different views on every political issue, and there isn’t a universal “Christian” perspective on any of them.

Let this one go.  At best, it is intellectually dishonest.  At its worst, it is an excuse to hide selfish and bigoted ideas behind a smokescreen of religiosity to prevent them from being challenged.

 

President Obama is not the Enemy of the Economy

Another claim – perpetuated in some circles – with near-religious zeal is the myth that President Obama is spending money willy-nilly to drive us off the looming fiscal cliff.  This claim is made despite Forbes identifying President Obama as the “smallest government spender since Eisenhower.”  The myth goes unchallenged because the popular perception is that Republicans are more responsible than Democrats, but spending under Obama is not a dramatic increase over past presidents.  In fact, even the popular perception of Democratic spending Republican could use some revision.

As Daniel J. Mitchell of the conservative Cato institute points out, both parties spend too much money.  Where they differ is how to subsidize their over-funding.  Republicans argue that preserving the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy will generate more overall wealth and, consequently, more tax revenue for addressing the deficit.  This is patently untrue, and Romney’s tax cuts would certainly have favored the wealthy or ultimately cost revenue.

Most Americans, overwhelming, realize this and support raising taxes on the wealthy.  That’s hardly unfair.  Despite what how people think wealth is distributed in the US, 80% of the wealth in this country is in the hands of 20% of the population, with a staggering 1/3 of all wealth in the hands of only 1% of the population.  That top 1% actually got richer during the economic downturn.  Meanwhile, those who make minimum wage have to  work more than 70 hours a week to afford rent.

In a time when the economy is weak, reducing the taxes on the wealthy – who are clearly doing just fine, and at a time when people working two jobs can barely pay their rent – does not make sense.  The 2012 GOP could not see this, and their rhetoric centered on people whom they viewed as self-described “victims” “dependent upon government.”  Americans who actually work for a living, however, realized that this is patently false, and that, even as the fabulously wealthy enjoy the benefits of a healthy, stable, safe nation maintained by their labors, it is increasingly hard for the people who make that America possible to make ends meet.

If Republicans want to represent working people, they cannot be the party of the one percent.  They have to realize what hard-working Americans already do, giving further benefits to the wealthy does not help the American people.

 

Health, Healthcare and the Environment are not Partisan Issues

Limiting our ability to regulate the impact of corporate greed on the health of our citizens or our environment – no matter how economically expedient – does not help us either.  Republicans disagree, but this should not be a partisan issue.  It does not matter how many jobs might be created, it does not matter how much money there is to be made, if it is accomplished at the expense of American well-being the cost is too high.  Mitt Romney may not be worried about the rising oceans, but the rest of us are.

Nevertheless, Republicans are trying to perpetuate the myth that corporations simply cannot afford to create jobs and make a profit if they must do so in a context that insists that they do so ethically (with fair wages, healthcare for every employee, and without harming the environment or public health).  Their claims have no grounding in fact.  Corporations are doing just fine, as are their executives.  Obviously, they want to make as much as they can, but it is our jobs as citizens to insist that the tremendous profit they earn at our expense be done ethically.  Government regulation is how we accomplish that.

As a side note, government investment in innovation is also how we do it.  Much has been made of the dramatic failure that was Solyndra.  It was a risk, on important innovation, that went wrong, but it was hardly a catastrophic one on the scale of past erroneous attempts at innovation.  We need a president who will create a strong vision for the future, and that requires the risk of innovation.

 

Civil Rights Are Not a Partisan Issue

As we move into that future, our citizenry is changing almost as rapidly as our technology.  Let’s look at the demographics of the presidential voters again. Republicans did very well with rich, old, white men.  But this is not the era of old, rich white men.  This is one area where mainstream media and conservative evangelicals agree, and the election results are proof that America’s demographics are changing.

