Philosophy, Politics, Progressivism

Some Provisional Thoughts About What Progressives Believe

Progressive Party Convention

Spent a little time this week revisiting progressivism’s core values, one of my prime research areas. A colleague asked for my thoughts on “the axes” of progressive thought. He noted that American conservatism draws on libertarianism, evangelical Christianity, and on secular traditionalism. How about the Left? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? Why should anyone listen to us? So, here’s what I answered:

First of all, I’m hesitant to think about these in terms of “axes.” I prefer “foundations” or “narratives” or something like that. This may be academic in the end. I should also note that I’m just talking about rhetorical justifications here, not knockdown metaphysical/philosophical arguments. This is almost assuredly an academic concern.

One easy one, though it’s fraught with peril in the face of history’s tragedies, is the progressive history narrative. It’s pretty easy to discuss how the world (and especially the United States has become more open, free, and fair to more individuals from more groups. We let all white men vote, then all men of any race (briefly), then all women, then everyone over a certain age, and then everyone over a lower age. When we’re talking about extending political access/participation/protection to underserved groups, it’s useful to talk about past “stages in this process.” Obama is particularly good at this. Lincoln also has powerful language on this.

I should also note that progressives should consider Lincoln as a patron saint, and should lean on him whenever possible. It ticks conservatives off (which may be valuable on its own), but it’s only fair, since they’re hardly his party anymore. Lincoln could be a whole narrative category on his own.

If we’re arguing that way, we need to lean heavily on American identity. “As Americans, we’ve always taken freedom/equality/justice/self-determination/etc seriously. We are not a country that cuts taxes on gazillionaires and then says that we have no money for WIC.” Let’s call this “communitarianism.”

Another one: we should always, always, always be the party of science and facts. This isn’t a moral narrative (as we found out by trying to pitch health care reform as “efficient/cheap/moneysaving/etc”), but it’s a down payment of honesty that can’t hurt. We could also call this “pragmatism.”

Finally, and this is an easy one, we make nowhere near enough reference to the Social Gospel. In part because of what the New Left and the neo-New Secular Left (to coin a phrase) have done for the last five or six decades, we’ve really lost touch with the Christian tradition. Whether God is really there or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that speaking in anti-religious or even non-religious terms is a losing strategy outside of Wellesley, Berkeley, and a few other unique places.

Here are some other posts that I’ve written on the theme:

Leftism and the Internet
Handing Down Unity on the Left and Right
Vulgar vs. Philosophical Pragmatism
Service (Teach For America) and Growing Up Progressives

If you’re interested in a much more detailed version of this, take a look at these essays from the Progressive Studies Program. I co-authored two with John Halpin, of the Center for American Progress (“Progressive Intellectual Tradition” and “Progressivism of the American Founding”).


11 thoughts on “Some Provisional Thoughts About What Progressives Believe

  1. Really like the historical angle of this piece and also agree with the phrasing of foundations (opposed to “axes”).

    I’m a bit confused on what the “Social Gospel” is but I don’t think I agree that the New Secular Left has hurt or lost touch with the progressive movement. People in the category of “non-religious” are the fastest growing section of religion in the world and it’s a voice that tends to align with the progressive movement. Anti-religious rhetoric or slightly more aggressive rhetoric by atheists might be slightly polarizing but I think labeling “non-religious rhetoric” as a failing strategy that only snobbish scholars can relate to is a mistake.

    Posted by Mike | March 5, 2011, 6:28 pm
    • Quick answers:
      1) The New Secular Left hasn’t lost touch with the progressive movement so much as helped to link the progressive movement with radical secularism.
      2) 86% of Americans believe in God. Seculars may be growing quickly as a group, but they’re nowhere near a winning electoral strategy. Maybe in a century or two. This doesn’t have to mean that we rhetorically wrap ourselves in the Bible, only that we don’t want to alienate any large parts of that overwhelming majority of Americans. This is going to mean being able to speak the language of the Social Gospel. Speaking of…
      3) The Social Gospel that I’m referring to is usually linked with Dorothy Day, Monsignor John Ryan, Walter Rauschenbusch, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings/work, among others.

      Posted by CPW | March 5, 2011, 6:40 pm
  2. 86% of Americans may believe in God, but I don’t think that means 86% of Americans prefer their politics to be laced with religious justifications. That percentage would be quite a bit lower. One of my favorite Obama speeches was given early in his campaign, to a church somewhere (I forget where). In the speech, he talks about his own conversion story and the importance of religion for him. But he ALSO goes on to talk about what an important role secularism plays in the republic, and how it’s incumbent upon religious people to be able to justify their religious beliefs in secular terms when those beliefs are influencing their political decisions. It is inadmissable for a politician to base his political actions upon purely religious ground. See the example recently of the congressman who cited God’s promise to Noah after the flood when opposing climate change legislation.

