17 to go: Flashback: A Wakeup Call for Progressive Thinkers

I first posted this on May 12, 2004 on my original blog, The Daily Weasel. The original received an overwhelmingly positive response. With two-and-a-half weeks to go before this very important election, It’s something to think about again. Some elements are dated, such as the part where we have to elect John Kerry, but the core idea is still valid. Do NOT call yourself a progressive if all you have is the right positions on specific issues, but you’re not doing what needs to be done to get the best people elected. Not the PERFECT people, the BEST people. 

Politics in a democracy is about winning. If you’re not winning, it doesn’t matter how right you think you are. 

A Wake-Up Call for Progressive Thinkers

by Milt Shook

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a progressive. (Face it; if you’re reading this web site, the odds are pretty good that you at least think of yourself that way.)

As a “progressive,” I know you say you want social justice and freedom for all, regardless of race, creed or sexual preference. I know you want everyone in the United States to have an equal shot at the American dream, that no one should be held back because of his or her skin color or gender. You want to preserve a woman’s right to reproductive choice, and you think any couple who wants to get married should be able to. You think that clean air and clean water are our birthright, and should be protected to the greatest extent possible. You think the poor should have a safety net that actually takes good care of them in times of financial stress. And no one – and I mean NO ONE – should have to be unhealthy because they don’t have access to insurance, or be forced into bankruptcy because they get sick.

Am I close on these? Good. That’s how I feel, and I’m glad you feel that way. You know what else? I think the majority of Americans, if presented with our case just that way, would be on our side. So the question I have is, why are so many “progressives” moving the country to the right, by voting and working against the Democratic Party?

I can hear the expletives fly now. “What did he say?” you’re thinking. A lot of you think the Democratic and Republican Party are two sides of the same coin, and that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for the status quo. In a way, if you look at things in a superfluous manner, you’d be right. There are politicians from both parties who are corrupt, and arrogant. And corporate special interests have far too much pull in the electoral process. But let’s engage in a little Civics 101, and I’ll show you how you’re flat wrong when you characterize both major parties the same, and why you’re not really a progressive if you don’t support one of them.

We live in a democratic republic. We each vote for our representative every two years, and a senator two out of every three elections. In those elections, the person who gets the most votes wins. That means, if there are 5 million votes for the Senate, and the race is between two, the one who gets 2,500,001 wins. If three run, it could be less than that. If 12 people run, it’s possible that someone could get 10% of the vote and win election. That’s our system.

The presidential race is a little more complicated, but not too bad. Instead of voting for a candidate, you’re actually voting for an elector, who will then cast his or her vote in your honor.

But in either case, the one who gets the most votes gets to make public policy. The presidential candidate who gets the most electoral votes gets to appoint a Cabinet, which will oversee scads of new regulations, and judges who will administer the law in whichever way he sees fit.

The folks who get the second, third and fourth most votes get to go home and plan for a return to politics, go fishing, whatever. They have absolutely no say in policy, unless someone who won gives them a say.

Okay, why am I giving readers a civics lesson? Because the left seems to have forgotten this very simple thing. I listen to Randi Rhodes on Air America most afternoons, and it seems that not a day or two goes by without some self-proclaimed “progressive” singing the praises of Ralph Nader, and asking why she doesn’t support him. The simple answer she gives – because he can’t win! – seems to fall on deaf ears in many cases. But that is the answer.

Think about it a minute. If I’m running for president, and I know damn well I’m never going to get more than 5% of the vote, I can say any damn thing I want to. I can say I’m going to eliminate the budget deficit by taxing the rich 90%. I can say I’m going to eliminate NAFTA and force US companies to rehire everyone they laid off in the last ten years. I can promise to quadruple CAFÉ standards and outlaw gasoline-driven cars. I can say all of that, and get so-called “progressives” all hot for my candidacy because I’m saying all of the right things, but in reality, I’m snowing you, because I know damn well I will NEVER have to come through with any of that. So, when you vote for me, you’re voting for hot air, and nothing more.

So, tell me; in what way does voting for hot air make you a “progressive”? Doesn’t being a progressive kind of require that we make actual progress at some point? Yeah, I know; both major parties are too beholden to special interests. I agree. But who’s better equipped to actually go after the problem; someone who owes his continued political survival to making progressives happy, or someone who blows smoke and makes all sorts of promises that he knows he’ll never have to keep?

You want to know why the right has been winning far too many elections? Of course, it’s because they get the most votes. Part of it’s because they will vote for anyone who will move them in the right direction, even if it’s in baby steps. Look at the reverence they show to Ronald Reagan. Reagan did little for them while he was in office, but they love him anyway, because he moved them a little bit in a direction opposite what they had convinced themselves they were used to. We could learn a little from that. We could also learn from the fact that not voting for someone is just like voting for his opponent in a two-person (who can win) race.

Okay. That’s the first lesson. The second one is just as important.

We have to take our case to the people. That’s right; those people. If we’re going to see progressive causes come to fruition, we have to force those who win to adopt our issues. And the best way to do that is to take them to the people. We used to know this stuff; what happened? Progressives actually got Richard Nixon to adopt OSHA rules, stop the draft and work to create the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, we’re looking at an electorate that is increasingly negative about such common-sense issues as affirmative action and abortion, and because of this, we are in danger of losing both.

And we are losing precisely because a large number of progressives –mostly white and not very poor – have abandoned the system and made demands that are not even within the realm of reality. You can’t achieve major sociological change with 5% of the electorate behind it. Ten times that many is far more realistic. And don’t look now, but whatever these “progressives” are doing, they’re not even winning over the folks we should be winning over. Blacks and minorities vote overwhelmingly Democratic. So do feminists. So do gays. So do the poor. What is it that you know that they do not? My guess would be, not very much.

So, here’s the strategy to beat back the right wing onslaught. First, we elect John Kerry, to get rid of the Keystone Kops in the White House. To allow them to continue for another four years would do more damage than we could repair in a generation. Then, after we elect Kerry, we make our appeal to the people, and create a groundswell of support for one issue after another. Think it’s difficult? It’s not. How could it be? You think clean air is a harder sell than increased pollution? Think universal health care is a harder sell than the travesty that is our current health care system? See my point? We have a golden opportunity, but only with the building blocks in place. We have to be realistic; we’re not ever going to have a hard core progressive majority in Congress, and we’re not going to be able to elect a hard core liberal as president. But what we CAN do it elect moderates who are receptive to taking stands on issues that move us in the right direction.

It’s time we all pulled together with the people we claim to be fighting for; the poor, the downtrodden, the elderly, and people who have not been able to fully participate in the system. We haven’t done that in a while. If you’re having visions of a major cultural revolution, well, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It kind of needs the culture to move it along.

Think about it…

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