This is bringing civil rights issues to the fore again in a way not seen since the Sixties.  As the Human Rights Campaign reports, November 6, 2012 was an unprecedented night of victories for equality issues.  The first openly gay Senator was elected.  Three states passed referendum’s supporting gay marriage, and LGBT-friendly politicians, including the President, fared very well.

Mitt Romney’s lackluster record on civil rights hurt him badly in this election. Likewise, other Republican candidates who talked about “legitimate rape” and children conceived in rape as a “gift from God” were soundly defeated.  Attitudes and comments that might be acceptable in the locker room or the Gentleman’s Lounge at the club are no longer acceptable for those who want to lead a diverse nation of women and men.

Republicans have felt comfortable speaking from the position of privilege – white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and the privilege of wealth – for far too long.  If they want to remain a national party, they will have to move beyond that.  The groups who voted for President Obama are the growing edges of the electorate.  Perhaps more importantly, young people of both parties no longer see the partisan lines on social issues that their elders considered immutable.

Certainly these issues still galvanize a certain section of the Republican base, but they are increasingly distasteful to the young, educated, and diverse voters who will lead our country into the twenty-first century.  Additionally, immigrants – who make up an increasingly large part of the electorate – are unlikely to support a party that continues to treat them as second-class citizens, or not even citizens at all.

 

Obama Has Not Governed as a Liberal

Finally, and sadly, despite all of the rhetoric from the fringe right, President Obama is not a liberal, or at least has not governed as one.  A liberal would not have allowed any arctic drilling.  A liberal president would not have been soft on Wall Street.  A liberal president would not have allowed a former Monsanto Vice President anywhere near the FDA.  A liberal president would have pushed for a single-payer healthcare plan, rather than a conservative plan that favored insurance companies.  President Obama is a moderate conservative.

 

Final Thoughts

So, if Obama was the conservative in the race, what does that make the Republican Party of 2012?  Simply put, they are a fringe party, pulling themselves toward irrelevance.  Re-defining “Christianity” to mean fundamentalism and then pushing a theocratic agenda.  Defending the super-rich at the expense of the working classes.  Protecting corporate interests and profits over the health of our citizens and our environment.  Opposing civil rights for women, sexual minorities, and immigrants.  These are not “conservative” positions, they are anachronistic ideas that should be repugnant to all citizens of the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, in an astonishing case of myopia, some Republican voices are promising to go even further to the right.  They would be wise to listen to Republican Senator Linsey Graham, who observed, “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”  He is right, but the problem runs even deeper.  The issue is not that the Republican Party isn’t pushing its conservative values “hard” enough.  The Republican Party has exchanged actual conservative values – of community, integrity, and personal responsibility – for pseudo-religious hypocrisy, greed, self-destruction, and ethnocentrism.  Until the Republicans can jettison those anti-social values, the only relevant conservative party in America will be the Democrats.

 

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Collaboration Across the Divide

The Good Samaritan - Ferdinand Hodler (1885)

The Good Samaritan – Ferdinand Hodler (1885)

I am unashamedly a partisan in our current political debates.  I think we have two major political parties in this country: a conservative one and a far-right party controlled by anachronistic theocrats and billionaire robber barons.  I would love to have an actual, “liberal” party here, but I think it may take several more generations before we catch up to the rest of the Western world in that regard.

I point this out to explain that the observations which follow are not those of a “centrist” or a “moderate.”  I have very strong political views, and an intense dislike of nearly every aspect of the opposing party’s platform.  I think much of the work of my own party does not go far enough – to protect the environment, to protect the working class, and to protect our civil liberties.

Which leads to my conundrum.  To be so partisan, how can I have close friends, beloved friends who are like family, who are Republicans?  We are not friends because we have to be.  I like these women and men, value their opinions, and am grateful for their friendship.  And yet, they stand on the other side of this enormous political chasm, aligned with a political party that represents all of the values I oppose.

