Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

What Does Progressive Mean Now?

Like many since the election, I’ve been somewhat silent in the blogosphere. This is partly because I had to get my life back, and rid myself of late night blogging addictions, but also because I could see the big blogs reverting to type. The necessary unity of the campaign then fell into the predictable outpourings of repressed dissent, much of it a reversion to past battles.  But a provocative piece in UK’s prospect Magazine by Michael Lind has got me thinking about where we go from here.

The American centre-left has gone through several phases in the last century, some more successful than others: the Progressive and Populist movements in the early 1900s; the bold and successful New Deal synthesis of 1932-68; the defensive, cautious neoliberalism of the late 20th century. The next reinvention of the centre-left may begin during Obama’s term in office.

Is this true? And if the centre left needs to reinvent itself, where do we go for inspiration?

Though there’s a lot I disagree with in his piece, Lind has fairly much nailed us Moosers with this description:

Obama won the Democratic party nomination partly because he appealed to the two major wings of the post-Clinton Democrats: the single-issue left, and pro-business New Democrats based in the financial, IT and media industries.

To take the demographic issue head on, it is obvious that the blogosphere is in danger of being a self selecting elite. But let’s not get into some kind of inverted snobbery about it. A a majority of us are college educated, with professional or managerial backgrounds but here we are not departing from normality, but actually reflecting it.

In the UK the professional or managerial classes have gone from being 10 per cent of the workforce in the 1930s to 40 per cent now. The change, according to Lind, is also pronounced in the US.

Today more than a quarter of the population earns a bachelor’s degree and roughly one tenth has a graduate or professional degree. The college-educated social stratum that was already the base for the Progressive movement a century ago has vastly expanded. Meanwhile, the traditional working class has not only shrunk, but is also increasingly divided along class and caste lines.

So rather than feeling guilt about our backgrounds – in most cases due to the liberal advances and innovations of post war education – can we actually celebrate it, and then turn those intellectual resources which our parents and grand parents sacrificed so much of their lives to give us, to some concerted effect?

So what are the principles that a New Progressive movement could rally around?

At the moment, according to Lind, there are glaring contradictions:

The right wing of the Democratic party is more libertarian than conservative. Its members tend to be fiscal conservatives who favour racial integration and gay rights, but also (at least until recently) favoured free markets, free trade, and deregulation, and looked with suspicion on trade unions… This raises an interesting question. If the left stands for equality, in what sense are the Democrats a party of the left?

To me the Moose admirably combines a diverse group of bloggers, who can debate their differences without (most of the time) without resorting to name calling or fixed positions. But, to talk bluntly, I sometimes do fear that our diaries, like these issues, tend to break down to fractions that are less than the whole.

Think of our post election diaries on Proposition 8, Sexism in the Media, or the role of Labor Unions. The danger is that these diaries only address, and are only responded to, by sections of the Moose. NBW did a grand job trying to frame the question LGBT rights outside Republican  culture wars rhetoric. But its harder to animate people on general principles than on personal issues.

We are a MOTLEY Moose, and all have things which we care about passionately as individuals, or sub groups, but how do we rally round together?

According to Lind we are too Motley for our own good:

Brilliant, unorthodox thinkers like James K Galbraith are outnumbered by conformist Democratic economists who have internalised free market ideas about trade and labour markets. Elsewhere on the university campuses and in think tanks, it is hard to find any coherent progressive philosophy at all, as opposed to a miscellany of identity-politics “communities” based on race and gender.

I don’t agree with this caricature – it’s name calling and identity politics of its own kind. But Lind does identify the intellectual impasse that could follow.

When it comes to the current economic crisis the challenge is not so much political as intellectual. The good news for Democrats is that they have become the party of government because the voters perceive that the Republican party’s free-market ideology is discredited by events. The problem is that the Democratic establishment, with very bad timing, has adopted much of that ideology in the last generation.

Perhaps then the debate over what Progressive means has been made more urgent  by the credit crunch, and the effective collapse of the unregulated chaos of the banking, insurance and mortgage markets. The Third Way of Neo liberal deregulation seems to be have failed along with the Reagan Thatcher laissez economics it was hitched to. What can replace it?

With the nationalisation of many financial institutions we are witnessing the practical resurgence of government intervention on a scale not seen for forty years.

Do we fight to keep government out of other areas of our life? Where does it leave the wider principles of free trade? And if national governments protect employment and wealth within their own borders, what happens to the other great issues – oil dependency, climate change, global poverty – which require an international response?

