Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A belated answer to Lex

Blogger lex dexter said...

EZ, Are the progressive and populist traditions reconcilable?

August 3, 2009 3:41 PM

I was too busy to compose a serious answer, and I was hesitant to give it a rush job (my usual)... but Digby posted to day about this topic and I thought it brought some of my thinking on this q. She was discussing Rick Perlstein's piece in the WAPO.
from digby:
Rick talked about some other things that were equally fascinating, particularly the issue of why the demagogic rhetoric of the right seems to work so well:
You can't "demand" that people be more logical. Emotion is part of the human animal. What I would have liked to have seen, as an advocate of healthcare reform, is for Obama and the rhetoric to COMBINE rational appeals with emotional ones--like FDR and and Truman and LBJ did so effectively in their own attempts to pass progressive legislation. They roused people in their lizard-brains, too, just for progressive ends. Read a book about the 1948 presidential election--Truman made arguments in a very blunt, emotional style...

And he mentions my biggest pet peeve -- the sell-out on populist economic issues, which should naturally belong to the left right now and is instead (dangerously) being appropriated by the right:

Somewhere along the line Democrats lost a sense of their natural power base--which is the fact that their ideas are economically beneficial to the vast majority. Acknowledging this fact became "demagoguery." Conservatives convinced them it was "class warfare." They became afraid of their simplest and most powerful message. All the other timidity follows from that.

In our country, populism has almost always been caught up in race and nativism, but it didn't have to be that way this time. The democratic Party's ties with corporate America cause a great deal of this problem to be sure, but I agree with Rick that much of this is sheer Pavlovian reflex. They are afraid to say the truth. The right is unafraid to lie. And that leads to a distorted political dialog that nobody can understand. And into that void, the scare tactics have a distinct advantage.

I think that the "traditions" are not very reconcilable, but I think that the term, along with progressive, can be re-branded to more positive use. The original progressive's were mostly white male protestant business owners that wanted to take back govmint from the flood of (non white non protestant) immigrants, but that doesn't stop me and many others from using the term to denote liberal ideas in general. (I liked how nate discussed this at 538:
the term "progressive" is equally ambiguous, and is associated with at least two relatively distinct philosophical traditions. Although these two "progressivisms" share common ground on many (probably most) issues, they are at loggerheads on some others, as has perhaps become more apparent since the election of President Obama.

The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism.

Rational progressivism tends to be trusting, within reason, of status quo political and economic institutions -- generally including the institution of capitalism. It tends to trust these institutions because it believes they are a manifestation of progress made by previous generations. However, unlike conservatism, it also sees these institutions as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from 'irrational' worldviews like religion. It also recognizes that certain persons who stand to benefit from preserving the status quo, particularly elected officials but also corporations, may seek to block this progress to protect their own interests. The project of rational progressivism, then, is to propagate good ideas and to convert them, through a wide and aggressive array of democratic means, into public policy.

The second type of progressivism is what I call radical progressivism. It represents, indeed, a much more radical and comprehensive critique of the status quo, which it tends to see as intrinsically corrupt. Its philosophical tradition originates in 19th Century thought -- and specifically, owes a great deal to the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Marxist theory of social change. It also finds inspiration in both the radical movement of the 1960s and the labor and social movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which it borrows the label "progressive").

Radical progressivism is more clearly distinguishable from "conventional" liberalism and would generally be associated with the "far left" -- although on a handful of issues such as free trade, it may find common cause with the "radical" right. Radical progressivism embraces the tradition of populism and frequently adopts a discourse of the virtuous commoner organizing against the corrupt elite. It is much more willing to make normative claims than rational progressivism, and tends to view conservatism as immoral and contemporary American liberalism as amoral (at best). Its project is not reform but transformation.

Rational progressives sometimes regard radical progressives as impractical, self-righteous, shrill, demagogic, naïve and/or anti-intellectual. Radical progressives, in turn, regard rational progressives as impure, corrupt (or corruptible), selfish, complacent, elitist, and too quick to compromise.

my point (made through (over) use of other's quotes) is that the terms can be used by anyone, willing/able to construct a (rational) defense of what they mean by the labels. Somebody got a problem with that?


gabbagabbahey said...

if you'll allow me to quote myself, this is what I said the last time you quoted that nate silver piece (which is very good, by the way):

"it's a weird label you have [in the US]. seems to me it's either self-congratulatory (we're so progressive!) or redundant (what left-wing political position since the 19th century hasn't aimed towards progress?). and what's with the 'rational'/radical distinction when the term 'moderate' would surely work just as well?

obviously, this problem stems from the US failure to develop a proper European multi-party, left-right spectrum political system.

(just my €0,02)"

the second paragraph is almost totally sarcastic, but I still can't help feeling that it's right.

dave3544 said...

Gabba -

And yet you were encouraging me to gobble half-a-loaf of health care not too long ago.

In many ways, I would love to have a viable Left party to get behind, but I think the word viable is the key. Do you feel you have viable multi-parties in Europe? Because from over here it seems like you have the same left-right split (oh, but much further left than ours) and your multi-parties glom onto which ever large party is is closest to their beliefs in order to form a coalition. (Assuming the larger party needs it).

I'm just saying it seems like you end up with the same center-left, center-right leaders we do (although further to the left), with your random crazy right- or left-wingers thrown in for kicks.

Although, perhaps, having an actual Communist or Socialist party around might prevent people like, say, Barack Obama being labeled a socialist/Marxist/Islamofascist.

gabbagabbahey said...

it's true that we end up with centre-right and centre-left leaders, but at least in the case of a coalition there's some bargaining (half-loaves?) between parties of different positions.
and even if the parties don't ultimately achieve the real levels of power, the space is there for a wider discourse in politics (not a big cliff saying 'Socialism').

the term has become a lot more familiar to me now, but every time I see 'progressive' mentioned in US politics, I still think 'further left'. and conversely, populist parties in Europe tend to be centre-left or centre-right. it doesn't seem to add anything to the left-right way of viewing politics, and in fact obscures it - e.g. the Tories in the UK are trying to re-brand themselves as progressives, when in fact they'll still be at least centre-right.

I'm not sure, but it seems to be that this conflict between progressive and populist is just the gap between far left and moderate left being expressed in a system which doesn't recognise the positions of more than two parties. 'parties' as in separate voting blocs, with separate leaders and policies, not just different wings of the Democratic party.