Why progressive movements fail and how they can win

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Bernie Bros meeting with the DNC, circa 1381

For the second time in four years, Sanders supporters have been shown that the contemporary Democratic Party is determined to shut down progressive movements before they can threaten the privileges of the establishment. This fits in to the pattern that goes back decades, a pattern that was exploited by Third Way liberals, but is not their creation.

Perhaps the quintessential example of righteous movements that fail is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England. The Black Plague had reduced the labor pool, leading workers to conclude that they ought to be paid more for their increasingly valuable individual efforts, and Richard II, a child king, was trying to raise taxes to fund his military adventures. And landlords regarded their renters more like property than separate human beings. In other words, history’s rhyming sounds a lot like repetition here.

The gravediggers in Hamlet, coming around two hundred years later, demonstrate the persistence of the attitude of the fourteenth century peasants. One explains to the other that Adam was a gentleman, since “Adam digged,” implying that he had arms. Anyone with arms, equivocating here on a second meaning of heraldic symbols, is a member of the privileged class. The attitude illustrated in this passage is one that has been consistent over the centuries among people who do society’s labor, an opinion that artificial inequalities are unjust. But this resentment is not by itself progress.

The peasants marched on London to demand higher wages, reductions in socioeconomic inequality, and participation in government — again, a platform that is all too familiar. On the verge of success, the protesters having demonstrated that they had the force necessary to shake up the social order, they were confronted by Richard who came among them, like Nixon talking to protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, and asked, “sirs, would you kill your king?” This resulted in the peasants accepting Richard’s promises for reform and then the hanging of many of the people who had been duped.

The answer to Richard’s question must always be yes in one form or another. The founders of the United States were willing to carry out their demands through war, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s insisted that if their rights were not respected, they would cease to comply with the settled system. Today, progressives are being asked if we are willing to accept the consequences of not voting for Joe Biden, a return to Richard’s challenge as to how far the movement is willing to go. And again, if we are going to achieve the results that we want, we have to say that this time, the narcotic effect of sham liberalism are not a sufficient inducement to win our support. Unless the Democratic Party can demonstrate an irrevocable commitment to progress, our goal must to be to replace them.

This statement leads me to a second cause of the failure of movements, their tendency to get bogged down into squabbles over special interests. The typal example here is Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a set of programs that were designed to continue the New Deal revision of America’s social contract, an acknowledgment that when we are a wealthy nation, there is no justification for leaving some among us in grinding poverty. This fell apart as the costs of the Vietnam War mounted and as the programs were allowed to be identified with race, rather than with much broader economic classes, giving particular energy to the Republican Southern Strategy that has created decades of rightward lurching in our politics.

Allowing progress to be labeled a “special interest” concern is to guarantee that Americans will not like the proposal. However the notion works itself out in practice, we have an egalitarian core in our thinking, one that gets exploited by people in power who tell us that efforts to help the poor, the sick, or the indentured are giveaways to some Other, not programs that benefit everyone. The stereotype of the black welfare queen generated opposition to many social services, despite the fact that whites are the largest group of beneficiaries of government aid.

What we have to do is speak to all groups, both one at a time and collectively in messages to the nation, about how progressive values would make life better for everyone. Medicare for All and College for All mean exactly that, guaranteeing access without regard to class or race. A justice system that treats everyone the same and that removes penalties for things that should not be illegal is something that disadvantaged groups want and that most better-off Americans ought to support, given the savings in fewer prosecutions and incarcerations. A transition to green energy would improve air quality and solidify America’s independence, and the fact that achieving those goals would mean retraining workers in the fossil fuel industry may sound again like a handout, but raising laborers to higher paying jobs boosts our economic potential, once more a benefit to all.

A clear progressive program that is designed as a boon to all is easy to advocate for. If we are going to win, we have to keep in mind that power does not like to give up its privilege. We have to have a platform that is focused on programs that benefit everyone, and we have to refuse to back down or to compromise. We will be asked or commanded to dilute our goals or to submit to the traditions of the establishment, and we must refuse, no matter what the threatened consequences may be.

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