Progressive Hatred of the Democratic Party is Misguided

Ted Rall writes in an article at AlterNet titled, At Some Point, Progressives Need to Break Up With the Democratic Party, that it’s “Time to get out of this abusive relationship.” He opines that “At a certain point, if you have any relationship with dignity, you’re supposed to get sick of being used and abused. Speaking of which: liberal Democrats.”

Already, you should be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute…” but Rall presses on without pause, lamenting that liberals vote for a Democratic Party that “espouses right wing policies” and that “self-described progressives give them cash” :

Comedian Bill Maher gave them a million cash dollars,” Rall complains, “yet Democrats don’t agree with him on anything. Why? Because he hates Republicans even more.

The crux of his argument is this:

The relationship between liberals and Democrats is dysfunctional and enabling, abused pathetics sucking up to cruel abusers. Progressives like Maher are like a kid with two rotten parents. The dad drinks and hits him; the mom drinks less and hits him less. The best call is to run away from home — instead, most children in that situation will draw closer to their mothers.

Voting-age progressives, on the other hand, are adults. When will they kick the Democratic Party to the curb, as Ricki Lake used to say?

Probably not in time for 2016. But they ought to.

The Democratic Party may be more or less liberal, and more or less the problem, as Rall asserts, but until he figures out if he is talking about liberals or progressives, the whole argument must be on hold. Because in speaking of liberals and progressives he is talking about two different things as though they are one thing. Perhaps progressives should break up with the Democrats, as he claims, but does that mean liberals should as well? And what about all those people, most of them probably, who are themselves not all one thing or another?

Support of the Democratic Party is not, as Rall simplistically asserts, about an overarching hatred of the Republican Party as the only alternative. It is about finding that party and platform (and critically, politicians) who best represent your own goals and beliefs. The Democratic Party, for all its manifest flaws, is not simply “not Republican” but it is a thing in itself.

Anything Rall writes from this point on is proceeding from the false premise that progressives are liberals are somehow interchangeable. Rall uses both terms, speaking of liberals and progressives, but it is not clear he is aware of the essential differences.

For example, he says,

If you’re a leftie, the Democratic establishment doesn’t care about your opinion. They certainly don’t want your input. What they want is your vote — in exchange for exactly nothing in return. They’re political parasites, draining the enthusiasm and idealism of progressives, simultaneously neutering and exploiting mainline libs.

He adds, “You don’t have to be clairvoyant to see that the next presidential election promises nothing for liberals but more of the same: dismay, disappointment and disgust — in no small part with themselves.”

So because liberals will be dismayed and disgusted, progressives should break with the Democratic Party? Really?

As a result of this lack of clarity and overly simplistic thinking, Bill Clinton is the enemy, a “conservative” Southern Democrat; Obama is the enemy because he gave us Obamacare instead of single-payer (excuse me, but thanks to Obamacare I no longer have to worry about life-time limits killing my son); Hilary Clinton is, for Rall, “a conservative warmonger ideologically indistinguishable from Dwight Eisenhower” (would that be the same Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex?).

At this early stage, it is perfectly obvious that Hillary Clinton will screw over progressives. Not only is it evident that she will break their hearts, it is clear how she will go about it.

But in his failure to be clear about the differences between progressives and liberals, it Rall’s argument, not the Democrats, that should be kicked to the curb. I, for one, speaking as someone who self-identifies as a liberal, am completely unmoved by Rall’s complaints.

Timothy Ferris, in The Science of Liberty (2010), points out that liberals are not like progressives. Liberalism is about liberty. Liberals embrace change and are “defenders of liberty” in Ferris’ words. Progressivism is about equality. Progressives “emphasize equality of outcome over freedom of choice,” and, as Ferris writes, “the tension between liberals and progressives…has long persisted.” He points out that “many classical liberals are reluctant to be called liberals, since the term is so often conflated with big-government progressivism.”

I made the point in 2011 that,

It’s easy to see progressives as the left-wing equivalent of liberalism (a sort of left-wing Tea Party), but that’s not accurate just because they’re President Obama’s most vociferous critics on the so-called left. This is partly because the left-right paradigm itself is flawed. The complexities and many nuances of American politics cannot be adequately explained by a single line with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right, which is too easily transformed into “right” and “wrong.”

