in Kulturkampf

The Politics of Being Progressive

In 2011, the progressive blogosphere assumed that fabled, infamous circular firing squad formation and opened fire. The internal politics of netroots are showing up in posts. Digby:

The jobs numbers are good, but there also good reason to contain the jubiliation for the time being, at least according to Jared Bernstein, who’s not a hostile emo-prog the last I heard.

I’ve met Digby, and read her blog for years. I always admired her and never thought of her as a hostile emo-prog. Yes, she’s way to the left of Obama on many issues, and she has the interesting young David Atkins writing in her blog, but she’s always been a proud Democrat. Nor would I react to Bernstein that way: I’m the first to say the recovery is still precarious. And I know what Digby is trying to do with the Overton window.

Digby felt it necessary to acknowledge a distinction within progressive politics. This kind of preemption is, I think, unnecessary, and furthermore I do not like the naming conventions that have emerged. A few months ago, a faction of the progressive netroots declared itself “pragmatic” as opposed to “emo.” Let me be the first to call this terminology ridiculous.

Pragmatism is a means, not an end, and being pragmatic doesn’t make you correct or effective. I have news for “pragmatic” progressives: those white people just now concerned about police brutality have always been concerned by police brutality. Digby has carried a torch for years in her blog to bring a light to abusive tasering. What’s more, activism has grown huge in the progressive youth cohort; they have learned from the old leaders, and they have responded to the call of nonviolence. This blog has chronicled that, and guess what pragmatic figures they learned it from?

Which brings me to “emo,” a broad musical genre rooted in punk, metal, and rock but characterized by highly-personal and emotive lyrics (hence, “emo”). Neither “pragmatic” or “emo” belongs in a compound noun with “progressive.” Emo is held in disregard by metalheads, who appreciate lyrics about strong feelings other than sadness. So if you’re using either term, please stop it before we confuse musical politics with the politics of progressivism.

My co-blogger and webcomic Jesus once described the problem well using a diagram. In fact, the “split” between progressives is that some progressives have a more narrow zone of acceptability than others. The president’s decisions won’t always be acceptable to progressives, or to all progressives. In fact, they usually won’t be acceptable to all progressives. I have taken the liberty of modifying his chart:

Let two issues stand for the rest here, since most issues on which the left divides these days are about his use of authority. For the first two years of his presidency, the left complained that Obama did not use his ultimate powers of suasion and veto to achieve narrower progressive victories. Simultaneously, Americans were grabbing mainstream attention with teabags hanging from tricorner hats and signs that called Obama a dictator over the ACA. Yet it was hard to get progressives to freak out enough about health care to show up en masse, much less in coordination. Remember “kill the bill”?

There has been no sense of co-belligerency on the left until recently, and even the Occupy movement has been a source of division. This is utterly unnecessary. Progressives have long wanted to change the subject of the public conversation away from austerity; that time is now, so let’s talk about it instead of spilling electrons in blue-on-blue fratricide. Yes, the movement is going to have a hard time accepting Obama. Yes, Obama has his own movement within progressive politics. These people have to find a way to get along and use a weak Republican field to put Obama in coattails instead of cutting them off.

Because we actually can’t wait. We cannot wait for a more progressive president to come along before we retake Congress, the most broken branch of the federal government. There are thirty-nine state legislatures to take back. There are fifty states to fight in, and all of them are swing states. They are full of swing voters (yes, swing voters exist; I have been watching them swing since the 1980s). The task is to generate a landslide broader than one man. If you’re not part of that, you’re not helping.

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