Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Disillusionment and the Rise of the Neo-Progs

by Troy Chapman

(published November 04)

This is the last straw. It’s Wednesday morning after the election and the Dems just lost me 20 honey buns — 10 to each of my bunkies. But if I’m honest, I have to say I deserve it — and so do John Kerry and the Democrats.

I bet on them not because I believed in them — they don’t even believe in themselves — but rather because I think the alternative is worse. That’s a sorry reason to support anyone — because they’re slightly less bad than your other options. But in truth, that’s why most of us supported John Kerry. It’s why so many of us stick with the Democrats in general. And the Democrats have decided that’s enough of a distinction, to be “less toxic Republicans.”

The truth is, the Dems haven’t come up with a new idea in a long time. Meanwhile the neo-cons have been boldly and passionately challenging — and in many cases dismantling — our social structure. They have ideas by the truckload. Mean and wrong ideas in my view but at least ideas.

The Democratic response has been to try to adopt as many of these ideas as they can and still call themselves an alternative. Proving, of course, the Republican charge that they care more about winning than taking a principled stand. And even when they succeed in adopting right-wing ideas, they ultimately don’t believe in them and so they implement them with a half-heartedness that is utterly unappealing. They deserve to have lost.

I know it’s disillusioning to us progressives. We wanted to believe. But as a friend of mine once pointed out to me, disillusionment is a good thing. It means “to be free or deprived of an illusion.” We’ve been under the illusion that the Democrats were going to actually come back to their progressive roots and start standing up for the things we love and care about. Or that they “had” to sell out to get in power and once there, they would quietly advance a progressive agenda. Well, the truth is that when they get into power they keep selling out to stay in power. And now even that “deceive-the-voters-by-hiding-my-progressive-views-and-trying-to-appear-slightly-right” strategy has failed. Whenever we try to sell our integrity for some greater goal, we end up losing both our integrity and the greater thing we were seeking. Gandhi taught us that. Or he tried to.

Yes, Democrats deserve it. The question is, Where to from here? We can become bitter losers, wallowing in the muddy waters of Woe-Is-Me River. Or we can strap on a grimace and swear we’re going to win in four years — which was our post-2000 strategy, by the way. Or (and this is my choice) we can start cleaning up our own house, make some real changes, and figure out how to translate our vision for the world into effective political and social action.

In my view, progressives need to come home philosophically, remember where we came from, and then transform that core philosophy into a new thing that’s ready to survive in the modern world. In short, we need to transform ourselves into “neoprogressives” (or “neo-progs” for short).

To do this we must:

1) Abandon Old-Style Liberalism. The right is right: liberalism as we know it is an elitist ideology. If the right embraces a disciplinarian authoritarianism, liberalism is nothing but its permissive counterpart. The right is the mean parent; the left is the overindulgent parent. Both treat people like children and both disable people by taking responsibility away from them and telling them they don’t have to think for themselves. The right does it with threats and the left with rewards, but what’s the difference?

Liberalism is dead, and unless we’re Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, we can’t save it. And even if we could, we could never get it off life support. We need to let it die a dignified death. No more Uncle-Sam-as-Sugar-Daddy. It’s not good for us nor for those we ask to govern us.

2) Abandon the Clintonian “New Democrats.” We love Bill, but let’s face, it’s mostly because he kicked the Republicans’ butts. When we look at how he governed he was more right than Nixon and Reagan. He picked up where Reagan left off — in expanding police and corporate powers and undermining personal liberty. He signed the “Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act,” one major thrust of which is to close the courts to all people accused of crimes by the government. His trade policies were another page from the right’s playbook.

Thirty years ago, Clinton would have been considered a mainstream Republican. The fact that we remember him as a moderate Democrat only shows how far we’ve been dragged to the right over all. He was basically a Republican with charisma. And when other Democrats saw how it worked for him, they piled on and the “new democrats” were born.

Anyone who’s a “new democrat” ought to join the Republican party. Maybe their presence will bring the Republicans back toward the center. Certainly their absence in the Democratic party will make room for people who actually still believe in progressive values.

3) Come Back to Our Spiritual Roots. It might surprise anyone under 25, but the progressives — not the regressives — are the party of spiritual values. Progressivism arose out of a deep passion for social justice, out of the idea that God demands that we take care of the poor, stand up for the weak, and conduct our public affairs with reference to some higher power than ourselves.

Somewhere along the line progressivism moved into academia; it became an intellectual ideology (old-style liberalism), and the progressive spiritual principles on which it was built began to be seen as quaint. Intellectualism took their place and the left divorced itself from its spiritual roots.

When the regressives came along with their pious moralism (some might say moral bigotry) there was nothing on the left to serve as an alternative. Right-wing Christian fundamentalism stepped right into this void and the right was able to present itself as the only party that acknowledged God. Of course, because the progressives were M.I.A., the right was also able to define “God” — to effectively take possession of both the word and the concept.

The irony is that most progressives I know are deeply spiritual people — they just have no clue how to talk about their spirituality in sound bites. Moralism is much easier to sell because it’s dualistic, but that’s no excuse for our silence. Nor for our “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy — our view that spirituality can somehow be kept out of public affairs, that it’s a private matter. The specific forms of religious expression are and should be private, but the essence of our spirituality and the morality that arises from it are very much public matters.

We need to get clear about the spiritual source of our worldview and learn to communicate it effectively. If, in the end, people reject reverence, kindness, goodwill, love, and hope, that’s one thing. The failure to even stand up for them is another thing altogether, and shameful.

4) Discover and Act on Our Beliefs. Finally, we need to figure out what we believe about human nature, the human condition, progress, power, etc., and start acting on these beliefs.

Where is the progressive view of crime and criminal policy and the passionate arguments to back it up? The Democratic position is essentially no different from that of the right: “They’re evil and need to be locked up.” We may bicker (in our better moments) about how badly to treat criminals, but we ought to be attacking the very idea that cruelty and brutality can somehow produce good in reference to prisoners or any other “enemy.”

We ought to be making a case for increasing consciousness, exposing people to beauty, and inspiring them with hope. Instead we’re voting to build more prisons.

Progressives believe that people are basically good. That evil is a result of spiritual ignorance and woundedness. And that leads to a very different set of responses to it than does the belief that it comes from malice or from someone not sharing your religion. We know that consciousness is changed partly by education but mostly by creative love and respect — not by hatred and harm — and we ought to stop apologizing for that view or trying to hide it.

I am a monist, not a dualist, so I believe humanity will sink or swim as one organism. By that I mean that creating the kind of world we all want to live in is less a matter of winning a war than of winning a peace. The neo-cons believe in control. Neo-progs believe in consciousness. As far as I can see the Democrats are with the neo-cons on this one. They’re just fighting for who ought to be in control — not whether control is where we ought to invest ourselves. Thus, getting a Democrat in office (or not) isn’t the issue. The country would not have been truly “turned around” by John Kerry.

Instead, winning this election would only have allowed us to maintain our illusion a little while longer. I’m glad to be disillusioned. Maybe now we can settle in to the business of remembering that other forgotten truth about progressivism: that it lives from the bottom up. That you and I are more important than any politician holding national office when it comes to seeing a progressive agenda moved forward in America. When we start seriously questioning our own consumer lifestyles, our own support of and dependence upon a system of inequity, our own need for perpetual enemies — when we truly start living progressively, progressivism will start winning in the country.

On that day the neo-progs will unite and rise.... Well, I can dream anyway.