These are tough times for American progressives.
The president of the United States is a serial falsifier and an inveterate champion of the worst kind of predatory plutocracy. Meanwhile, the congressional majority that fuels and sustains much of his power and influence is, in turn, undergirded by an unholy alliance of robber barons, nativists and theocrats that rejects the very idea of a modern, plural democracy.
Add to this toxic tableau an overlay of bitter, sometimes violent, racism and the hard reality of an economy starkly and increasingly divided between haves and have nots, and the picture gets that much darker.
In such a difficult environment, it’s understandable that many modern progressives long desperately for a way to break through the bitter divisions that grip the country and find some measure of common ground with the opposition. Especially given the fact that so many on the right take a militant – even hostile stance – the notion that at least some of the more outwardly civil conservatives profess a willingness to engage in civil conversation has an obvious appeal. “Surely,” goes the thinking, “if we can just sit down and talk, we can break down some of the barriers and misunderstandings that divide us.”
Sadly, at the dawn of 2018, this sentiment is mostly a destructive delusion. Here are five reasons why progressives would do much better to articulate and stick to a set of unabashed principles and fight on to victory:
1. The Right has no genuine interest in compromise. This is not a period in American history in which the political divide between right and left is measured in degrees as it was during most of the second half of the 20th Century. Today’s gap is a yawning and likely unbridgeable one.
The dark genius of (and grave danger posed by) the modern American conservative movement is that it is composed of fervent true believers who seek to radically remake our national social contract by rolling back the progress of the 20th Century consensus era. This is true both of the loud-mouthed extremists and the polished pundits who hold forth on behalf of “foundations” and “institutes” on our TV and computer screens.
For virtually all of these actors, talk of compromise and civility is merely a stratagem – a tactic to be employed on the path to final victory. Like so many radical and ideologically driven insurgent political movements throughout history, the modern Right will talk nice for the cameras when it suits their purposes, but progressives should be under no illusion. Any movement that would obliterate the separation of church and state, forever deny fundamental human rights to LGBTQ people, roll back the basic human freedom to control one’s own reproduction, transform killing machines into sacrosanct icons and endanger the very survival of the species by denying the existential threat posed by environmental degradation is not one with which to compromise; it is one to be overcome.
In his famous 1858 “House Divided Speech,” Abraham Lincoln put it this way:
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Lincoln was talking about slavery, of course, but the logic applies just as well 160 years later. Sometimes the divide is just too great to be bridged through conversation and compromise. Now, as then, only victory will do in this epochal struggle.
2. The rise of Donald Trump was a game changer. If caring and thinking people had any doubts about the reality described above, they ought to have been dispelled once and for all by the rise of Trump and the Right’s acceptance of him as its standard bearer. Simply put: There is no way to find common ground – genuine, lasting common ground – with a movement that embraces (or even tolerates) such a dishonest charlatan.
First of all, such efforts would be futile in the near term given Trump’s own power and influence and his blatant corruption and deceitfulness.
But the more important truth made manifest by Trump’s rise is the utter cynicism of the people and organizations that purport to dislike Trump, but that are only too happy to work with him and use him as a tool to implement their agenda. Any movement that is that fanatical and hypocritical cannot be trusted as a genuine partner in compromise.
3. Compromise? To what end? This is obviously not the first time in American history during which well-intentioned people have talked openly of bridging the gap with forces of reaction. Such efforts were attempted endlessly when it came to slavery and later, with respect to questions of basic civil rights, ending child labor and so on. There are certainly times in which half of a loaf is better than nothing at all. That said, it’s one thing to seek compromise when it represents incremental progress; it’s quite another when compromise represents partial surrender.
On most issues in 2018, seeking any kind of overarching common ground with the modern conservative movement amounts to little more than an attempt at appeasement. For now, the Right holds the upper hand politically and is driving the national agenda. And while progressive elected officials must do what they can tactically to blunt that agenda in legislative halls, it remains folly to think that now is the time at which we can find genuine and lasting common ground.
4. The resistance is strong and growing. As terrible as the impact of Trumpism has been and continues to be, there is one thing that can be said for it: No political force in recent U.S. history has done so much to galvanize and mobilize progressives to action. At the dawn of the New Year, the resistance to Trumpism and all it stands for – greed, intolerance, tribalism, parochialism, a refusal to acknowledge the fragility of our natural environment – rages.
Meanwhile, fully cognizant of this reality, the Right is using every trick in the playbook – witness the ongoing effort to rig the courts at the state and federal levels – to hold onto the gains it has made.
If ever there was a year to seize back the initiative, 2018 is it.
5. Much more needs to be done in developing and articulating a genuinely progressive vision. As passionate as the resistance to Trumpism has become, it remains a fragile and only partially developed movement. Forty years ago, American progressives had a much more coherent and comprehensive vision of where they wanted to take the nation – particularly with respect to matters of economic justice. Unfortunately, decades of relentless, well-funded propaganda have taken their toll in shifting the national ideological pendulum to the right.
Fox News blowhards may attempt to disparage “the left” as promoting “socialism,” but the truth of the matter is that the economic policies favored by most of today’s Democratic politicians differ little from the policies espoused by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Even those attacked by conservatives as “radical activists” seek policies (e.g. a significantly higher minimum wage, enforcement of environmental and consumer protection laws, expanded health care coverage) that merely curb the excesses of capitalism and that would have been viewed as relatively tame in the middle of the 20th Century. The articulation of broader and more ambitious progressive agenda remains an urgent necessity.
The bottom line
None of the foregoing is to imply that progressives should eschew nonviolence, civility or basic human decency when interacting with their conservative adversaries or that all attempts to find agreement on specific issues should be abandoned. It is to say, however, that 21st Century progressives will have no more success finding workable, big-picture compromises with the people driving the modern Right than Lincoln and his allies did in somehow negotiating an end to slavery.
Progressives must constantly remind themselves of the hard reality that today’s conservatives want to radically remake American society for the worse. It is, therefore, our duty to resist and push back, outwork and outlast them and, ultimately, to prevail. Let’s resolve to redouble our efforts in 2018.
Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator.