Brett Graham: Progressivism and pacing

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 5:18pm

The Ten Commandments of Progressivism

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Brett Graham/The Michigan Daily

Last week, the California Democrats convened in Sacramento to draft and vote on their statewide party platform in advance of the 2018 midterm elections. They adopted a platform not too different from the one Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., ran on in 2016 — access to universal health care as a human right, a $15 minimum wage, corporate regulation and paid family leave. Other planks in the 28-page manifesto, however, were much less familiar. Sizing up this document in the context of where Democrats are winning right now underlines the single greatest obstacle for progressive politics in the U.S. today — pacing.

According to the document, California Democrats will support “abolishing the Electoral College and (replacing it) with a national popular vote.” They will also seek full public funding of campaigns in local, state and federal elections to oppose the “culture of cronyism and corruption” as well as the immediate repeal of the post-9/11 legislation, Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Finally, they advocate for publicly-owned affordable housing projects and the creation of publicly-owned, “non-competitive” Internet providers.

As a progressive, my initial reaction is that whoever wrote this platform should be thrown a parade. Finally, a bold and articulate vision that is not only morally right, but one on which progressive candidates can win. In 2016, Democrats sold Hillary Rodham Clinton as President Barack Obama’s follow-up act, a continuation of everything that was going right in our country. This new progressive vision came in the rare absence of a predominant negative motivation, “Don’t vote for the clown who grabs women by the crotch.” Finally, some positive motivation to go to the polls. Voting for instead of voting against.

Several hours later, as I was scrolling through Twitter, the political talking heads were fixated on one thing: Texas turning blue. This included Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s momentum in his challenge for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, demographic shifts in Texas and how Clinton lost the state by a smaller margin than any Democrat since 1996. Could this Republican Party stronghold finally be in play this year? This kind of speculation has been everywhere for the past two years, as Democrats make gains in unlikely places — Alabama, Georgia and even Oklahoma. Surely, running as a Democrat in California is wildly different from running as a Democrat anywhere in the South. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., cannot win with the progressivism of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. So, what do these divergent positions mean for the Party, if and when it wins congressional majorities? What does it mean for the selection of a presidential candidate in two years’ time?

Two kinds of Democrats are starting to emerge, both drawing from Sanders’ rhetoric and style, but wildly different in terms of pacing. On the one hand, there are the motivated progressives, in places like California, Oregon, New Jersey and Massachusetts. They’re ready to staple this platform to their foreheads and move full-steam ahead. On the other, there are popular progressives, in places that are not quite ready for everything in the 28 pages of the California platform but who will be ready to take steps in that direction. These were Sanders voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio — the people who can be sold on single-payer health care and legalized marijuana, but need a little time.

Reactionary instincts to too much change in too little time are real. It is not a coincidence that a presidential campaign based on making America great again came on the heels of our first Black president and eight years that saw the legalization of gay marriage, mainstream portrayals of transgender people and a spotlight on safe spaces on college campuses. For a lot of people, it was overwhelming and the world motivated progressives are pushing for threatens to have the exact same effect. Agree with it as you like, but no one can deny the contents of that document represents substantial change to how we think about rights, the differences between public or private, and how elections work in this country.

So, if you were the grand marshal of American progressives, what would you do? Lean into this 28-page left-wing dream of a mission statement and risk alienating potential voters in states showing signs of progress? Or pump the brakes and wait for the popular progressives to catch up, despite the fact this is somewhat counterintuitive to what you stand for?

Fundamentally, 2018 is an exciting year to be a progressive. The platform is exciting and has so much potential. What was once a subset of the Democratic Party is now its vanguard, pushing left and angling for congressional majorities. At the same time, liberal candidates seem poised to win in places they haven’t won in half a century.

For now, I see no problem with offering this document to the 468 congressional candidates who will have D’s next to their names this fall as a sort of buffet. Pick and choose. Find the pace that is right for your state or your district. But set a tone. Make change at the local level that starts the wave, slow and steady. Because very soon, we’re going to see a major presidential nominee with this platform stapled to his or her forehead, ready to spread it to all 50 states. And if these two brands of progressivism are too far out of step, that could spell trouble.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.