    I think I might be making a bit of a straw-man here, but I guess I just don’t see too much evidence of the fact that people who might otherwise vote for progressive candidates don’t do so because of a perceived irreligiosity.

    Religiosity in political discourse is also perhaps not as old and traditional as we might think. As David Domke, professor at the University of Washington, argues, the use of religious language in American political rhetoric has increased and become more self-confident since Reagan (with whom the phrase “God Bless America” became a staple of all speeches). You can see Domke presenting some of his findings in this video:

    A long video, but an interesting one.

    I admit that some of what I say here is beside the point. But I think it’s fair to say that, while embracing religious ideas may do some good for helping progressives connect with voters, I think the progressive movement would also stand to alienate some of its most ardent supporters if it began to take on the aura of religious self-assuredness that can often be found on the right.

    Posted by Bill | March 6, 2011, 9:05 am
    • I agree that you’re having a somewhat different argument than the one my post would suggest. A few things:

      1) A majority of Obama’s most successful speeches (Tucson, Rev. Wright, etc) have been religiously-themed.

      2) The 86% of believers stat is only useful as a counter to “seculars are the fastest-growing” stat. Neither of these stats is directly linked to the question: “Should we be capable of presenting our case in religious terms?”

      3) Along those lines, there’s no way to know what percentage of Americans “want” to hear religious rhetoric. My argument is that it’s something they may not even be conscious of. It’s a comfort-zone thing. This is why, incidentally, that I’m placing my bets with progressive candidates who can speak secularly and religiously (Obama a prime example), not those who often alienate religion from their rhetoric. Remember John Kerry’s position on abortion during the 2004 campaign? Something like, “I’m against it as a Catholic, but I leave my faith at the Senate chamber door when voting.” It was right around the time that he started using that (very-Rawlsian) formulation in the campaign that polls started showing his so-called “values problem.” People thought he didn’t believe in anything. This was obviously false, but it didn’t matter.

      4) Last point: your formulation (taking “on the aura of religious self-assuredness that can often be found on the right”) is another straw man. That’s pretty far from the Social Gospel tradition that I referenced. This is the tradition of “blessed are the poor,” “judge not lest ye yourself be judged,” etc. It’s the tradition that gave us Martin Luther King, Jr.—a powerful public theologian/rhetorician in his own right. It’s hardly a dogmatic tradition.

      5) If some seculars get disgruntled when they hear progressive politicians use the Sermon on the Mount to justify a social safety net, that’s fine, but I’m not sure where they’re going (electorally). Certainly not to the Republican Party. To the Greens? I love the Green Party, but I don’t fear them electorally. There’s always the Nader-spoiler problem, but that’s less frequently an issue than the “Democrats don’t have values/hate God problem.”

      Posted by CPW | March 6, 2011, 10:21 am
      • I’m making a strawperson village. It’s what the internet is for.

        If you get a chance, do watch that video. It’s an interesting reminder that public discourse is actually less secular today than it has been in the past. I suppose that progressives have “taken advantage” of this fact less than have conservatives. But many progressives, rightly so, view this increasing religiosity with a great deal of skepticism. It’s what is in part to blame for the demonization of science and rationality which, partnered with corporate profit-protection, partly accounts for the stagnation of progress on addressing the causes of climate change.

        Your point #4 above is well taken. As for point #5– I didn’t mean so suggest that disgruntled seculars would start voting for a different party, just that some might become less enthusiastic than they might otherwise have been. Referencing “blessed are the meek” and “judge not” while making political speeches are moves that, I think, are very unlikely to offend secularists, even ardent ones like myself. But making alliances with and including figures like Rick Warren in order to “reach out” is justifiably frustrating.

        Posted by Bill | March 6, 2011, 10:42 am
        • It’s def. true that the US’s history is less Christian than the Right would have it. Thomas Jefferson cut up his New Testament, removing parts he objected to (I’m told he removes most of the Christ-as-divine references), John Adams was a Unitarian, etc.

          Of course, it’s also true that the US’s history is more Christian than many on the Left would have it. A tour through colonial and early post-Revolutionary state Constitutions goes a long way to dispel that myth. Numerous states put Christianity at the center of their politics (esp. Massachusetts, incidentally…their education system was delegated to one specific church [I forget which] for a long, long time). Our common law wasn’t just built upon the semi-secular English metropole tradition, but also on the covenants of the Puritans and others.