To examine this apparent contradiction, I started by asking myself which traits are common among all my close friends.  What do I value in a friend?  Based on my own observations, there are five core traits (in descending order) that are of fundamental importance to me in choosing my friends:  loyalty, integrity, kindness, generosity, and intelligence.  I am fortunate to have several close friends who have these traits in abundance.

This led me to my next question.  How is it that loyal, kind, ethical, generous, smart people could come to such different conclusions from mine about how we should govern the country?  I know from personal experience that they are not mean or cruel, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to deny healthcare, a living wage, and safe working environments to our citizens.  I know from personal experience that they are deeply ethical, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to give corporations free reign to destroy the health of our planet and our citizens.  I know from personal experience that they are loyal and generous to people of all backgrounds, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – privileges wealthy, straight, white men and denies rights and opportunities to people from other groups.

I’m sure from their perspective they find my politics equally puzzling.  How can we have so many values in common, yet ally ourselves passionately with opposing political parties?  How can we all values personal responsibility, kindness, excellence, and community; yet have such different understandings of how we – the people – should act to nurture those things?

Perhaps our values are more different than I think?  Asking this question led me to consider specific scenarios.  How would my friends and I respond to a person we found injured by the side of the road?  (I didn’t come up with that one, Jesus did.)  How would we respond to someone we knew whose child had cancer but could not afford their medical bills?  What would we do if we saw someone dumping toxic waste into a river?

In every scenario I could think of, my friends and I – despite our profound political differences – had approximately the same response.  Yet our posts on Facebook, our bumper stickers, and the conclusions of every pundit and political poll would claim that we do not agree on anything.   Where is the disconnect?

My best guess is that it is rooted in the fact that our political debates are not about specific scenarios.  Instead, we align our loyalties to broad doctrines:  libertarianism, objectivism, socialism, family values, progressivism, and many others,  We plant our flags on what we think those ideas mean, and then defend them against all comers.

Along the way, I don’t think we stop often enough to ask ourselves: What problems are we trying to solve?  Perhaps if this became our starting point – working inductively from what we hope to accomplish rather than deductively from the partisan concepts we hold most dear – we would begin with our common values rather than our opposing worldviews.  We would answer the questions collaboratively, rather than combatively.  We do this sometimes on a local level, working together to solve a known problem or sudden catastrophe.

On the national level, however, we almost never manage to do the same.  As a result, we spend a lot of time arguing about ideological differences rather than rolling up our sleeves and working to make this amazing country stronger, healthier, and ready for the future.   The single mother working two full-time jobs and still unable to provide a safe home and healthcare for her children is not  helped by our bickering.  The student who has diligently studied and sacrificed for their whole life for an education they realize they cannot afford will not suddenly be able to earn a diploma because of our debates.  The children who suffer from preventable ailments caused by unbreathable air, undrinkable water, or a lack of access to healthcare will not be miraculous healed by the time and resources we spend attacking the ideas of people who actually share our same core values.

So who is served by this impasse, in which people who care about the same things and share the same priorities spend their time arguing about whose theories are right – rather than realizing that there are plenty of practical solutions we actually agree upon?  Perhaps it benefits a small number of plutocrats who take advantage of the distractions to continue to exploit the system for their personal gain.  We, the common citizens, are certainly not helped in any way, and those of our neighbors in need clearly reap no benefits from our partisanship.

Unfortunately, I cannot think of an easy solution.  Our political system is built on a balancing beam of two opposing parties; and nothing short of a constitutional mandate is likely to change that.  On a personal level, though, perhaps it behooves us all to stop and consider the enigma of our friendships with people with whom – according to the claims of our respective political parties – we have nothing in common.  When we do, we might find ourselves digging down past convenient labels and dogmas and instead talking about how we can, together, build on our shared values to fix what is broken in our communities and our nation.  Doing so won’t advance the agenda of either party, and it won’t resolve a single political debate, but we might just realize those things don’t matter quite as much as we thought they did.

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