Danny Cardwell's picture

    Progressivism And Its Discontents

    “The time comes when each of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.”
    ― Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents


    The ideological rifts inside the Democratic Party are widening. Some of this animosity can be attributed to the fact that progressives are required to fight multiple battles simultaneously. One unintended consequence of fighting so many battles at once is our sometimes collective inability to appreciate how important each battle is to the overall movement. We (at times) ignore or diminish causes others are passionate about because their fights might not impact our daily lives. This creates artificial hierarchies between allies, breeds animosity, and leads to distrust. Progressives with racial, ethnic, and LGBTQA specific interests tend to focus more on fighting battles in the culture wars specific to their identity. This doesn't mean fighting "big" oil, "big" coal, "big" agrochemical, and slew of "big" corporate polluters isn't important, but daily existential threats take priority over fights that could take a generation to yield tangible negative results. This doesn't mean people of color get a pass on environmental duties. Racial minorities are disproportionately affected by carbon based polluters. Flint, Michigan is the big story, but there are almost a dozen schools in Newark, New Jersey facing a similar water crisis. These fights take place while all of us share the burden of fighting for higher wages, single payer healthcare, and to break corporate America's grip on the Federal Government. No matter how hot our progressive fires burn none of us are capable of efficiently fighting on every front. Every issue we fight for is important, yet we lose sight of this. Progressivism has to include everyone for it to be more than an empty political trope.


    I struggle to get some of my progressive friends to understand that sometimes defending the gains we've made can be more important than trying to advance the next cause. It's hard to accept the fact that our role in the movement might be to provide a steady foundation for others to build on. The Black progressive experience in America is rooted in the understanding that: I may not get there with you, but I'll give my life to better yours. Who really believes Black and White Abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, Fredrick Douglas, John Brown, or Harriet Tubman wouldn't have chosen an easier way if there was one? Progress is hard! Trying to overcome overt biases is hard; it's even harder to overcome the underlying, often unconscious ideological biases at the core of many bad social and economic policy decisions.


    I've been ruthless in my critique of many of the younger progressives I've met in the last few years- sometimes too hard. In the 90's I believed we were going to be the generation that ended police brutality, got companies and universities to divest from South Africa, and end the Israeli occupation in Palestine. I, like many of my friends, hit the ground running. We were full of energy, ambition, and "expertise". I talked way more than I listened, I was condescending towards some of the people who helped force integration in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and I thought "REVOLUTIONS" were sprints instead of marathons. Terry Prachett has a quote I love, "Don't put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That's why they're called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes." I don't hold the cynical view that nothing changes, but I have to admit that some things have remained the same. On March 3, 1991 Rodney King was beaten within an inch of his life following a high speed chase. 25 years later Black men are still dying in the streets at the hands of law enforcement. We use hashtags to commemorate today's victims of police brutality, but we haven't eradicated the problem.


    The Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers, and the subsequent riots woke me up. All of us have an issue or event that changed our lives, if you don't have one- then maybe you're not the revolutionary you thought you were. It's hard moving from one defeat to another along the slow path towards progress. This can kill you! The stress associated with trying to force a country to adhere to its promises has put many good men and women in early graves. This is more than a cool bumper sticker on a hybrid, or a secular savior complex one might have with a leader they identify with. Harriet Tubman said the only regret she had was that she didn't die in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia with John Brown. She looked back on her life and wished she had participated in a raid that lead to the death of everyone involved. When Medgar Evers was murdered Martin and Malcolm kept fighting. When John Kennedy was killed Robert kept serving. Progressivism isn't a one time event where you show up get the tee shirt and reflect on the good time you had. If you choose this life you'll learn to accept defeat or be defeated by it. If you have access to someone you trust over 60 ask them how it felt when the Kennedy's were assassinated, ask them how they felt when they heard Dr. King was murdered. It seems like progressives get weaker the closer we get to realizing our goals. 50 years ago progressives found ways to compartmentalize the deaths of their peers and colleagues to fight on; today, we threaten to boycott elections if our candidate doesn't win. We lack a toughness that we may never get back. 


    In the last five years Arizona implemented a photo I.D. law that legalized racial profiling before it got struck down by the Supreme Court; Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act  was declared unconstitutional; and Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia all crafted legislation with the intent to disenfranchise Gays and Lesbians. These are the issues that don't affect progressives who were born with an "advantageous societal predisposition". If you choose to sit out of an election that could further erode the gains fought for before many of your parents were born then you were never an ally. Peel your Bernie bumper sticker off your Ron Paul one and trade them both in for a Make America Great hat. If you can't see that either Democrat is far better on social issues than any of the Republicans you're either apathetic too the plight of the rest of us in the big tent or you haven't matured enough to know what it means to be a revolutionary, either way I'd rather be in a foxhole with someone I can trust.



    Thanks for another excellent post. At the end of the day, most Progressives will vote for the Democratic candidate . I do think that when some of us hear the word "revolution" certain images come to mind because we know the history of risking life and limb to merely take seats at a Democratic convention. We remember murders covered up by legally impaneled juries. We remember bombings of homes and churches. We see no current revolution but empty rhetoric.

    The racists have destroyed the Voting Rights Act and we bury one of the lead racists on the Supreme Court with honors. It took murders captured on video to build enough angers to vote out prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland who allowed allegations of  murders by police to go unchallenged. Progress is hard. 

    Beware the man who says that he will lead a revolution that he has done nothing to create.

    Thanks Danny.  As always, good work and I agree with your conclusion.  I think what frustrates many on the left is the sense that the Democratic establishment has largely abandoned poor, working, and middle-class Americans who are economically worse off than they were 40 years ago.  Arguments that Republicans are that much worse, while true, can come off as insensitive to this fact or simply uncaring.

    The Freud quote reminds me of the often discussed differences between Hobbes and Rousseau.
    Hobbes saw the civic life beginning at the level of an individual willing to lay down arms in exchange for ending the war of each against all others.
    Rousseau proposed there was a natural disposition to bond with others that was buried by the instruments that form States and other institutions that tend to get Capitalized when referring to them.
    How the "primal scene" is understood to unfold leads to very different understandings of history and what causes events.

    Thanks for commenting! The Social Contract and Leviathan are joined at the proverbial hip. The responsibility of the individual to the collective and the collective to the individual is a political and philosophical Rorschach test that, in my opinion, shapes much of the public discourse we have about the role of government. A few years ago I went to a talk given by a professor friend who was teaching Ronald Beiner's book Civil Religion. In his text Beiner gave a great treatment on how a society can strive towards a more Rousseauean political worldview. One problem "revolutionaries" face is that they seek revolution while remaining inside of the same symbolic order. The French Revolution changed how France was governed; the American Revolution did the same. Today's revolutionaries want change inside the same system. It seems at odds with history.

    Beiner's ideas regarding the development of political philosophy as a struggle against the enclosure of theocracy are important. I will try to respond to the meaning of revolution as defined by those parameters after mulling it over a bit. If I fail to deliver, it means I could not improve upon his contribution.

    In the meantime, I am pretty sure the Freudian perspective is a sharp departure from all that. If one accepts the psychological register, the political philosophies become parallel visions of the development of a single human being. From the ground up, as it were.

    Republicans used gay activism in 2004 to drive conservatives to the polls over gay marriage. Considering Kerry lost by only 2.4% (3 million votes) and 35 electoral votes, it almost certainly cost him the election along with numerous state races. Balancing agendas is tough.

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