Can we define some common social, philosophical or economic threads of a new progressive movement, beyond the boxes of gender, class, ethnic background, profession or indeed – dare I say it – national boundaries?

One diary and thread is not going to  pose all the questions, let alone provide all the answers but is  there a way we can synthesise some common principles from Canadian Gal’s rallying call  “Progress through Politics” and somehow unify this debate?  


  1. Jjc2008

    I really do not know any more. I thought I did but since 2005 when I started blogging, I have become somewhat confused as to what progressive defines.

    I have always defined myself as a “liberal.”  

    I believe in social programs; I believe in strong, activist labor.

    I believe that the reason identity politics have been so powerful is because the issues of identity remain problematic.  Issues of gender, issues of ethnicity, issues of sexual preference, issues of class remain barriers for many.

    The election of Barack Obama has been an amazingly positive powerful message to young African Americans.  As well his election may impact minority groups throughout the world in a positive way. Barack has shown that education and hard work can make a difference for all ethnicities.

    I believe the election of Hillary would have had as powerful an effect on women worldwide.

    Common social goals: I do believe, have always believed, that it does indeed “take a village.”  I believe in the need for universal health care, universal public education, preK thru college.  I believe in the notion of the “commons.”  There are some things we all need from ourselves as public norms: police and fire departments, education; health care.

    I do not know if these are things “progressives” believe in.  But then I am not sure who (on the blogs) represent progressives.  Many of those blogs who call themselves progressive have been quite vocal on their “anti public education” rhetoric; against mandates for health care.”  In fact some of those blogs seem far more libertarian than what I used to think of as progressive.

    So I guess where we start is with what do those here who call themselves “progressive” stand for in these arenas.

    Education: I believe in public education and believe this country would be served well if the people took a stand and pushed for fully funded pre K thu college education.

    Labor: Without strong labor, unionized to ensure fair wages….balancing the power of management, Americans will suffer.

    Health care: I believe in Universal, single payer, cradle to grave health care.

    Separation of church and state: This issue needs to be addressed.  Since Reagan, too much influence by religious cults, right wing evangelicals has been allowed to influence policy.  The rights of the gay and lesbian community should not be subjected to the religious beliefs of others.  Religion has no place in this government.

    I believe all of these issues matter in other countries too.  Poor people in China, India and other places are being adversely affected by the policies of the plutocracies in wealthy, powerful nations.

    I look forward to reading the views of others and debating them, pro and con.

  2. Now to figure out how to explain that…

    Government doesn’t stand for any one thing, like national defense. I agree with everything jjc listed. I would add national infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and railways to that list. Also, like many on the right and left, I believe in a strong defense. The trick is to balance all of these competing interests.

    Every dollar spent on defense is one that isn’t there for education. Every dollar spent on health care is one that isn’t available for new roads or mass transit. How do we determine when enough is enough in any one area?

    I believe there are two areas that have been neglected to the detriment of our country – health care and education. In order to pay for all of the things a modern society requires to function takes a large tax base. The best way to build the tax base is with a  healthy and well-educated populace, thus investments in education and health care are high-priorities.

    The world is very unsettled right now. I hate to agree with the right-wing on anything, but they are right when they say there are those who would do us harm. We have to defend ourselves. However, that doesn’t mean giving unlimited funds to the military/-industrial complex. How do we find a balance?

    The only way we know to deal with any issue is to appoint experts to manage it. These experts are then stakeholders. They will always want to expand the area covered by their issue. For example, if we get universal health care, the experts in charge will begin lobbying for more doctors and nurses. That requires a larger investment. If they get more doctors and nurses, they will argue for more 24 hour health clinics. It will be non-ending.

    We’ve already seen this happen in the defense arena. The air force always needs newer, faster, and bigger planes. The navy always needs more ships and armament systems. It never stops.

    All of these competing interests must be balanced. That task falls on congress and the executive branch. Unfortunately, both of them are susceptible to the appeals of special interests. I see little balance in our government.

    We do know that too much central control will not work. The USSR collapsed because of too much central control and China didn’t start growing until it loosened that control. We also know that a system of oversight that is too lax also causes problems. We are living through that scenario right now. Again, it is a matter of balance.

    Totally free markets result in chaos. Totally regulated markets become stagnant. There is a balance point somewhere between the two. I believe that balance is more towards free markets, but not totally free.

    Globalization is here to stay. The bigger a company is, the more leverage it has with governments, banks, and suppliers. However, big is not always best. Our ancestors knew this. There have been several times in our history where it became necessary to break up the biggest companies. I think it’s time to go back to the trust-busting days of Teddy Roosevelt.

