We progressives sometimes get accused of being a lot better at criticizing than at offering positive solutions. At least I do, anyhow.
And I even think that's a somewhat fair assessment. But I also think there are some good reasons for such a negative cast to our rhetoric, at least if we're talking about the last three decades or so, and especially the last insufferable eight years.
One explanation for the largely critical nature of progressive political commentary is the defensive crouch we've been in during this period. Let's be honest, folks, progressives and progressivism - let alone plain old honest decency - have been under assault during this era, and it hasn't been pretty. More to the point, though, when you're fighting for your very existence, you have to fight for your very existence. You don't have the luxury of debating which of the various proposals for the model society are best. And if that's what you're doing, people will ignore you anyhow. They'll think you've got your head in the clouds, largely because you do.
Second, it was crucial to be critical of the incredibly destructive policies of the regressive right these last decades. Indeed, one of the major reasons they were as successful at implementing their noxious plans as they were is because of the almost complete absence of criticism from both the so-called opposition party and the from the so-called free media. There should have been a lot more criticism, not less. You can only get away with telling incredible whopper lies if no one calls you on them. George Bush is still doing it to this day, in his pathetic attempts to recast his presidency as he walks out the door. After a dozen or so interviews, I'm unaware of anyone who has yet asked a hard question. Indeed, I'm unaware of any ‘journalist' who even called Bush when he trotted out one of his monster lies, like how the Iraq WMD intelligence was ‘wrong', or how Saddam ‘kicked out' the inspectors.
Having said that, though, we are surely at the dawn of a new era in American politics. I don't know yet whether progressivism is part of Barack Obama's DNA, or whether - even if it isn't - events will force him in that direction anyhow. What I do know is that, regardless, he will be light-years ahead of what we've been suffering through for the last eight years.
And that means we can now start to think again about the society we want, rather than just giving our everything to avoid the society we cannot abide.
I'm not sure exactly how to express what's on my wish list this year - if it's not too late, Santa - but perhaps the following compare-and-contrast formula will at least start the process.
A positive progressive agenda for America? Okay, you betcha. In no particular order, I'd say:
MORE HONESTY, LESS DECEIT. We have just come through what is undoubtedly one of the most deceitful regimes in American history, epitomizing one of the most dishonest of political agendas. They had to lie, because what peasant ever wanted to be a victim of kleptocracy? So they did. Incessantly. This has to end, and will end, but the lies in American politics run so much deeper. There is so much - about foreign policy, about military spending, about the polarization of wealth, about religion - that can't even be talked about in this society. As we plunge headlong into a series of simultaneous crises we made for ourselves, the first order of business is to be able to discuss these things honestly.
MORE PEACE, LESS FIGHTING. To say that the United States is a bellicose actor on the world stage is to risk understatement of laughable proportions. Everyone, it would seem, knows it, except us, and even we have begun to get the hint. Yes, it's true, there are bad actors out there (unfortunately, we're among the worst), and some of them are implacable. But it is also true that if we ratcheted up our commitment to justice and to just talk, and cranked down our tendency to pull out the six-shooter every five minutes, there is a huge array of problems and threats that could be ameliorated significantly. Peace through diplomacy. What a concept, eh?
MORE RESPONSIBILITY, LESS DESTRUCTIVENESS. There's a common and scathingly shameful theme that underlies many of our problems-fast-becoming-crises, ranging from Iraq to national debt to crumbling infrastructure to global warming. And that is that we've been willing to be incredibly irresponsible as a society, sucking away whatever we wanted from others, even our own children if necessary, in order to live high on the hog now. Sometimes we actually like the destructiveness, though sometimes it is inadvertent, simply the inevitable byproduct of living irresponsibly. Either way it is embarrassing on a good day, and wholly shameful otherwise. We have to start living responsibly and sustainably.
MORE OPPORTUNITY, LESS RESTRICTION. Americans believe - indeed, it is a key part of our mythic ethos - that this is the land of opportunity. Historically, there was some truth to that, but today we lag other comparable societies in social mobility, and, of course, your race and sex and class and region still determine far too much of your opportunity in life. There is much to be done here, but if we had even the remotest inkling of a real commitment to equality of opportunity, we would begin by equalizing per-pupil revenues allocated to schools. Funding schools based on property taxes - producing wildly disparate spending ranging from the ghetto to the suburbs to the elite private campus - is as dead a giveaway as imaginable that this society is not serious about equality of opportunity, let alone equality of results. In this respect and countless others, we need to give people the opportunity to realize their full potential.
