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.

View Comments

  • Ted Rall is a idiot. Some may even say racist. I don't know him but when the people of the Daily Kos calls for his head then you are doing something wrong

  • I take what Rall has to say about as serious as George Will. Someone should ask him how that whole, Obama should resign thing is working for him.

    I would suppose he is just trying to sow the seeds of dissent among the Democratic party. We see the GOP tearing itself apart with the RW and the establishment at odds.

    Of course no one gets 100% of what they want. If I had my way marijuana would be legal federally. We would have single payer health care. The defense budget would be cut by at least half. Social Security would be expanded. Just to mention a few things. Will I get all these things? Probably not. But I will keep voting for the people with a D by their name. Why? Because they care about me as a person and society as a whole.

    • True, no one gets 100% of what they want. However, we who believe in justice and taking care of Americans get almost nothing of what we want. Obama's Justice Dept. did nothing to punish the Wall Street scum that tanked the economy, or the people that put in place a policy of torture. During the two years of overwhelming Democratic majority the tax breaks for those that ship jobs overseas survived quite well, thank you. I could go on...

      At the end of the two years, they couldn't even pass a budget, and left it to the Republicans the next year. Oh, and let's talk about the trade deals that are being negotiated in secret, which will have a greater negative effect on working people than NAFTA (Another Republican/corporate wet dream pushed through by another Democrat, Clinton) did.

      All in all, we know that no one gets 100% from either party, unless one is extremely rich, then the rules change. But these Democrats are too corporate, alway being ready to go against the base.

      • Punish them how? The problem is at the time what Wall Street did was perfectly legal. Morally reprehensible I'll grant you that but all within the rules. That's why Democrats passed Dodd-Frank to make sure in future they could nail Wall Street for these abuses.

        Now if anything what the DoJ has done quite effectively is hit them in the wallet on a consistent basis. It seems like every other week there a settlement of some kind where Wall Street has to pay out. It's not prosecution but at this juncture cash paid back to the taxpayer is the next best thing.

      • You, along with every other Greenwaldian on the scene, refuse to acknowledge the unprecedented GOP obstruction both at the federal and state levels... while everyone else with two brain cells to rub together knows why this or that didn't happen as we wish it. When you do this it tells me one of two things: either you're not a liberal or you're a political illiterate.

        When the left didn't vote in 2010, we got the Tea Party. Go ask the Moral Monday folks how swell they're doing in those states as opposed to those governed by Democrats. We might also consider the fact that Libertarians pull the "both sides" crap prior to every election. The Greens learned their lesson about listening to Libertarians:

        "The Wikileaks Party Lurches To The Right: Preferences Fascists, Mens-righters and Gun-lovers above the Greens"

  • {I don't see any way to edit these posts, so I'm reposing it.)This article is too long and for no good reason. The Democratic Party is a COALITION of left leaning interests. Period. That's why progressives and liberals coalition together under the same umbrella. Otherwise, you can't get anything done, unless you consider it getting something done by voting for a party like the Greens who only get less than 1 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. You might as well not vote at all, which is what some far left socialists do. I choose to coalition with the left and vote Democratic-- they are the only ones even listening to us, and left leaning legislation has only been accomplished when they are in power.

    • I agree 110%, Nick. Judging by the guidelines set out under the article, I'm a Progressive. I believe in equality for all.

      That said, Liberals are the initiators, the people who put forward ideas - however unworkable at first - that get people thinking and perhaps get them to act upon, which falls on Progressives. IMO, the two work in tandem for the same goal: to push our society ever forward.

      The Democratic Party is the overarching political vehicle for us to get these done.

      That's why I'm a Democrat.

  • Quite frankly, I don't think this is a "thing". Of course, in any large group you have people who will take almost any position. But this is the first I have heard of this and I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on.

    As for me ... I am not sure you can get any more liberal. I don't like Obama at all as he is a Reagan/Nixon conservative and, in many ways, worse. However, I voted for him twice and would again. I will vote for any Dem the Dems run. I'm not going anywhere. I know that is anecdotal but I have seen one hell of a lot of similar anecdotes.

    • If you believe President Obama is the same or worse than Reagan, you haven't been paying attention or don't know how Reagan worked hard on the downward spiral of this country in favor of corporations.

      But I do agree that Obama has a lot in common with the Liberal Republican, Nixon (that's why Conservatives don't mention him today), and that's not a bad thing. It's probably the reason why both the Democrats and Republicans in Congress were itching to get him OUT of office, using the simplest excuse (Watergate) to do it.

      Liberals should admire the policies Nixon had put forward, not denigrate them. For one, the EPA would have never existed were it not for Nixon.

      You can read up on President Nixon's liberal policies here:

    • I don't know how you can say that the conflation of the terms "liberal" and "progressive" and the notion that the Democratic Party is no better than the Republican Party, is not a "thing". I don't want to engage in a contest to see who is the most informed, but I run across those two concepts very often. I am not sure anyone has attempted to stake out the difference between "Liberal" and "Progressive" before, but that is what you call "thought provoking." As a side note, I think that anyone of a "Liberal" or "Progressive" persuasion should break up with Alternet. I have seen so much absolute bullpoo published in Alternet that I have come to believe they have absolutely no editorial standards whatsoever. They are particularly bad about being anti-science. I pay no attention to them anymore and I don't think I am alone in that.

  • If liberals hate the Democratic Party for not espousing entirely its agenda and compromising with the GOP, what then differentiates them from the teabaggers who accepts nothing but a non-compromising attitude from the GOP?

  • We are a more cohesive group, United on all fronts and ready to vote democratic, which is liberal, in November and 2016. I reject his opinion!

  • Maybe it's just the unrealistic way that I see things, but the only viable way forward is through compromise, meaning that we have to reach some type of agreement whereupon everyone gets something, but not all of what they prefer, in return for giving the opposite viewpoint the same thing. The polarization is the problem - when a U.S. Senator is elected, he runs under the auspices of a political party, but once elected, he actually represents everyone in his jurisdiction, whether they voted for him or not, and should have a responsibility to also consider the interests of those who did not vote for him. This seems not to be the case. Gerrymandering of districts is just another way of keeping us the public in conflict with ourselves.

    • A simple look at the election and then REelection of President Obama - with over 50% of the popular vote - should have told you just how wrong you are, Sammy.

      If the Democrats really did "eat their young", we'd have a President McCain today, wouldn't we?

  • In my opinion progressives really are just the Democrats version of the Tea Party. As a libertarian they really are no different to me; they both want to force their views on other people and are enemies of freedom. I will not live under the yoke of tyranny, whether it's Christian Sharia Law or socialism. They're both just two sides of the same coin.

  • Rall's idea of how politics works is naive at best. Strict ideologues seldom get things done.
    I agree that single payor insurance would have been a better idea but we got healthcare reform started the ACA. Some of the more ridiculous arguments against healthcare reform are vaporizing and the public consciousness about it is changing. Accomplishing reform is liked being kicked to death by rabbits.
    No party will get more than 5% of the popular vote if it went much farther left than where we are right now. So I choose to vote Dem even though all we get done sometimes is to keep the RW from passing legislation that is so regressive that it's destructive.

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