    Free markets don’t work if they aren’t really free. With the advent of the huge international corporation, the markets ceased to be free. These companies have reached the point where they are seen as too big to fail. If a company doesn’t have to face the consequences of failure then the idea of a free market is a joke. What happens when all of the world’s money is held by only 3 banks? What happens when we only have 3 car companies world-wide? What happens when 3-4 media moguls control 90% of the media market? It’s time to bust them up and put constraints on the consolidation of any market area.

  3. GrassrootsOrganizer

    I believe there regulations are like anything else — you need a scalpel, not an ax, to separate good from bad.

    One thing I’d like to see come back — anti-monopoly regulations and enforcement.  

    I’d also like to see a return to sane regulation of advertisement.  I my mind there should not be advertising for medical procedures and drugs that prompt folks towards stubborn self-diagnosis.  

    The entire drug industry needs reform, with incentives towards innovations that serve the greater good over those that are profitable to market.  And they shouldn’t be allowed to push the R&D costs of “lifestyle” drugs onto life saving drugs so the sickest shoulder the costs of new 36 Hour Cialis and once a month birth control.  

    I don’t think we will ever create a utopia for a number of reasons — there will always be greed and greed will always find a way o concentrate wealth in any system you create — conditions will change through innovations, demands and crisis we can’t predict.  The idea can’t be to create some perfect system, but to push towards better balance in the moment.

    At this point in history we are faced with a number of concerns of global impact — LGBT discrimination and oppressive religious orthodoxy is not an American issue; nor is the plight of unorganized workers; nor the need for equal access to health care.  

    We also can’t frame a progressive “agenda,” we can only commit to a progressive dialogue.  

  4. DeniseVelez

    pragmatist as I’ve gotten older – since I have for most of my life been far to the left of Democrats.  I suppose if I’m anything that can be tagged it would be a “Democratic Socialist” label,since I believe government should ensure universal quality health care, education, child care and elder care for all its citizens.  

    I am also disturbed by the sweeping impact of globalization – those who supply the raw materials for wealth get increasingly poorer, as an international elite gets richer and richer.  

    Perhaps the tanking markets world wide will be a wake-up call, but I doubt it.  

    I am a unionist and hope that the future will see true international unions (not just in name only) creating solidarities world wide.  

    I hope we can move away from identify politics, or to be more specific we negate the need for them, since they are founded on the need to equalize the playing field.

    We aren’t there yet.  

    I also believe in a much stronger separation of church and state, in a world where fundamentalist religious movements are growing in strength.  

  5. then it looks like being against the right-wing is the progressive cause. How can you think otherwise when a post about Ann Coulter getting her jaw wired shut generates more than 10 times the comments than a post about health care.

  6. GrassrootsOrganizer

    Interesting observation passed on to me a week or so ago —

    The two most successful economies of the moment are in

    China, a socialist republic where the government directly controls a third of the industries and is deeply enmeshed in the running of the rest, and

    India, where a government planned economy where significant sectors are nationalized.

    Grant you, both are growing in large part through personal enterprise, yet neither could be considered “free market” by any stretch of the imagination.  And why is it after nearly a decade of free-for-all Bushonomics, we are where we are today?

    All these attachment to a “free market system” seems bizarre, given it doesn’t seem to be working anywhere on the planet except for a particular class at the expense of everyone else.  Can someone just explain to me why progressives should support free market capitalism, beyond opportunity for personal profit?  

  7. GrassrootsOrganizer

    Obama won the Democratic party nomination partly because he appealed to the two major wings of the post-Clinton Democrats: the single-issue left, and pro-business New Democrats based in the financial, IT and media industries.

    I can’t agree with this statement and wonder who these single-issue leftists are.  I realize everyone has their key issue that impacts them most directly or stirs them the most to action.  And yet I don’t think there are all that many single-issue voters on the left for whom their top issue is a deal breaker.  

    For one example, I know a number of environmentalists who would never vote for a Republican at an level, regardless of their commitment or even achievements on the environment, primarily because their concerns extend beyond the environment. LGBT activists have been voting for Democrats for years, most often without any commitment to LGBT rights from Democratic candidates for the same reason and because they alternative is more often than not outright hostile to their concerns.

    If there is a “deal-breaker” for most voters on the left I’d suspect it’s Choice.  No Democrat who campaigned on over-turning Roe v Wade is going to get their vote, but such a candidate would drive off any number of voters, like myself, who have any number of issues closer to their hearts.  

