Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Liberal and a Progressive Walk into a Bar...

Right away the progressive is schmoozing, talking up every single patron, asking how they're doing, what they're hoping to get out of the evening, what their hopes and dreams are. The progressive isn't all talk, either; anyone who seems promising gets a drink, too. In no time, the progressive becomes the most popular person in the bar.

Meanwhile the liberal steps up to the bar and orders drinks for everyone the progressive didn't treat. "That's great!" says the bartender. "What's your name? I'd like to tell them who this is from!"

"What's the point?" says the liberal. "My buddy the progressive will get the credit."

"Not if I make the announcement," says the bartender.

"No, you don't get it," says the liberal. "My buddy's all about the future, and leading the right people into it. I just want to be sure nobody gets left out."

If that didn't make you laugh--and I really doubt it did--it's because I'm making a point rather than going for the funny. And no, TR is not guffawing over it, though he might grace me with a "Bully!" for tweaking him.

Cards on the table: I'm a liberal. I can't say I always have been, but at the very least I can date my liberalism back to my sophomore year of college. In recent years, I have added a progressive tint to my liberalism, but by and large, I am unabashedly liberal.

Now let's be clear about what I mean by that. In Teddy Roosevelt's day, "liberalism" meant free market capitalism, and "progressivism" meant being responsible about those markets, putting a check on the extent to which they could exploit the resources of this country by setting aside vast swathes of it for the enjoyment of future generations. In Franklin Roosevelt's day, "liberalism" came to mean an inclusive safety net that protected the poor and elderly from the economic storms sweeping the nation. In Lyndon Johnson's day, "liberalism" came to mean a more comprehensive safety net that included health care, as well as adding protections for minorities so that their voices could now be part of the national conversation. That's where I locate my liberalism: civil rights coupled with broad entitlements to support the disadvantaged. An essential part of this liberalism is the understanding that private charities cannot be counted on to be as comprehensive in their assistance, or efficient in the distribution of that assistance, as a national government. And at its heart is inclusion: no one should fall through the cracks, whether it's a family rendered homeless by unemployment and medical bills or a gay couple denied adoption rights. For me, liberalism has the same meaning as the Hawaiian word "ohana" (as interpreted by the Disney movie "Lilo and Stitch"): "family means no one gets left behind."

Starting with the campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 2000, this brand of liberalism came under assault. Liberalism was equated with big government bureaucracy, high taxes, inefficient programs that rewarded the unemployed for having large families and discouraged them from becoming responsible participants in the economy. It was likened to Soviet communism, collective agriculture, five-year plans; or, alternately, to overly permissive parenting of spoiled children. Finally, and most damagingly, it was linked with the recession of the 1970s and early 1980s, a time of high unemployment and runaway inflation. There was little truth in any of these associations, but the lack of truth has rarely stopped a politician of any ilk from tossing accusations at a competing philosophy. The economic upswing of the 1980s and the conversion of Baby Boomers from hippies to yuppies sealed the fate of liberalism: clearly the voodoo in Reaganomics was working. Republicans had twelve uninterrupted years to cement the association of liberalism with failed economic policies.

But it was Democrats who delivered the coup de grace, as the Reagan-Bush era ended with a narrow victory for Bill Clinton's "progressive" wing of the party. Clinton was a centrist, a master at working both sides of the aisle to pragmatically keep things moving. It was during the Clinton administration that the American political left abandoned the term "liberal" in favor of "progressive."

There is much to like about the word. Who doesn't want to be moving forward into the future? Who doesn't want to believe that our generation is more inclusive, more egalitarian, more environmentally conscious than our parents' generation ever could be?

And yet progressivism, by its very nature, implies an abandonment of the social covenant to care for the poor and disadvantaged. As I was told once by a church administrator, "sometimes people have to die for the church to move forward." We can substitute the name of many another institution for "church" in that statement, and it will still ring true. With Washington trapped in a partisan deathlock, it's tempting to speculate how much could be accomplished of some of those people could just drop dead. The inconvenient truth is that the living often stand in the way of progress. And the even more inconvenient truth for progressives is that many of those living are the very people whose causes liberalism has championed. Their solution? Instead of making "entitlements" available to all, make "benefits" available to those who qualify--or, in the minds of the conservatives who must still, to some extent, approve of these programs, those who deserve them.

The result is a kind of social Darwinism, forcing the lower classes to jump on the progress train by leaving behind those who can't make it up the steps to the coach--or, in some cases, throwing them under the wheels. It's a meritocratic approach to the social safety net, not unlike strengthening herds but letting wolves pick off the slower, weaker caribou. Ultimately it reeks of eugenics. Ending welfare as we knew it sounded noble, but ultimately, it shoved many who, for one reason or another, simply could not work onto disability, a dead-end classification that locks participants into subsistence living, until society can discard them once and for all.

It also reeks of laissez-faire economics and, in its extreme forms, of the harshest of libertarian philosophies. Those who can compete in this system gradually work their way up out of poverty, while the rest are trampled underfoot and left behind. It's the moral dilemma of achieving progress, but at what cost? How many ruined lives are a fair price for moving forward?

The greatest flaw of progressivism is its blind faith in the goodness of progress. How can the world not be a better place when technology can do so much more, and all people can friend each other on Facebook? When medicine can cure every illness, smooth every wrinkle, and extend lifespans by decades?

What we lose in these changes, however, is our concern for the least of these are brothers and sisters. We lose our sense of real community, of supporting each other not just with our "likes" but with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, wages. In my pastoral days, especially when I was in Britain, I heard many a member of the "Greatest Generation" wax nostalgic over how people came together during World War Two, how everyone looked out for everyone else, worked together for the common good. It didn't matter if they were Labor or Conservative, Democrat or Republican; if they were your neighbors, you kept an eye on their children when they couldn't be home, gave their car a push when it got stuck in the mud, let them have part of your sugar ration so they could make a cake for someone's birthday.

I'd like to think those days can return. Their absence feels more like regress than progress to me. The sense of everyone being in it together is the epitome of liberalism: nobody gets left behind. All are included, from the least able to the most accomplished, young and old, gay and straight, every hue, every creed, every ethnicity, all joining together to embrace the great liberal motto of our nation's founders: e pluribus unum, from many, one. At its very beginnings, the United States bound themselves together because individually, they could accomplish nothing. This unity included slave-holders, even though it was clear to many that slavery was a dying institution, one that a nation founded on liberty could not long tolerate; but without that unity, without the inclusion of even the least desirable (from a democratic viewpoint) of philosophies, there could be no nation, no hope for future progress.

If progress is to be real, if this nation really is to move forward into the future, it must be with all persons, regardless of political persuasion, working together to accomplish it. For this to happen, we must embrace the most liberal of values, the inclusion of all, but have no fear: liberalism will be quite happy to give progressives the credit.

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