MORE EQUALITY, LESS PREJUDICE. Sometimes we get it right, and it should be acknowledged. Just over the course of my lifetime alone, we have witnessed remarkable changes in the ethos of equality in America, and in the pragmatic effects of changes in both policy and attitudes. The lives of women, blacks, gays and other out-groups are considerably improved over the last half-century's time, and it's hardly a news flash that the election of Barack Obama as president is a very big deal in this respect. But, of course, it has taken far too long, and there is far too much yet to be done before this job is complete. The good news is that Obama phenomenon is indicative of a spreading new attitude of indifference toward such primordial categorizations among younger Americans, for many of whom your race or sexual orientation is becoming about as consequential as the color of your hair. Legislation is important and necessary, but in the end this is the ultimate antidote to prejudice.
MORE RATIONALITY, LESS DOGMA. This country's Founders, the epitomization of Enlightenment thinking on this side of the Atlantic, would be aghast at today's America. In the last several decades, the regressive movement has indeed regressed this society badly - away from rationality, empiricism and analysis. None of these are perfect tools, and they have been known to create disasters of epic proportions when taken to extremes. However, they are always better than dogmas, which are of course human-made anyhow. In this world, there are no verities. We either make it up out of whole cloth, or we uncover it through painstaking observation, theorizing, and the testing of our notions, which can then be revised as demonstrated necessary. The latter is infinitely better. And America will be infinitely better once it gives up on false catechisms and remembers how to take cold looks at hard problems.
MORE COMPASSION, LESS SELFISHNESS. Noting the existence of astonishing disparities of wealth in our time, both domestically and internationally, and their exacerbation in recent decades, history is unlikely to judge us as a particularly generous people. Folks can rail against taxation and government programs all they want, but what those ultimately represent is a full societal commitment to taking care of each other, rather than leaving individuals to the mercy of hit-and-miss family relations or charities. We not only need to translate greater compassion into more generous government programs, we need to knock down the hyper-individualist ethos that has long been a key thread in the fabric of our political culture, and has long prevented us from taking care of each other properly.
MORE DEMOCRACY, LESS PLUTOCRACY. The dirty little secret of American politics is how much elites run the society, and the degree to which they do so for their own benefit, not for pursuit of any national aspirations. What was once a snobbish, Eastern Establishment, refined upper class, discretely listing toward benefitting the already benefitted, has now morphed into a full-blown kleptocracy. Government today, in the hands of regressives, has become little short of a cash cow to be gored at every opportunity. This country needs a political housecleaning, and a rebirth of its democracy. The anger on the street and the rising levels of voter turnout are a good and encouraging start.
MORE FREEDOM, LESS REPRESSION. America remains among the freest of societies when it comes to the public discourse, and yet the actual discussions in the mainstream media often sound as though they were describing another planet. The corporate self-censorship of information in this country is astonishing, as most recently displayed in the kid-glove treatment given to Sarah Palin (and the uproar on the right caused when she was asked the most innocuous of questions) and George W. Bush as he desperately tries to rewrite history on his way out the door. Fortunately, the advent of truly free mass media on the Web and the comic irrelevance of the mainstream are today combining to save the First Amendment from de facto destruction. All we need now, is to take the mainstream out of the mainstream media.
MORE INTELLIGENCE, LESS STUPIDITY. It's astonishing to watch, sometimes, the degree to which we as a society prize ‘regular guy' lack of intelligence in our leadership. George W. Bush was famously (s)elected, in part, because he was more of the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with than that smarty-pants elitist, Al Gore. How massively insecure do you have to be in order to make a choice so detrimental, just so you can feel more comfortable about your own inadequacies over the coming four years? For all the talk in this country about excellence, it's astonishing the degree to which we don't actually practice it, especially in our politics. Isn't the idea of the best and the brightest refreshing? It takes judgement, too, but intelligence in leadership should be, er, a no-brainer!
MORE EDUCATION, LESS IGNORANCE. Likewise, trying to run a democracy on the foundation of an ill-informed or misinformed voting public is a doomed idea from the start. Unless, of course, democracy is just an inconvenience on the way toward kleptocracy - or better yet, a clever mask. It's amazing how little people know about politics and government in this country, and even more amazing the lies they believe that are fed to them by the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh. Regressives know they lose whenever ignorance is defeated. We need to help them in that process by valuing political participation more, and by producing more thoughtful and informed participants, literally as a goal of national policy.
