My purpose in this paper is to propose an approach by which progressives can gain a fair hearing and engaged response in presenting their economic ideas to people outside the progressive choir. Such people include alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives, who, together, may represent an unsuspected pool of potential support.
An Introductory Article Summary: While I hope the long opinion piece that follows will be of interest to OpEdNews readers, its content is perhaps more directly relevant to progressive candidates for president or congress, their campaign supporters, and progressive activist groups and supporters that are involved in promoting progressive legislation and organizing a progressive people’s movement. My purpose in this paper is to propose what I believe may be a helpful approach progressives can take to gain a fair hearing and engaged response from people outside the progressive choir to their ideas for combating America’s extreme income inequality.
Two particular groups outside the progressive core, alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives, may represent a very large and generally unnoticed pool of critically needed, and potentially winnable, volunteer and voter support. The winning will not be easy, however, because of profound differences in the way conservatives and progressives perceive their connections to other people. To suggest the scope of the challenge, I develop a long profile of the prototypical conservative mindset, based both on fact and intuition, and find it to be fundamentally at odds with its progressive counterpart. However, on the political front, a common denominator can be found in the resistance of both groups to the “unwarranted influence” of today’s corporate-government complex (“crony capitalism”), which both see as a leading contributor to America’s economic inequality and its extreme gaps in wealth and income. Based on that common ground, and the sheer need many millions of working Americans have for a government that will actually operate and legislate in their behalf, I propose that progressives seek the support of non-voters and struggling conservatives in two principal ways: by committing themselves to the positive vision of building American community–a positioning that would separate them from any association with the current governing model; and by emphasizing a legislative criterion that is highly important to those for whom “rugged individualism” remains a driving virtue. Progressive programs to narrow income inequality and relieve the financial hardship faced by millions of working families would not constitute welfare, but be aimed at expanding opportunity for gainful personal initiative. Despite the necessary role of government in creating, funding and implementing progressive programs, they would be designed to satisfy the need of people who are traditionally dismissive or distrustful of government to retain the dignity of controlling and shaping their own economic future.
Putting in Context the Approach I Have in Mind
As everyone knows, American society today is marked by a truly astounding inequality of income and wealth. The most recent data, readily available from various reliable Internet sources, is often cited in TV and public appearances by Independent Vermont Senator and potential presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who, in my own opinion, is America’s most serious, consistent, and persuasive spokesman for progressive values and ideas. Bernie points out the following: Currently, corporation executives have an average income more than 200 times greater than their workers, and the top one-percent of Americans earns ninety-nine percent of all new income. Even more astonishingly, just 0.1-percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent, and, in just the last two years, the wealthiest fourteen individuals in the U.S. saw their wealth increase by 157 billion dollars–which is more than the total wealth of the bottom forty percent. It is widely reported, too, that millions of Americans within the bottom ninety percent have seen what little wealth they had eroded in recent years by various combinations of job loss, collapse in the value of asset holdings, stagnant real wages, and rising debt. As a result of these trends, forty-million Americans are now in poverty, and remain so despite a continuing downward trend in official unemployment rates. This is because many unemployed workers have become too discouraged to continue looking for work, and others, now counted as employed, have found only part-time or low-paying jobs.
Given the desperate circumstances to which the grossly unequal distribution of wealth in America has reduced many millions of its working-class citizens, it might be expected that most of them would eagerly support economic changes that promise to rein in and reverse the trend. Such changes have been recommended by a number of voices in the U.S. Congress, and include those contained in a very specific 12-point progressive agenda presented to the Senate by Bernie Sanders. Among other initiatives, the Sanders agenda calls for a massive trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure rebuilding; break-up of too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks; real tax reform that creates a more steeply progressive tax system based on the ability to pay; enactment of a living minimum wage; expanded Social-Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and nutrition benefits to protect America’s most vulnerable citizens; designing trade policies that benefit, not hurt, American workers; making college affordable to all; and instituting a “Medicare-for-All” system of universal health care. Critically, too, Sanders calls for an overturn of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and public financing of all federal elections. In his view, it is only by taking the money out of national politics that we can stop an emerging takeover of democratic government in the U.S. by a few wealthy oligarchs.
People of course reasonably ask, How are we going to pay for all this good stuff? When asked this in a recent hour-long interview broadcast on the Internet, Senator Sanders suggested that money to fund the most critical progressive initiatives can be derived to a large extent in just four ways: by steeply higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans; by legislation prohibiting corporations and billionaires from stashing their profits in tax havens like the Cayman Islands; by steep cuts in military spending, based mainly on the elimination of waste; and by transferring to allies, especially in the Middle East, responsibility for fighting adversaries in their own geographic neighborhood.
All of the Sanders economic proposals, and others, too, strike me as eminently sensible. Yet, both the results of the 2014 midterm election and my own take in talking to people suggest that very few Americans have as yet been impressed by them. It is true that a recent poll found that sixty-percent of Americans favor higher taxes on the rich, and it may also be true that other progressive policies–hiking the minimum wage, for example–can also poll more yeas than nays. But these responses, it seems to me, are profoundly superficial. They are at most little more than wishes, unrelated to any realistic expectation that proposed policies designed to really help economically poor and struggling Americans will actually be enacted into law. Still less do such responses in themselves suggest any willingness on the part of large numbers of people to actively participate in the kind of massive people’s movement Senator Sanders himself has said is essential to get a president and congressmen (and women) elected to office who would actually push hard to get progressive policy proposals enacted into law.
To understand the political apathy of Americans, two realities about our Ninety-Nine Percent must be taken into account. Apparently, sixty-three percent of them are so alienated from, or uninterested in, the American democratic process that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote in the 2014 midterm election. And second, as I’ll discuss in this paper, many others who did vote, perhaps even the majority, are of a distinctly American conservative mindset that, up to this point at least, remains moderately to rigidly anti-government. Many of these conservatives are now struggling to make ends meet, and would welcome help from any quarter in the private sector to ease their financial burdens. Yet, because they remain tied to an historically-based “rugged individualism,” and also profoundly distrust the motives of the federal government, they have little or no interest in any assistance it may offer, no matter how seemingly well-intended and programmatically sound. Such distrust seems in fact to extend to struggling Americans in general. Voting and polling data suggest that most Americans who have been hurt worst in the current economy simply don’t believe that the politicians in Washington really care about helping them solve their problems. Instead, the victims continue to place their faith in the workings of an impersonal profit-driven free-enterprise system, in which the prime movers are in reality supported by a cabal of government/corporate cronyism that is largely responsible for the very conditions from which they suffer.
This misalignment of economic interest and attitude among struggling Americans is a political tragedy, since, as many economists attest, the implementation of progressive policies like those referenced in Bernie Sanders’ agenda could in fact be of immediate help in narrowing the country’s growing economic inequality. It would generate many millions of new jobs at good pay, introduce a living wage that would lift millions of active workers into the middle class, boost opportunities for upward mobility throughout the economy, and enhance the economic security of millions of seniors and other vulnerable Americans. The same initiatives could also create a more vibrant and unified national community, while having little adverse effect on the productivity of the competitive private economy. This last point continues to be supported empirically by ongoing federal programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and, perhaps especially, the GI Bill with its wide range of hand-up benefits. All of these programs have demonstrated the government’s ability to help better the lives of the great majority of Americans, without impairing national economic growth or impeding the enterprise of small-business job creators or their prospects for long-term success.
This paper will suggest reasons for the seemingly reflexive resistance or aggressive opposition to progressive views on economic reform by what may be most of the American public and a large majority of its national political representatives. Most importantly, it will propose an approach by which progressive thinkers, activists, supporters, and political candidates may be able to get around the barriers and, perhaps as early as the next election cycle, gain increased attention and a fair hearing from people outside the progressive core–including such seemingly unlikely ones as alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives. As I will try to show, the latter in fact represent an immense natural pool of potential support.
The Challenge of the Conservative Mindset
Many American progressives have long been aware that their values and policies are strongly resisted by a conservative mindset deeply embedded in American politics and culture. They often wonder why this is so, since, from their own perspective, their objectives are eminently humane — even markedly Christian. Why is it, they ask, that many conservatives see progressives as a powerful “elite” that seeks to impose on them a new social order at odds with fundamental American values; or that they condemn progressive concerns for economic fairness at home and cooperative, rather than confrontational, relations abroad? Why is it, too, that conservatives maintain a near-creedal belief in the justice of “free markets,” when it is clear that, either by themselves or in alliance with the government, they drive an economic system that is largely responsible for the widening economic gap between the one-percent and the rest of America? One might also ask why conservatives believe strongly in an American”exceptionalism” that is invoked to justify military incursions abroad that have produced no better world, but much bloodshed and unrest. Such seemingly irrational beliefs create high barriers for the advance of progressive principles such as participatory democracy, economic fairness, strategic investments in the public sector, corporate social responsibility, care for the environment, and a foreign policy that is not directed to the domination of other nations, but to the well-being of mankind as a whole.
I’ve only recently learned that a 2008 study published in the journal Science suggests that there may in fact be a rational explanation for conservative resistance to the seemingly reasonable and well-intentioned aims of political progressives. As summarized in the Los Angeles Times(Sept. 19, 2008), research on which the study was based traced a clear pathway in human makeup from genes, to physiology, to attitude, to behavior. In testing a cross-section of individuals, researchers found that genetically-conditioned levels of fear in response to various test stimuli were consistently indicative of how the individuals viewed the world. Those with heightened fear responses took the conservative view on contentious issues such as gun control, pacifism, and capital punishment, and were inclined to oppose changes in the existing social order. Those with lower fear responses tended to take the “progressive” view on the same issues, including a more willing acceptance of changes in the social order.
These findings seemingly confirm something I myself have long suspected: that one is in fact born with a predisposition to the conservative or progressive mindset. More importantly, in my own view, this inborn bias would appear to be strongly linked to an individual’s sense of self-identity. Because this sense is critical to personal psychological stability, it is necessarily resistant to contrary ways of seeing things and makes it difficult to bridge ideological differences. The psychological divide is especially averse to the advance of progressive ideas, since it is highly likely that the inborn bias toward the conservative view is greatly more prevalent than that toward the progressive. This is because, as I hope to show, the conservative view reflects the pervasive human awareness of separation between the self and everything outside it, while the progressive view is based on a rare sense of essential connectedness with other human beings and all natural creation outside the self.
I should note two points to provide context for the discussion that follows. First, in referring to “conservatives” and “progressives,” I have principally in mind members of these groups whose psychological dispositions have been given concrete shape in the context of American social, political, and religious life. And, second, although I distinguish fundamental differences between the mindsets of conservatives and progressives, I recognize that, since both groups share a common humanity, each also shares a part of the other’s psychology. That means that my characterizations of both mindsets are representative, not depictions based on actual individuals. It also means that, for both groups, a narrow window always remains open for mutual influence and accommodation.
The Conservative Emphasis on “Interests” and Struggle
With the caveat that these qualifications be kept in mind, I would suggest that the sense of self held by prototypical conservatives derives fundamentally from connections with the outside world that prove decisive in shaping their aspirations, perceptions, and values. Such connections might include, for example, inherited temperament and aptitudes; parental behavior; family income and values; educational development; religious, university, and social affiliations; job, career, or professional expectations; social and economic status; and cultural and political values held in common with a group or locality. It is to be expected that persons with a self-identity shaped by such connections will perceive them as “interests” they must continually strive to uphold. Any failure to do so would loosen their grip on the sense of self and possibly cause behavioral disorientation.
Given their need to vindicate the influences that have shaped them, prototypical conservatives accept the world as a place of conflict and struggle. In it, they believe, individuals must fight to preserve their claims on particular associations, beliefs, behaviors, undertakings, and achievements against other individuals who have competing claims.
This mindset poses a formidable barrier to any influence by progressive political values. Prototypical conservatives have little sense of an underlying connectedness with others that transcends individual identities shaped by biology and the social order. For that reason, they feel little attraction to abstract concepts of human linkage such as humanity, and prefer instead to join or create interest or social groups at the local level within which they can both commit their loyalty and gain support.
