YEAR-END REFLECTIONS ON DEMOCRACY AND THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT

For New Year’s Eve 2019, with a momentous election coming up in 2020, I’m reflecting on the state of progressivism (aka liberalism) and our democracy. One of my heroes in the world of liberal policy and political analysis is Bob Kuttner. The range and depth of his knowledge is truly incredible. His writing is clear and insightful even when covering very complex policy and political issues. A main outlet for his writing and thinking has been The American Prospect magazine, which he co-founded and has run for 30 years. When many print media outlets are disappearing, the Prospect is flourishing.

While the Democratic Party has strayed from its core beliefs and values to shift to the center and the right, especially on economic issues (to allow it to pursue contributions from corporate elites), The American Prospect magazine and Kuttner have stayed true to the progressive cause. They have consistently championed working people’s causes and exposed the abuses of the big, multinational corporations and financial industry. They have connected the dots among the structural corruption of unchecked capitalism, its inextricable link to the corruption of our politics and democracy, how these affect the everyday lives of regular people, and what’s need to reclaim our democracy and country for the people. [1] The Prospect’s most recent issue is an incredibly in-depth analysis of the Green New Deal and the need for urgent and radical, yet practical and doable, actions to address global climate change.

Bob Kuttner’s comments at the October gala celebrating the Prospect’s 30th anniversary, reflecting on the roles of “mainstream” and radical progressives or liberals, struck me as very relevant and insightful in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Here is an excerpt:

One of the things that fascinates me is the uneasy relationship and necessary symbiosis between liberals and radicals. Liberal democracy, at its core, is about the rule of law, democratic representation, the concept of loyal opposition, free inquiry, and due process. It’s polite. But sometimes, power relations become so out of kilter that radicalism has to violate well-mannered liberalism. The industrial union movement could not have succeeded without sit-down strikes that violated property rights. The civil rights movement required sit-ins, and marches, and other forms of civil disobedience. Lyndon Johnson, when he allied himself with Martin Luther King, understood that people had to break the law as it was then understood to redeem the Constitution. And of course the anti-war movement of the 1960s had to break a lot of china.

Just as liberals, however queasily, need radicals, it’s also the case that radicals need liberals. Because drastic change ultimately needs to be enshrined as law.” [2]

Since the 1980s, an important factor driving the shift to the right and the enhancement of the power of corporate America and the wealthy has been an imbalance in financial resources and in the way the wealthy are using them. As Kuttner notes above, liberals and the left tend to be polite, well-mannered, focused on consensus and bipartisanship, and to operate within the context of laws, institutions, and established norms and practices. The right and their wealthy funders have not been similarly constrained. They have readily adopted an extreme agenda, been willing to bend and break the truth and the facts, and have willingly, and at times apparently gleefully, ignored norms and traditions, broken the law, and trashed important institutions of our democracy. [3]

This closing reflection from Kuttner’s speech resonates strongly with me:

… the postwar system of managed capitalism, that my generation assumed was the new normal, was in fact an anomaly. …

It takes enduring continuous political struggle to keep enriching and expanding democracy, both for its own sake and to housebreak capitalism. That is a labor of Sisyphus. You roll the rock up the hill; and the rock tumbles back down the hill. But in Albert Camus’s celebrated essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the last line is: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy. The work, and the joy, is in the struggle.’” [4]

Beginning in the 1980s, the Democratic Party, and we as citizens of a democracy, let too many rocks roll too far down the hill by undoing the oversight and regulation of capitalism and letting it and the wealth of corporate elites corrupt our politics and policies. The middle class and working people got buried in the landslide of rocks rolling downhill.

Many citizens learned from the election of 2016 that democracy is not a spectator sport; citizens need to be engaged and informed for democracy to work. Some in the Democratic Party recognized and others found their voices to say that too many rocks had rolled too far down the hill of economic inequality and of other injustices in our society. Hopefully, the 2020 elections will reflect that learning, which was evident to some extent in the 2018 national elections, as well as in elections at the state and local levels.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to do whatever I can in 2020 to advance the movement that’s reclaiming our liberal democracy of, by, and for the people. I hope it’s one of your resolutions too.

[1]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, “Sisyphus is happy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/sisyphus-is-happy/)

[2]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

[3]      Heer, J., 9/10/19, “In an age of policy boldness, think tanks have become timid,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/think-tanks-democratic-party/)

[4]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

3 comments

  1. Christi Collins · · Reply

    Hi John,

    Happy New Years! I always love reading your blog… but I felt compelled to respond today with a gentle reminder that America is not a democracy… we’re a Constitutional Republic… based on the unalienable rights of the individual, not the whim of the majority (like a democracy would be)… and so if we’re to reclaim anything, it would be our republic, not democracy.

    My new year’s goal is to similar to yours… to help reclaim the republic… because we have gotten so far off track that our country would be barely recognizable by the Founders who fought so hard for our freedom. The government was given limited and defined powers… yet those in office today seem to totally forget that they do not have the power to do more than half the things they do (especially at the federal level). Federal government was never given authority to be involved in healthcare, education, etc. Yet they are… because we’ve allowed them to be. Those powers were supposed to rest with the states and the people. The judiciary and state governments have also forgotten their roles… corruption runs rampant everywhere these days. We the people need to take our country back!

    I believe that the people in government (state and federal) these days wouldn’t know the Constitution if it hit them over the head! And that’s why government overreach has gotten so out of control. The government doesn’t abide by the checks and balances that were set up, because they think they’re above the Constitution and above the limits that we, the people, put on them in the first place. It’s a scary place… and people are getting fed up with it… and in one way I’m glad, because it’s gotten people off the side lines and taking part in the process!

    I’ll check out Bob Kuttner – I haven’t heard of him before. As you know, mainstream media is totally bought and totally biased – listening to mainstream news or reading mainstream newspapers only gives half the story. That’s why no one in our country has the full story or full information on vaccines, because the news only reports what Pharma pays them to report. I like listening to Kris Anne Hall… her podcast takes current events, legislation, etc. and interprets it through the lens of the Constitution. She’s definitely more of a conservative bent than I think you prefer… but the info she shares is through the Constitutional lens and not through one party or personality.

    Warmly, Christi

    Christi Collins, Diamond Leader with Young Living Essential Oils

    Helping people achieve extraordinary health and wealth… one drop of essential oil at a time!

    >

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks, I appreciate your article every month! This one especially!

    Thanks again and Happy New Year!

    Tom

    “Aim High for Aphasia!”

    Johnny Appleseed of Aphasia Awareness

    50 States or Bust!

    Have Aphasia…Will Travel!

    Thomas G. Broussard, Jr., Ph.D.

    Stroke Educator, Inc.

    541 Domenico Circle

    St. Augustine, FL 32086

    207-798-1449

    tbroussa@comcast.net

    http://www.strokeeducator.com

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    1. Thanks, Tom! I wish you a wonderful 2020!

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