MORE THOUGHTFULNESS, LESS FEAR. Part of the reason this society can be so ignorant and so stupid is because fear works so well at liberating us from our reasoning capacities. You might have noticed that the right has noticed this. Just a bit, eh? But, as on playgrounds everywhere, the most bellicose are typically the most fearful, just below the surface. Raising our self-esteem, raising our confidence, diminishing our fears and false arrogance - all of these would markedly improve the quality of our society and literally save millions of lives abroad.
MORE COURAGE, LESS RELIGION. And if we could really find some courage within ourselves, we might have a chance to diminish the role of religion in the society. Religion in politics is always a disaster and needs to be eliminated entirely. But its effects are far more pervasive than that, and extend throughout the psycho-societal landscape. A society that assuages its existential fears through the rigid and tenacious adherence to ludicrous fairytales will also be one that is fundamentally ripe for other such nonsense stories in the political sphere, and one that lacks the mental infrastructure, developed and sustained by habitual use, necessary for employing the right algorithms in decision-making. In plain English, meeting our deepest fears with soothing fictions encourages doing the same in politics.
MORE LAW, LESS POWER. The Founders were surely onto something when they argued for the concept of the rule of law, not of men. Too bad we've done such a lousy job of living up to their standards. In our legislative process, monied interests have now stopped yelling to get heard, or even speaking quietly, because they don't have to anymore. They just write the bills themselves. In our judicial process the role of money and power is so pervasive we hardly notice it anymore. While everyone was getting all agitated about race in the OJ Simpson trial a decade ago, the real story was that of class. Imagine if Simpson had been a poor man, with a public defender representing him. It's no accident that there are no wealthy people on death row. Entirely removing privilege, power, money and influence from our political and legal systems is not possible, of course. But we can do a lot better. And we would, if we were remotely serious about it.
MORE HUMILITY, LESS SUPERIORITY. Like all empires, America has a nasty habit of thinking it is superior to the rest of the world in every respect. And, unlike some others, this empire is even more driven in that direction by notions of religious authority and authorization. We pillage and plunder in the name of god. The unfortunate truth is that too often we Americans are like teenage science prodigies. We have the capacity to build devices capable of wholesale destruction, but those technical skills are unhappily combined with the lack of wisdom to know better than to actually do it. Everyone would be better off - this country and the nearly 200 other ones in the world - if we stopped thinking of ourselves as quite so exceptional.
MORE PROGRESSIVISM, LESS REGRESSIVISM. Things were NOT better in the thirteenth century, or the nineteenth, or even the 1950s. Although it is true that they were better, in many ways, in the 1960s, before the right started turning the clock backwards. In any case, some traditional notions are valuable. Others - like militarism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, monarchism, dogmatism or elitism - are not. We'd be far better served if we can stamp out this compulsion of ours to move backwards, instead focusing on how to move forward, carrying with us the best inventions of prior generations, and discarding the worst.
MORE JEFFERSON, LESS ROVE. Finally, there's this. Yes, I know that ol' Thomas was pretty imperfect, and that he knew how to play a rough game of politics that would actually often shock our sensibilities today. But he also had a noble side, and he could and did inspire an aspiration for that quality within succeeding generations. Karl Rove, on the other hand, never met a noble tendency he wasn't determined to drag into the gutter. He is the progeny of Joseph McCarthy and (his literal mentor) Lee Atwater. He is the personification of our politics for three decades now. He embodies, embraces and encourages our meanest (in both senses of the word) tendencies. No society is ever likely to be rid of the Karl Roves within its midst. But it is a sign of the most malignant sickness when they inhabit the White House, and worse yet, when they do so through presidency after presidency. It's time to start listening to our better angels again.
And, speaking of which, Abraham Lincoln once called this country "the last best hope of Earth". Whether it ever was that or not, clearly in the decades from which we now emerge, America has been, in too many ways, the best scourge of Earth, and quite possibly its last. We spend more on our military than all the other countries of the planet, combined. We use that military with a sickening frequency that no one matches, and few wish to. We are not content to simply ignore catastrophic environmental disaster, but smugly go so far as to exacerbate it, and to block others in their efforts to save our common and only home. We support and sometimes create the ugliest of repressive regimes on every continent of the planet.
It hasn't been pretty, and progressives have been right these last decades to scream bloody murder about what has been, quite literally, bloody murder.
Now it feels as though a new chapter is being written - not just the turn of a page to another new presidency - and an opportunity exists to recraft our polity, and to some extent the world.
However vague and platitudinous and Pollyannaish many of these suggestions may be, an America that moved in the directions outlined above would be a far better place than the sad and morally vacated one we are now leaving behind, hopefully forever.