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What is a Political Progressive?

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past progressive movements | sellout to special interests | organized labor | civil rights | the Republicans 

What does the DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) party stand for? “Progressive values” would be a standard answer. When Mike Erlandson announced his candidacy for Congress in the Fifth District, he said: “To win for ‘progressive values’, you have to know what you’re doing.” Formerly the party’s state chair, he had been outgoing Congressman Martin Sabo’s top aide for many years. Erlandson lost the party's nomination to Keith Ellison who went on to win the election.

The word “progressive” works like a charm in circles of the Democratic party. But does it have practical content? In today’s context, it may be that “progressive” means, as Paul Wellstone said, being part of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party”. In other words, these are not “new Democrats” or people who compromise with the Republicans. They are true blue Democrats who are idealists.

But, again, what is the policy content of progressive values? Let’s start with the dictionary definition. Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines “progressive” as “a person who is a progressive, especially one who favors political progress or reform.” This dictionary defines “progress” as “improvement” or an “advance toward perfection or to a higher state.” In other words, the progressive believes in improving society. However, anyone would be for that. It depends on what each person believes to be a better society.

It used to be that leftist political types believed that society was moving inexorably toward a more perfect state. Some believed that the progression of society from capitalism to socialism was scientifically predetermined. Others saw the social-welfare state as the culmination of society. The word “progressive” connotes “moving forward and onward”. Society was moving forward and onward toward a higher state; and political progressives would be in the vanguard of persons pushing for that change.

But then came Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, defying the consensus of intelligent political opinion. These were reactionary conservatives flying in the face of historical trends. Lo and behold, history moved in their direction. Today, the driving force of political change in the United States is conservative. Liberal politicians are scrambling to keep up with the changes. Communism is dead. The welfare state is being dismantled. Conservatives, not liberals, seem to be the ones who know what they want and have a program.

What, then, does “progressive” mean to someone when, from a leftist perspective, we’re fast moving in reverse?

An interesting fact is that “liberals” today seem ashamed of that label. Few politicians identify themselves as liberal; “progressive” is the preferred term. For some reason, political liberalism has become associated with the idea of taxing and spending without limit. (But, of course, President Bush, a nominal conservative, is the big spender par excellence.) The dictionary definition of a political “liberal” is “one who advocates greater freedom of thought or action.”


Historical context

Back to the idea of being politically progressive. Three times during the 20th century major political figures in America ran for president as the candidate of a “progressive” party.

The first and most successful was former president Theodore Roosevelt. When his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft reversed Roosevelt’s conservation policies and brusquely pushed through his own nomination at the Republican convention in 1912, Roosevelt bolted the party. He ran for president as the candidate of the National Progressive Party (sometimes called the “Bull Moose Party”) in 1912, finishing second behind Woodrow Wilson but ahead of Taft. This party’s platform included women’s suffrage, direct primaries, initiative & referendum, and recall of elected officials. The first two planks were later achieved.

The second presidential candidate to call himself a “progressive” was Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin. Originally a Republican, Senator LaFollette opposed U.S. entry into World War I. After the war, he opposed the League of Nations and the World Court. He also advocated shifting the burden of taxation to the rich. “Fighting Bob” LaFollette was the Progressive Party’s candidate for President in 1924. He received 5 million votes in the election but died soon afterwards. His Progressive Party died, too.

Again, in 1948, former Vice President Henry A. Wallace campaigned for President as a “progressive”, backed by communists and other extreme leftists. He polled 1,150,000 votes, mainly from New York state. This brand of politics wilted during the McCarthy era.

Taken as a whole, progressive politics seems to be a stance taken by mavericks who object to positions taken by the political establishment. It is left-of-center with a populist orientation. The progressives have been people who believed that their politics would improve society and improve the lives of average Americans. Does this describe what is happening in the DFL or Democratic party today? I think not.


Not a Friend to the Average Citizen

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, which is the state affiliate of the Democratic Party, evokes an image of populist farmers battling the railroads or of labor unions in their early days of struggle. In the battle between poor and rich, workers and management, this party takes a stand on behalf of impoverished, powerless people. But, in fact, the Democrats are beholden to well-heeled special interests. Their policies have often hurt economically disadvantaged persons. The party is less a “cause’” than a collection of past causes that have become demanding constituencies. Like the Republicans, this party has become a coalition of special interests, dependent on large contributions to finance its increasingly expensive campaigns.

