It’s amazing how many people who self-describe as “progressive” adopt a political strategy that makes it damn near impossible to create a government that addresses this country’s problems in a progressive way. Either that, or they promote a politician with no chance of ever actually winning, and thus, no chance of ever actually affecting policy in any way. The fascinating part of all this is that so many of them eagerly cite “principle” as a rationale for this profoundly stupid political approach.
So, I figured it was time to discuss principle, and what it really is. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” If you think your promotion of politicians and causes that never win is based on “principle,” it’s time to burst that tiny little bubble.
In the period from 1932 through 1966, progressive “principles” aligned with the Democratic Party’s, apparently, because we helped elect a series of Democratic presidents and gave Congress a series of Democratic supermajorities. During that time, we were able to create progressive programs and reform many systems within our government and we even started to actually live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights for the first time ever, nearly 200 years into this experiment. By the end of that period, we had created a series of social programs that were unprecedented in scope and we had created an atmosphere in which women and people of color could at least begin to envision a day when they would have civil rights equal to white men.
Think about it; Social Security, Medicare, the SEC, FTC, FDA, OSHA, EPA and numerous other programs and agencies were created to keep everyone in the economy honest and to at least begin to take care of the environment. We also created welfare for the poor, Food Stamps/SNAP, Medicaid and other programs that served as a basic safety net for the poor. We also passed civil rights reforms like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and we placed people in government and the courts who cared about protecting the rights of everyone against the excesses of the capitalist system. We created a system in which unions held a considerable amount of power, and workers were treated like they mattered, to a greater degree than ever before. After the war, our system invested in the people, and our economy became the largest in the history of the world, and a model for every other industrialized nation in the world.
In short, we liberals and progressives were “the shit.” We were becoming what every other industrialized nation in the world aspired to be.
Yet, somehow we lost all that. And while it’s both easy and accurate to blame Republicans, it’s not why we changed. If you look closely, the change started in 1968, when a large, very loud group of white and mostly male progressives split off on their own and seem to have left rationality behind. We were mired in the Vietnam War, which was a very stupid thing, but honestly, it was the only truly stupid thing the Democrats did back then. However, this group of progressives turned it into a lightning rod and championed Eugene McCarthy for president, because the other candidates were basically “tainted” with a type of “Vietnam Cooties” or something. Their support for McCarthy in the primaries was fine, but when Humphrey won the nomination, they took to bashing Humphrey for simply being associated with Johnson, whom they blamed, rightly, for Vietnam. Of course. LBJ was also responsible for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Medicare and the Great Society programs, but their “principle” was such, he got no credit for that. And the fact that Humphrey was his Veep means HHH had “Vietnam Cooties” and could not be elected. So, it was “principled” white liberals who led the way to the election of Richard Nixon. And we know how that turned out.
Prior to that, white liberals helped elect LBJ, JFK, Eisenhower (who was Republican in name only), Truman and FDR. Not one of them was even all that progressive, when it came down to it, because of progressive “principle,” Hubert Humphrey was suddenly not progressive enough. That started a pattern that has been repeated in nearly every election since. As a result of the white liberals’ adherence to their mistaken idea of “principle,” the progressive movement has been largely ineffective in politics, and those of us who actually possess common sense have been forced to sit back and watch as an increasingly anti-progressive Republican Party, whose only goal is to dismantle much of what we were able to do before and make sure we can do no more, has held far too much power. A significant portion – those who make up the loudest and most visble contingent – of the progressive movement, have taken the irrational position that anyone who is not a “pure progressive” is not worthy of support, with the result being more than 40 years of progressive marginalization.
You may think gay marriage happened quickly, but imagine if we’d controlled the government for the past 40 years; we wouldn’t have had to depend on a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court after almost a quarter-century of fighting to actually give same-sex couples the same rights as everyone else. Gays in the military would have never been a problem. Most people in this country are more progressive than they are right wing, so why has our country moved so far right in the past 40 years plus? It’s because we have ceded the democracy to them.
I’m sorry, but in what way does that represent “principle”?
The far left, unicorn progressive wing of has decided that it is “principled” to hang their hat on one candidate who says everything they want to hear, and screw everyone else. Sorry, folks, but that’s not “principle.” In a democratic system, it is in no way “principled” to either vote for or support someone with no chance of winning an election and who will never be in a position to affect policy.
I’ll get back to that, but let’s make the problem crystal clear by looking at a few more presidential races and daring you to look at what actually happened.