    I’m trying to imagine a pro-labor candidate who was outwardly anti-gay or anti-choice.  Would I vote for him or her?  No.  

    In my experience, progressive communities, internet or real life, generally share a commitment to a slate of issues even as they break out into activist groups on a single issue.  So you will see a roundtable of mainstream environmentalists, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, health care advocates, LGBT rights groups, ACORN and Jobs With Justice working together for candidates that better serve some of them than others.  When it comes time to call upon the folks they help elect, you may see them elbowing for the candidates ear.  But in general, it’s tough to find an environmental activist who doesn’t give a damn about civil rights.

    As for the “pro-business New-Democrats” they will either be social progressives or not.  Those that are progressives may simply bring a new “top concern” to the table, although I’ve yet to see that concern articulated.  Those who are social centrists will do whatever they do, and perhaps we could discuss how to keep the coalition together, but I wouldn’t call them “progressives” or “leftists”.  (I dare say it might not be safe to call them “Democrats”…perhaps “Obama Democrats”?)

    Frankly, I’m unsure if the question here is who should Obama serve? or how do we maintain this majority? or what is the shared slate of the Motley Moose?    

  8. spacemanspiff

    … getting my 0.02 cents I’m taking a crack at it.

    Might be all over the place and semi-incoherent.

    /rant mode on

    We need the people of the country to act, to take the next steps themselves .

    Until ordinary Americans, acting in their own homes and communities, step forward to address racism, sexism and homophobia in real and meaningful ways, hatred towards and mistreatment of people based on their skin color, gender, and sexual orientiation will continue.

    The active participation of people in the process to address this and other issues is the beginning of progressive politics.

    I’m not saying grassroots activity, on its own, is progressivism. What I’m saying is I believe that grassroots activity, in combination with government action, is progressivism.

    Without the right laws and government programs, the action of the people will be insufficient to overcome the huge barriers and institutionalized forces of injustice and malfeasance (spiff bringing out the big words –take that Brit!).

    But without the active participation of a committed public behind them, government laws and programs will grow past the point of being beneficial and stray towards the tyrannical.

    Progressive politics, then, occurs when ordinary citizens wake up, pay attention, and take action.

    They elect people who will use government to good ends, ends we would generally describe as liberal.

    But these ordinary citizens understand government action, however necessary, is insufficient and they do much more than elect the right people:

    They learn to wield their own power as citizens.

    And since those on the right can do exactly that, and have been doing that, the key to progressive politics is in the nature of the policies being pursued.

    And I think those policies are as they have been since FDR transformed, and saved, this nation: Liberal .

    Progressives are liberals who don’t count on government but each other.

    While trusting their government to do the right things.

    /end of rant

  9. highly rec’d. and its gal brit not girl…

    now as to the topic at hand…  i always thought that the term ‘progressive’ was sort of a cover for the word liberal since the right-wingers in the states have tried to make it a dirty word and it seems that many shy away from characterizing themselves a ‘liberals.’

    but i think you touch on the most important part of the issue here”

    Can we define some common social, philosophical or economic threads of a new progressive movement, beyond the boxes of gender, class, ethnic background, profession or indeed – dare I say it – national boundaries?

    with the advent of the net as a political tool, us as de facto pundits, and our influence in the media i daresay we now share a v. important role in:

    1.  bringing attention to issues that are ignored

    2.  lobbying govt to listen to matters in the world that  

       are important to us

    3.  rallying communities to action

    4.  making groups (media, govt, corporations)accountable

    there are more of course – but it really is quite amazing how the intertubes have changed the world.

  10. GrassrootsOrganizer

    Maybe no self–selected group out there, including this one, has any real business determining what should constitute a “progressive” agenda.  Maybe the work of true progressives would be to organize more people, the broadest spectrum possible, into collective mastery of their own communities and nations, and the world.

    I just bet if one could somehow poll every strata of the world’s population, in every corner of it, the base concerns would be the same — clean air and water, wilderness preserved and population centers rebuilt, good transportation, enough food and clean water, quality accessible education for all the world’s children to achieve their highest potential, a living wage jobs for those who cannot, health care, dignity, respect and security in the workplace, justice in the courtroom, privacy in the bedroom, compassionate care for those who cannot care for themselves, an end to prejudice, the right to religious practice and cultural integrity no longer threatened by imperialism, sectarian violence, religious imposition and corporate opportunism.  

    And I suspect the world’s population would be all about the “redistribution of wealth” … but then I shouldn’t assume what the people would want or need — the true progressive would want the people to be empowered to speak loudly and effectively to their own needs and wants.  

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