Where the Republicans might draw upon private businesses for financial support, the Democrats rely on labor unions, trial lawyers, and nonprofits. Rich people and foundations, providing large pools of “other peoples’ money, are sympathetic. Not infrequently do wealthy individuals such as Mark Dayton or Kelly Doran run for high office under the banner of the DFL party. The DFL’s early front-runner for Attorney General this year, Matt Entenza, is married to a top official of United Health Care, a for-profit corporation which services nonprofit HMOs. In 2004, Entenza and his wife, Lois Quam, contributed $600,000 of their own money to Democratic causes.

Is it a sin to be rich? No, Republicans would be first to say it is not. But the health-care industry is a sick sector of the economy, consuming 15% of GNP and 27% of the state budget. Rapidly rising health-care costs have pushed large companies such as General Motors toward bankruptcy. How does United Health Care (UHC) fit into the picture? It charges “higher-than-average fees and administrative costs” to Medica from which it obtained a management contract without competitive bidding. Anderson consulting claimed that UHG’s processing fees were 26% to 40% higher than the industry on a per-unit basis, its 35% profit margin was well above the industry average, and its “substandard” service cost Medica $10 million in losses, according to an article in City Pages, an alternative newspaper.

It was Bill Clinton, the “New Democrat”, who rammed NAFTA through the Congress with promises of pork-barrel spending to please Congressional hold-outs. It was he who spearheaded “welfare reform” targeted to society’s economic and social underclass. A contributing editor to Minneapolis' Pulse newspaper writes from a leftist perspective: “The greatest obstacle to change in America is the Democratic party and it needs to be destroyed. The Democratic Party is a graveyard of every progressive social movement: farmers, labor, blacks, women, gays, seniors, Hispanics, and the environment.”

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, DFL-controlled local governments are chronic abusers of TIF-district financing, eminent domain, and building condemnations for reasons other than health and safety. Well-heeled developers such as Dick Brustad and municipal-bond brokers such as Rebecca Yanisch’s husband work in close cooperation with elected officials, scratching each other’s back. City inspectors work closely with the police to target the owners of buildings linked to criminal activity. On the theory that “problem properties” cause crime, city officials direct housing inspectors to find something wrong with the buildings and sometimes condemn them.

The St. Paul police ordered Nancy Osterman, a city resident who had formerly used illegal drugs, to infiltrate a group of current drug users and inform on them. Osterman refused, fearing for her own and her children’s safety. Then the city turned housing inspectors loose; they peppered her house with work orders. One inspector told Osterman she had to sell the house to a named associate for $40,000 or he would make sure that it was demolished. The house was torn down on March 23, 2006. DFL mayor Chris Coleman called this demolition of a structurally sound building a “commitment to safe and livable neighborhoods.” (Read the complete story.)

The point is that the DFL party no longer represents the little guy (or gal) but has become an arrogant, entrenched monopoly in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The element of “democracy” seems to be missing from its agenda. Its more idealistic members tend to gravitate toward the Green Party. This has inspired the Democratic establishment to seek legal action to deny Ralph Nader access to the ballot; or, in the city of Minneapolis, to redistrict the Ward boundaries so that both Green incumbent city council members in 2005 would be running against other incumbents. One would think that a progressive agenda would include the idea of presenting voters with a full set of choices.

Bill Hillsman, the advertising strategist behind Paul Wellstone’s upset victory for U.S. Senator in 1990, has said that “the Democratic Party would rather maintain a self-perpetuating organization than win.” Their standard operating procedure, he said, is to tell rich persons who want to run for office as a Democrat first to “raise a lot of soft money for the party.” Hillsman warned: “Don’t be fooled - they’re not going to put any of that money back into your race unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.” The Democrats “have plenty of money to run strong races in those 25-40 (Congressional) districts (where the outcome is in doubt). But they hold that money over the heads of the candidates as a carrot and a stick. They tease them with it, and then they say, ‘But you’ve got to play ball.’ You get a purity test.”