          Anyway, that’s not really what the post was about, right? The point is, if you want to win an argument with devout believers (and we’re defining “win” as “persuade them that you and your position are worthy of support,” not as “piss them off enough that they leave you alone”), you’d better be able to speak their political language. This is going to mean knowing and explaining why the Bible isn’t an anti-homosexual text, or why “divine intervention” is a staggeringly hubristic way for any Christian to respond to anthropogenic climate change, etc.

          It seems to me that very few leftists are doing that hard work, though very many leftists are doing the easy work of blowing off whole segments of the population as ignorant because of their faith. The easy work feels good, because the hard work is frustrating…but usually what feels good doesn’t win arguments or elections.

          Posted by CPW | March 7, 2011, 9:57 am
  3. Where’s Rawls and his friends here? Seems like we need to divide out Numero Uno into two parts: a whiggish view of history, and a priority on individual autonomy.

    I’m also interested by the fact that none of these philosophical planks, so to speak, has much of a 21st century flavor. I’d be curious for what new addition you’d make to the list. I realize of course that what’s new is likely to be old, but give it a shot…

    Posted by Dave B | March 7, 2011, 11:34 am
  4. 1) Bah. Rawls. Take him or leave him…though the comments discussion here is unquestionably related to his confusions (“How will religious arguments fit in our political discourse?”).

    2) To separate out the “we’re getting more free/tolerant” historical narrative from what you’ve called “a priority on individual autonomy” would require more metaphysical machinery than I’m willing to import. Is autonomy a freestanding natural right/good that we’re approximating over the years? No. Is it something that we take seriously and can judge across our history as an increasingly important value? Yes. It’s an historical achievement, not something we recognize behind a veil of ignorance. That said, I’ll double down and admit that I’m willing to talk about this historical achievement in stronger metaphysical terms when it’s rhetorically necessary. Politics isn’t philosophy, even if there’s a relationship there.

    3) Not sure what you mean by the last part (“None of these planks…has much of a 21st century flavor”). Have science/facts been superseded? American identity is “so last century?” Is Lincoln really obsolete? While I know there are some who are convinced that global justice theory or some other newfangled, just-“discovered” branch of ethics might suggest new moral foundations, I’ve yet to see anything compelling.

    No, I think we still more or less make our political arguments with reference to religion, nature, and history (though not necessarily in that order). Our notions of justice/fairness (not necessarily “justice as fairness”…haha, inside Rawls joke) are built from/around those commitments.

    Another way of putting this is the old Hegelian line: “The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” Knowledge (Minerva’s province), thought, justification, and philosophy ultimately react (i.e. at “dusk,” at the end of the day) to political action.

    Posted by CPW | March 7, 2011, 12:10 pm
  5. My comment on Rawls was actually supposed to flow right into the point about individual autonomy, poor communication on my part…whether or not one agrees with him (either in his earlier or later phases), one has to concede that his version of justice as individual fairness is an absolutely key feature of contemporary progressivism, from the women’s rights movement to marriage equality initiatives. Valuing these things as rights is analytically distinct from the optimistic view that we’re moving towards them, one step at a time.

    My point about the 21st century is really that a number of the bolded words above, whether pragmatism, the social gospel, or communitarianism, are, well, a bit stale. I’m a big social gospel fan, but I’m not sure if that’s where the intellectual energy is, or will be again, in my Catholic church. This is not to say that the values it spoke to are irrelevant, far from it, but if one was seeking to build a values-movement for progressivism, these wouldn’t exactly come across as fresh thinking. I’m honestly less concerned with a new buzzword than with what these approaches may not have anticipated about our current national condition. For instance, the growth in social pluralism, particularly regarding first principles. Or the increasing declinism that one finds in analysis of American power. Or the global scale of social challenges to health and the environment. There’s serious updating that needs doing, and perhaps new synthesizing, of each of the strands of thought that you point out…just a thought for, you know, ten years of work.

    Posted by Dave B | March 7, 2011, 5:09 pm
    • Sure, it’s a big part of progressivism…but the question wasn’t about encompassing the whole of the American Left’s foundations. It was a question about which I thought were powerful and plausible. I think that Rawls’ narrative tries too hard to win on the same turf as libertarians/social contractarians, and thus isn’t a useful rhetorical tool.

      My point about historical progress needn’t suggest inevitability/optimism. It suggests a direction for our future endeavors and highlights the difficulty in changing our world for the better (…and for “the better” on our own, communal terms, of course, not some brightly-lit, metaphysically-robust ideal).

      As for the 21st century question, I’m not sure that the examples you give are really problematic for pragmatism/communitarianism/the Social Gospel. These are just categories for rhetoric, not thick prescriptive principles. There is a lot more to be said behind each category…which wasn’t really the point of this post. You might look at my more substantive work on these topics if you want specifics:


      Posted by CPW | March 7, 2011, 6:52 pm


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