Accompany me, if you will, to an alternative universe. It is one where President Richard Nixon said “we’re all Keynesians now” and founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, and dismissed any party that would even think of eliminating unemployment insurance or Social Security.
In this world, President Gerald Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment and even the high priest of Conservative daydreams, Ronald Reagan, raised corporate taxes and inaugurated a cabinet department to care for American veterans. As you may or may not know, this is not actually another world, but an accurate description of another time, when the Democratic Party and its progressive philosophy played offense, and Republicans felt a need to prostrate themselves before it, lest they join the Whigs, Federalists, and Know Nothings in that big political convention in the sky.
Yet, as a more assertive President Obama once pointed out, even while Reagan still bowed to some of the 50-year consensus that progress was good and with freedom came responsibility to our fellow countrymen, he lead a “transformative” presidency that blamed Big Government for all our nation’s ills (this “big government,” of course, only referred to economic issues, as growing the government to police your personal life and the world at large was as cool as a credit default swap).
It wasn’t only Reagan, of course, but the growth of talk radio buffoonery, new television channels that were not all that fair and balanced, and a wholesale movement by many segregationist Democrats into the Republican Party that also helped send the conventional wisdom in a more Jean-Marie Le Pen kind of direction.
Now fast forward to today. Most Democrats seem to stumble around like Leonard in Memento, possessing no institutional memory that when their forebears spoke out passionately with a strong progressive vision for the country, most Americans agreed with them and elected them overwhelmingly.
But they also seem to have forgotten—and George W. Bush could remind them if they need a refresher course—that even when people disagree with their President, Senators, Governors and Congressmen, they are looking for leaders—those who unabashedly stand up and tell you what they think is right. It’s what everyday people do in their own lives, and they expect at least as much from their leaders.
So why do many Democrats—and there certainly are a few impressive exceptions—hedge, hem, haw, hide and otherwise somersault to the Right on any number of issues when they feel threatened? Well, there are probably a few reasons, but the main one would seem to be that they simply buy wholesale the conventional wisdom doled out by lobbyists, big campaign contributors, certain media outlets, and Sarah Palin’s ghost-written, grammatically-challenged Twitter feed. Namely that America is a “center-right” or even conservative country.
You can’t go too far to the Left they repeat ad nauseam. You have to appease Big Business, or they’ll do to your political career what they did to the public option. You have to be “moderate,” or “centrist,” because Americans just love that mythical middle, like its cotton candy or the “Contest” episode of Seinfeld. Of course, all it takes is a couple of minutes perusing poll numbers on virtually any issue to know that this is as accurate as a Hutton Gibson’s Holocaust history or George Will’s “hair.”
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Lets look at a few hot button issues, such as gun control, gay rights and taxes.
When asked by Republican pollster Frank Luntz whether they wanted to see the gun show loophole—or the lack of a background check for those purchasing guns from “private” gun sellers—even 85% of gun owners and 69% of those who are members of the radical National Rifle Association said yes.
A recent CNN poll showed that an overwhelming 78% of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Finally, when the argument is over taxes, a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that while only 37% want the richest Americans to keep tax cuts enacted by President Bush in 2001, while 59% either want only those making less than $250,000 a year to keep theirs, or want them to expire for everyone.
Now, I know that states are different and Congressional districts even more so, but with these overwhelming numbers, most to all Democrats are in safe territory to stand up for progressive values. And if being progressive kills candidates, once again looking to history, someone is going to have to explain to me how unapologetic liberals such as Frank Church of Idaho, Mike Mansfield of Montana (who introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and even George McGovern of South Dakota (to name only a few) managed to get elected and re-elected so many darn times.
This pattern of electing those who choose to lead continues today. Even as the Midwest, or Middle America, is fetishized in Washington for its middle-income, middle-class, moderate political bent, somehow Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Al Franken of Minnesota are among the half-dozen to dozen most progressive Democrats in the Senate.
So to summarize, Democrats won for much of the 20th Century by being proudly progressive, forcing Republicans to tack to the left early and often, polls show Americans agree with progressives on hot button issues, and there are many current examples of proud and loud progressives who have made it to the Senate from swing or conservative states.