I, Bill McGaughey, have personal experience of the party’s practice. In 2004, I entered the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary by completing an application and paying a $2,500 filing fee.. On the way to South Carolina, I telephoned a political reporter for the Greenville News. He told me that my name had been removed from the primary ballot. It turned out that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terence R. McAuliffe, had exercised his authority under rules for the party's 2004 national convention to declare that I was not “entitled to obtain delegates” at the convention because I was not a “bona fide Democrat.” If I was not entitled to receive delegates, my name could not appear on the state ballot.

State law in Louisiana, on the other hand, guarantees an open primary ballot. I went on to campaign there in February and March 2004 in the Democratic presidential primary and finished fifth among seven candidates. (Read more about the campaign.) To me, that was democracy in action. Regarding the decision in South Carolina, it seems odd that a political party that uses the term "progressive" to describe its aims is now committed to eliminating maverick candidates from such competitions, even small-timers such as myself who posed no real threat in the primary election.


An Extinct Volcano: Labor Unions

Does the Democratic Party have an idealistic core including some “progressive” elements? It may be that many Democrats, especially at the grassroots, are idealistic. But that is not the spirit of the party at higher levels. The movers and shakers, like most experienced political types, are power hungry. The organization feeds on the spirit of past movements that have hardened into demanding constituencies.

In the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, organized labor was a movement. This was a time of general poverty when industrial workers organized themselves into unions, conducted strikes, and won wage increases and benefits that built the American middle class. What made labor a movement in those days was its core of idealists who, while advancing selfish interests, also connected with the larger community. In its 1947 strike against General Motors, the United Auto Workers argued that the company could afford both increased wages and price stability for consumers.

Today, most unions have been in place for years. Labor has shifted its attention from grassroots organizing to winning concessions from government through its friends in the Democratic Party to whom it contributes money and supplies campaign volunteers. Even if the unions continue to provide a much-needed service to members, their idealistic luster has dimmed compared with the old days.

A reason is that, after many years of successful bargaining, labor unions have given their members substantially higher wages and benefits than what nonunion workers enjoy. In a given strike, the demand for still higher wages or for preservation of existing compensation do not seem justified to non-union workers who also work hard but do not receive such a return. The union model of an idealistic or "progressive" movement breaks down as the wage disparity between union and nonunion workers increases. Union members seem more like members of a privileged group than persons fighting for the betterment of society as a whole.

There is an additional problem in labor’s fastest-growing sector: public-employee unions. Here union members are employed by government bodies whose managers are elected officials. To the extent that labor is involved in election campaigns that have put them in office, the elected officials face a conflict of interest. They have a responsibility to the public to bargain with the union to minimize costs while they also have a debt to the union that helped get them elected. Some politicians respond by "giving away the store."

Another Extinct Volcano: The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement has defined the Democratic Party since the 1960s. The DFL Party embraced it when Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey delivered a stirring speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention urging support for a Civil Rights plank. The movement to advance civil rights for African Americans is, however, just the beginning of a chain of similar movements to secure similar rights for other groups of people who saw it as a model for their own social and political progress.

The African American Civil Rights movement has its roots in slavery, the U.S. Civil War, Southern reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era of segregated society. After African Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II, black athletes such as Joe Louis and Jesse Owen became widely admired, Emmett Till’s murder stirred international outrage, and the Montgomery bus boycott lifted Martin Luther King Jr. to a position of community leadership, a political consensus emerged, supported both by labor and business, that something had to be done to overcome the racial inequalities in U.S. society.

It may be that John F. Kennedy’s election as President, in which the issue of anti-Catholic prejudice was raised, set the stage for a broader and more lasting attack on racial prejudice. Kennedy had gained black support by his phone call releasing Martin Luther King from jail. Then came the Freedom Riders, the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma march, and activities. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, made Civil Rights legislation a priority. Black Americans received full voting rights. Fair housing laws were enacted. The federal government was flexing its muscle to undo segregationist policies.

Such measures are understandable in terms of a political movement which had its roots in real grievances - the indignity of southern segregation, inferior schools for blacks, discouragement of black voting, tolerance of southern-white violence - but more was to come. In an effort to create a racially equal society, the politicians decided that black Americans needed to be given special help to repair the effects of past discrimination. From that came presidential orders instituting “affirmative action”. The Nixon administration proposed set-asides for minority contractors to make sure that a certain percentage of public contracts went to such groups. Anti-discrimination laws created a new legal concept, the “protected class”, which gave extra protection to minorities in a system of law that professed to treat people equally.