Ferris puts liberals, progressives, and conservatives, at different points of a triangle, and, he writes,

[A]s the triangle illustrates, the distance from conservatism to liberalism is no greater than that from conservatism to progressivism. This helps explain why a conservative can be liberal in certain respects, such as by upholding free markets or opposing the jailing of drug abusers, and hy a classical liberal may be otherwise conservative (“neoconservative”) or progressive (“neoliberal”). It also clarifies the previously puzzling fact that many hard left progressives have borrowed doctrines and terminology from the hard right. As many demagogs have demonstrated, it is possible to oscillate between the left and right without ever approaching liberalism.

Liberalism is inherently nonpartisan: It means freedom for all, or it means nothing at all. It maintains that everyone benefits from everyone’s freedom, and that all are diminished whenever one individual or group is not free. This precept can contort liberals into the uncomfortable posture known as tolerance. Some think that tolerance means treating all opinions as equally deserving of respect, but the point of liberalism is not that all vies are equally valid. It is that society has no reliable ay to evaluate opinions other than to let everybody freely express and criticize them – and, if they can garner sufficient support, to try them out.

It would be wrong to assume that most of us fit neatly into any one category. Even Republicans can be socially liberal, and some progressives cheer Rand Paul. Ferris points out that

Many otherwise liberal thinkers today recoil from the prospect of granting homosexual couples the same legal benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy, or affording legal rights of due process to those accused of terrorism. Such concerns – essentially the nagging worry that something terrible ill happen if too much freedom is extended to people who do not closely resemble ourselves – have so far prevented societies from becoming entirely liberal.

Crissie Brown wrote here last year about “liberal progressives,” in an attempt, I suppose, to find common ground in opposite viewpoints, contrasting this new species with “liberals who are more idealistic and less progressive” as though classical liberals are somehow deficient to the extent they lack progressive attitudes.

But progressivism, like conservatism, is about regulating our lives – they are just interested in regulating different things. Progressive government will regulate Happy Meals while a conservative will regulate what you can do in your bedroom. A liberal feels you should be the one to choose in each case. It is no more business of the government what food choices I make than what sex choices I make when with another consenting adult. Wanting to further regulate behavior to ensure an outcome does not make you a better species of liberal. It makes you less liberal.

And contra Rall’s many complaints, the Democratic Party does support equal rights for gay couples. The Democratic Party does support that “uncomfortable posture known as tolerance.” It is not Democrats who are trying to silence debate and carrying on in secret: that would be the realm of the Republican Party. It is a familiar refrain from jaded progressives like Rall that the Democrats are just like the Republicans, but they are not.

We need to think about these things without falling into the true/false paradigm of conservatism, the idea that there are only two choices. There are generally more than two choices and that way of thinking is known as the either/or fallacy or false dilemma, for a reason. Life is not black and white but many hued and Obama (or any president) should not be condemned because he or she failed to live up, in every way, to our own beliefs.

We must be cognizant of the many ways in which we fail to be all one thing or another, the many currents that ebb and flow within us. We all have personal ideologies, the product of upbringing and experience, and some of us are more or less idealistic than others, but liberals and progressives want a better America. How we get there is a matter for debate, and yes, compromise, because that is the democratic process.

Rall mentions the tattered flag of liberalism and it is tempting to say that progressives cannot hold the tattered flag of liberalism in any case because they have no right to it. But I don’t want to engage in that sort of thinking. We are none of us going to get everything we want and not only because there are no perfect answers but because there are no perfect people, and we do not fit neatly into the categories we set for ourselves, categories we are far more comfortable fitting others into than ourselves.

I mentioned Lauro Martines yesterday, who makes a point in Furies (2014) about “a leading Paris magistrate, the Calvinist-minded Anne du Bourg,” who was burned at the stake by Catholics for sedition, and there is a salutary lesson in du Bourg’s death. For as Martines writes, du Bourg was executed because he “published a pamphlet claiming, essentially, that no French subject was bound to accept the legitimacy of a king who contravened the will of God: in effect, a [Catholic] king who did not share Anne du Bourg’s religious views.”

There is irony in du Bourg’s death, but nothing liberal in the actions of either the Catholic King he despised or in his own. The lesson here is that the Democratic Party is less legitimate because it does not share our liberal or progressive views in every way. If we want the Democratic Party to be more like us, liberalism offers us a way: Work towards it. Speak. Write. Agitate. Persuade. Vote.

This is where either/or thinking gets you, and it is not a pretty place, this place where diametrically opposed points of view have become two sides of the same intolerant coin.

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