In 1972, this same strain of progressives put all of their effort behind McCarthy and McGovern, and when McGovern maneuvered his way into the nomination using newly developed primary rules, they failed to note that he was the weakest candidate ever nominated by the most progressive party available to us. He said all the “right things,” but as a candidate he had no chance against a strong ; something they refused to acknowledge. Instead, they blamed everyone else, especially the Democratic Party, and their alliance with the Democrats officially ended. Not coincidentally, it also marked the first time in well over a decade that Democrats did not come out with a supermajority. They have not had one since.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a true liberal, received, at best, tepid support from this same group of white liberals, who split their support among Scoop Jackson, Mo Udall and later, Jerry Brown, but they pretty much refused to support Carter in the General Election. In the first presidential election following Watergate, Democrats should have won in a walk, but the unicorn left’s lack of support made it a squeaker. In a portent of things to come, the election also featured the lowest turnout in the post-War era. This was another pattern caused by unicorn progressives and their silly adherence to “principle” that has been anything but. Throughout the period from the 1940s through the 1960s, turnout in presidential election years was always around 60% or above, with midterm turnout at or above 50%. Beginning with the 1972 election, presidential elections have mostly featured 50 percent turnout, with midterm turnout sticking right around 37-38%. This is because the loudest “progressives” continue to trash the only party that has ever passed progressive reforms.
The pattern continued in 1980; these same “principled progressives” threw all of their support to Ted Kennedy, who couldn’t even articulate why he was running, and when Carter won the nomination they refused to support him, instead throwing their support to the Independent John Anderson, who said all the right things, but had no chance of winning. Their negativity toward Carter spelled his doom, and the rest is history. In 1988, they refused to support a very liberal Dukakis, and the weakest Republican candidate since Goldwater ended up winning in a walk. Their very vocal lack of support for Clinton meant low turnout for 1992, and a relative squeaker that Clinton only won because of lower-than-usual turnout by the Republican base (this is why the current GOP plays to the crazy and deplorable base so hard; they can’t afford not to) and the relative strength of Ross Perot. The 1996 election featured the lowest turnout since 1924, and while Clinton won, he still didn’t get a majority of votes and Republicans managed to keep control of Congress with their weakest candidate since Goldwater.
And is it even necessary to mention 2000 and 2004, the two elections that gave us George W. Bush for two terms? Both times, these same “progressives” supported Ralph Nader, which was bad enough. However, the way they chose to support Nader was by trashing Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 incessantly. It wasn’t the votes Nader received that made the difference, it was the total negativity that killed Gore and Kerry, and handed the White House to the worst president in history, until Trump came along. And while many of these same “principled” lefties continue to blame the Supreme Court, it shouldn’t have been close enough to steal. Bush was a stiff and unqualified; it should have been imperative to keep him out of the White House, and yet, these “principled” so-called “progressives” made two elections in a row close enough for Republicans to steal.
They did the same thing in 2016, when they decided they wanted to obsess over Bernie Sanders. Bernie says all the right things, so of course, he’s qualified to be president. The problem is, these “principled” types can’t imagine supporting one Democrat without tearing down another. That’s their idea of “principle,” and it’s why we have a Donald Trump in the White House.
We even have an example of what can happen if these same “principled” progressives get it together and support the best viable candidate. Remember 2008? When Democrats ran Barack Obama, a black man who beat the “dreaded” Hillary Clinton, they put everything behind him, and he won in a walk and Democrats came within a hair’s breadth of winning their first supermajority since 1970, which would have been wonderful, since the Republican Senate previously changed the rules and it now takes 60 votes to get a bill passed.
Whenever I challenge these people on their political tone-deafness, I always hear about their “principle.” They claim they have to support the candidate who aligns most with their stances on various issue. In other words, they support the candidate who says what they want to hear. How is that different than the Republican “base”?
Well, I’ll tell you, there are a couple of very important differences. For one thing, the Republican base votes for their candidates because they’re hell-bent on winning. And they want to win because they know that’s the only way to do what they want to do.
In a democratic system, what are your principles, really, if you don’t do everything to make sure the most competent candidate wins? For that matter, what are your principles if you don’t do everything to make sure the incompetent candidates lose? What principle was expressed when unicorn progressives “targeted” Blue Dogs in 2010 and 2014? Blue Dogs are conservative-leaning Democrats, and these “principled” progressives actually targeted them. They were successful, in that they eliminated almost all of them in the House. However, every single one of them was replaced by a teabagger? What “principle” does that satisfy, exactly?
If you’re not trying to make sure the best person wins or the worst person loses, you’re not principled, you’re delusional.
Also published on Medium.