In the 1960s, northern blacks rioted and burned sections of large cities such as Los Angeles, Newark, Minneapolis, and Detroit even while the legal reforms sought by the Civil Rights movement were being enacted. Faced with violence and a hostile political environment, most whites clammed up. White Americans became a passive “silent majority” as accusations of "white racism" flowed fast and furiously. Meanwhile, newly empowered blacks and a vocal minority of whites in education, politics, the law, and journalism has pushed the Civil Rights agenda in all aspects, especially speech. This has led to an intimidating system of thought control known as “political correctness”. All kinds of dishonest discussions have since taken place. No Democratic politician can hope to get nominated or elected who does not toe the racial party line.

In the South, on the other hand, there has been a dramatic political realignment starting with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s defection to the Republican Party in 1964. Since then, the Democratic “solid south” has become a stronghold for the Republicans. The electorate both north and south is polarized by race with blacks supporting the Democrats and whites by a smaller percentage supporting the Republicans. Because there are more white than black voters, this trend has tended to favor the Republicans. But the Democrats can take comfort in demographic predictions that by the year 2050 less than half of the U.S. population will be white.

In the meanwhile, the Democrats make inroads into the white vote by enlisting women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants into a coalition of groups following the Civil Rights model of politics. The most numerous group would be women. This effort may have fizzled. While women tend to be more liberal than men politically, they are far from being a cohesive voting bloc. The National Organization for Women (NOW) lost credibility when it supported Bill Clinton and other politically liberal males accused of sexual wrongdoing and sided against the female “trailer trash” who were the victims. Yet the pro-choice position on abortion remains a litmus test for Democratic politicians.

The question of illegal immigration is today’s hot political topic. The Democrats eye immigrants, both legal and undocumented, as a political constituency; they are courting this bloc of voters with the standard Civil Rights type of argument. The Republicans are of two minds. One group, aligned with the business community, encourages immigration as a source of cheap labor. Another group resents the fact that our borders are being routinely violated. The fact of illegal entry into the United States is for them a major stumbling block.

A majority of Americans feel uneasy about the agenda of democratic politics and the fact that it has been advanced through the courts rather than through legislatures after public debate. It has helped to establish the Democrats as a party of cultural elites. This may help to explain why Democratic candidates are afraid to express their views openly on such subjects. If the Democrats told the full truth about themselves and their aims, they would alienate that group of white voters - "closet racists", so to speak - who are in the majority.

That does not stop party operatives from delivering racially tinged messages to narrow groups. When the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terence McAuliffe, addressed a group of black newspaper publishers at a gathering in New Orleans, the publishers were interested in how much money the Democrats would spend on advertising in their publications. McAuliffe replied: “I know we (Democrats) cannot win without the African American vote. I look forward to working with all of you and your publications to make sure we’re getting the message out because I know there’s not a more effective avenue through which to get our message to the African-American community ... You will see an unparalleled investment in your newspapers.” This was McAuliffe, the bag man, speaking: Give us favorable, extensive reporting and we'll give you the cash.

What we have then is not racial equality, not a sensible and humane undoing of segregationist policies, but a system of one-sided political values that threatens and intimidates whites. We have a new malignancy of thinking that centers on the word “racism”. Racism means exclusively white racism since by the prevailing definition blacks are incapable of it. Racism equals prejudiced feelings plus power and whites have all the power, argument says. Racism is therefore not the prejudiced thoughts of individual whites but “institutional racism”, the racism of white society. Whites are" privileged" by virtue of being white, regardless of what they do. And so, white people in America are born with a kind of original sin - damned if they do and damned if they don’t. This is what has become of the Civil Rights movement and its ideals.

The Bigot

We have reached a point today that what a person thinks or says about race or a related category can be considered a crime, more heinous even than an act of violence. We call this a “hate crime” - a crime accompanied by malicious thoughts or speech directed at a protected class. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech” yet Congress has enacted hate crime legislation that makes politically disfavored speech an element in a certain type of crime.

It is not just race that elicits the venom of political correctness. Sexual preference is another area. Again, it makes for politics of the double standard. Political liberals argue that we should adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward sexual orientation. What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom is none of the public's business. However, adding sexual orientation to the list of officially protected classes changes the picture considerably.

