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”).