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PROGRESSIVES IN THE ERA OF OBAMA
The incredibly rapid shift in the political climate in America has brought to light an important dynamic in our nation. Just three short years ago, Karl Rove was talking about a permanent Republican majority. Today, the Democrats control both houses and we have our first Black president. What can account for such a rapid turn around? What could explain how our country could shift so rapidly from one direction to another?
Two Different Polarities
Underlying the labels of Liberal and Conservative there are two different polarities that are woven into the fabric of our society. One of these polarities is rooted in our capitalist economy. Capitalism places an emphasis on individualism and competition. It works by survival of the fittest, placing the fate of individuals and businesses in the hands of an impersonal market. Its harsh mechanisms produce economic efficiency, but also "winners and losers" It gives rise to hardships and great disparities of wealth and power.
The other polarity derives from the social infrastructure that connects us together as a community. This is our language, legal system, institutions of government, educational system, the physical infrastructure that supplies us with water, sewer services, roads and bridges, a grid for electricity and communication, public oversight for health and safety, etc. These are processes that are organized outside the market: they are things we share and depend upon that underlie and sustain our capacity to live together. They also provide the foundations of our economy.
Each of these two different polarities is based upon a reality - and these realities operate by different rules. Capitalism focuses on profit and competition: self-interest is its supreme value. Community, on the other hand, is rooted in interdependence. It brings our shared interests to the fore and emphasizes cooperation. Its highest value is the interest of the whole community - "the common good."
The Common Good
While both capitalism and community, competition and interdependence, are integral dimensions of our society, it is the bonds of community that are most critical to a nation's wellbeing. It is only by acting together as a community that people can control their own destinies. It is through the institutions of community, of self-governance, that people are able to rescue, as we must do now, a faltering economy or tackle such issues as global warming.
We do not dismiss or disparage self-interest, hard work, and personal responsibility. Progressives, however, understand that the freedoms and successes of the individual ultimately depend upon the strength of the social fabric that sustains the entire community. We truly are "all in this together."
To be progressive is to understand our interdependence: to realize that in strengthening the bonds of community we are generating the human resources and building the trust we need to successfully confront the daunting problems we face.
The notion of the "common good" is a compass that gives direction to our work.
Both Polarities Are Real
While the values of community are preeminent - they do not deny the reality of our capitalist economy and the imperatives that accompany it. While there is conflict between these two dimensions of social life, there is also interdependence.
Most conservatives recognize that community is real and that it has certain requirements. They know that society needs an administrative apparatus and the means to insure law and order - and that there must be some level of popular support to give stability to the system. At the same time, progressives recognize that capitalism is real, and that it, too, has necessities that if not met, produce economic collapse - which results in great hardships that can lead to the breakdown of community.
But conservatives and progressives understand the relationship between these two dimensions differently.
Conservatives see the individual as paramount. The purpose of society is to promote the liberty of the individual: his or her ability to compete and reap the full rewards of success. The "common good," the need to allocate resources to ensure a decent life for all and provide a foundation for a healthy community, feels to them as a restraint on their ability to further their own.
While progressives see community as paramount, they also accept certain necessities of capitalism. A healthy economy provides the jobs and resources on which everyone depends. However, progressives also recognize that when left to itself, capitalism gives rise to great disparities of wealth and power and produces inequities that undermine and weaken the fabric of the larger community. Our current crisis shows that when capitalism is unregulated and operates outside the framework of the common good, the results are catastrophic: not just for the larger community, but even for the capitalist economy itself.
Four Guiding Principles
There are four guiding principles that follow from this analysis:
- The need to be active. The fact that our society has two opposing polarities built into it means that it is constantly being pulled in two different directions. If one polarity falters, the other grows more powerful. If our common interests are not kept in the forefront, we see a rise in individual fortunes at the expense of our collective social fabric. That lesson was brought home to all of us during the last decade.
- We must think holistically. We must stay aware of the Big Picture, be able to see different sides of situations. We have to understand the capitalist dimension in order to craft reforms that will work and produce real benefits.
Thinking holistically allows us to think of our society as an integral organism. It enables us to see how the problems of poverty and inequality are not simply issues of sympathy, charity, or individual morality. Addressing these issues are an essential part of healing and strengthening our whole community. By elevating others, by developing their potentials, we are improving our own opportunities.
- We must be pragmatic. We don't choose positions based on ideology or who we are for or against. We support programs that work to advance the interests of the whole society. We know we don't have all the answers and we understand the need to compromise in order to advance a progressive agenda. At the same time, we do not support compromises that we believe will ultimately work against society's common interests.
- We are inclusive. The perspective we have developed here enables us to recognize that the vast majority of people have a stake in the common good. Those who often are on the "other side," particularly working class conservatives, can be reached because they have an interest in advancing many of the same issues we want.
We don't want to polarize, to harden lines on one issue so that it gives rise to deep fault-lines that color people's positions on other issues. This is easier said than done. We are up against masters of polarization. But we must work to keep in mind that everyone carries the different polarities within them, and that if positions are not hardened, people can switch their perspectives quite rapidly.
The task of progressives is to help the nation find and follow the path of the common good