A conservative columnist, Katherine Kersten, put her finger on the problem. Once sexual preference is cast in the mold of a victimized class, then anyone who speaks of such people in less than respectful or supportive terms of individuals in that class becomes, as she put it, “a bigot”, adding that “in America today, it’s a serious thing to be a bigot. You can lose your job if you display your bigotry in the work place.”

What is anti-gay bigotry? Kersten gave an example. An actress named Jada Pinkett Smith gave a speech at Harvard in which she uttered these words: “Women, you can have it all - a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career ... You can do whatever it is you want.” This remark did not please members of Harvard’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance. A spokesperson complained to the Harvard Crimson: “Some of the content was extremely heteronormative and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable.” Smith was forced to apologize.

Across the river, in Boston, a superintendent of public schools sent a memo to staff members during the controversy about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Referring to “the profound impact on our civic life and discourse” of this decision, he warned his subordinates that the district displayed “zero tolerance” for “discrimination” and “hateful speech” regarding gay marriage or sexual orientation. This school superintendent “stated that students and staff members who breach the policy may be expelled or terminated,” Kersten wrote.

Straight white people in the privacy of the voting booth know that it is Democrats more than Republicans who advance this agenda. It's a reason why people hesitate to call themselves “liberal” - a liberal being “one who advocates greater freedom of thought or action.” Everyone is afraid.

This Orwellian world of the Democrats is scary. It’s a disease of the national spirit. It's nearly impossible to talk about race or gender issues in a reasoned way. Sooner or later, someone on the "wrong" side of the argument will be demonized - called a "racist", "bigot", "homophobe", or whatever. Such terms carry the baggage of lynching and other injustices that blacks have experienced in the past. Thus the Civil Rights movement in its expanded version has progressed from a fight for justice to a politics of racial division and hate.

The Republicans

The reason that many voters secretly resent that the Democrats have taken politics down into a cesspool of demographic strife may help to explain why the Republican candidate for President, George W. Bush, won election in 2000 and reelection in 2004. Because this article is about "progressive" politics, present-day Republicans hardly enter the discussion.

It should be said, however, that Republicans, too, have their problems. Republican officeholders have rewarded their wealthy patrons and clients in the insurance industry, pharmaceutical industry, oil and gas industry, and other sectors of business while squeezing the average citizen. They have pursued policies of free trade that have decimated the nation's industrial base. This party of big business can be faulted with policies that have slighted honest labor and contributed to destruction of the middle class. Economic exploitation and policies favoring the rich are their particular source of shame.

Having pushing the nation into financial difficulty and invaded the nation of Iraq, the Bush-Cheney administration may be among the worst administrations in American history. Let that comment be a warning that criticism of the Democrats does not imply that current-day Republicans are the answer. We're in a unique political situation.

Back to Progressives

The problem is this: If a progressive is someone who supports progress toward a better society, how can a person be a progressive (except for an ineffective one) if there is no progress? Not only is there none today; but America is in a process of decline unparalleled in its history. Only the years of the Buchanan administration rival the incompetence and duplicity exhibited by our national leaders in the Bush period.

To quote Peter Peterson, President Nixon’s commerce secretary: “Both political parties are politically incorrigible,” he said. “They are not facing any problems; they are running from them. They are locked into a politics of denial, distraction, and self-indulgence that can only be overcome if ... you take back this country from the ideologues and spin doctors of both the left and the right.”

The new factor is, of course, the election of Barack Obama as President. Already his election has had an impact on racial politics in America - a positive impact by most accounts. It has already improved America's image in the world. Less clear at this point is whether President Obama and his advisors can rescue the sinking U.S. economy. Obama has been an effective political leader in the television age, but governing effectively requires other skills, especially with the great economic challenges that we face.

In conclusion, a true progressive needs a vision of a better society as a precondition for political action. Without having constructive ideas, politicians are engaged in pure posturing or pretending that past causes are still alive. We need to be engaged in today’s realities, abandoning histories and ideological arguments that divide. I think both political parties may have outlived their usefulness. There needs to be a third party that rises to meet the problems and opportunities of our day. There may need to be a Gold Party or maybe a revival of the progressive Republican tradition.

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