In terms of national politics, most conservatives dismiss out of hand the notion of America as a nationwide community in which all of its members accept responsibility to help ensure a decent life for all the rest. Conservatives take this position for two characteristic reasons: first, because such an egalitarian social order could not be sustained without (what they consider) the “intrusion” of policies and programs designed and implemented by the federal government; and, second, because the policies and programs would have to be subsidized by remote tax payers who have no direct role in designing them, and who, in many cases, would derive no direct benefit from them. What conservatives do want from the federal government is something completely opposite: that it safeguard, and even expand, the freedom of individuals to pursue by any legal means necessary the economic success or social place to which they aspire, or to fully preserve the rewards of success they’ve already achieved. For conservatives who have attained a good life for themselves and their family, and therefore a stake in the system, the idea of a government-imposed redistribution of wealth is anathema.
Two Conservative Traits Are Deeply Ingrained in the National Character
The individualism ingrained in many Americans was already noted by Alexis de Toqueville during his travels in America before the middle of the 19th century. In the second volume of his classic Democracy in America, he writes: “Americans alternately display passions so strong and so similar first for their own welfare and then for liberty that one must suppose these urges to be united and mingled in some part of their being. Americans in fact do regard their freedom as the best tool of and the firmest guarantee for their prosperity. They love them both for the sake of each other. They are therefore by no means inclined to suppose that it is no business of theirs to meddle in public affairs. On the contrary, they think it their most important concern to secure a government which will allow them to get the good things they want and which will not stop their enjoying those they have in peace.” [From p. 541 of the George Lawrence translation of Democracy in America, edited by J.P. Mayer: Anchor Books edition, Garden City, New York, 1969.]
Another aspect of the “American character” further suggests why many Americans resist any actions of government that would modify the conditions under which they privately operate–even those that, on the surface at least, seem constructive and grounded in sound policy. During a six-month book tour in America in 1842, Charles Dickens arrived at his own view on the subject, which he summarized in the final chapter of hisAmerican Notes for General Circulation. After first observing that the American people “are, by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate,” Dickens wrote:
“One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust”. Directly you reward a benefactor, or a public servant, you distrust him, merely because he is rewarded”. Any man who attains a high place among you, from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment; for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.”
The reason Americans distrust success, Dickens seems to suggest, is that they understand how easily it can be achieved through the freedom America offers to live a life “on the make,” unhindered by any overriding regard for the cost it may impose on others. At the same time, however, he observes that Americans are great admirers of the “sharp dealing” often involved in a life on the make, even when it involves “swindle and gross breach of trust.” To prove the point, he offers this fictional dialog, based, he says, “on a hundred actual conversations”:
“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-So should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and notwithstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty, should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?” ‘Yes, sir.’ “A convicted liar?” ‘Yes, sir.’ “He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?” ‘Yes, sir.’ “And he is utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate?” ‘Yes, sir.’ “In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?” ‘Well, sir, he is a smart man.'”
The simple inference made by the ordinary American, as suggested by Dickens, is that any better-off American successful enough to offer you the chance to gain a benefit you don’t have to earn is undoubtedly “on the make” to further fill his pockets at your expense. You may admire his shrewdness, and even wish to emulate it, but you can’t trust him to have your own welfare in mind or at heart.
Fear of the Progressive Mindset
Today’s conservatives run the same risk of “sharp dealings” in their own quest for “success” as did the Americans Dickens described, but they also hold their competitors’ shrewdness, energy, and perseverance in the same high esteem. They do not fear other “self-made” men (or women), since these others think and behave just as they themselves do and are a necessary part of the world as they understand it.
Conservatives do, however, fear those of a “progressive” mindset, who in their view represent a challenge to their entire way of life. In the minds of conservatives generally, and especially those on the militant political Right, progressives constitute a self-anointed elite that, despite its small size, is intent on revolutionary change that would destroy their way of life. It would replace a familiar social order, based on the values of individualism, competition, and material success, with an alien and unworkable order in which the unproductive would be raised up and the innovators and job producers brought down.
American progressives, of course, have no such intention. They don’t seek the elimination of the competitive free-enterprise system or any vengeful subjugation of the rich and powerful. What they do seek is economic fairness, based ultimately on the humanistic values of cooperation and the well-being of all. Their mindset differs from that of conservatives, because they generally do not find their sense of identity in any of the defining life circumstances in which conservatives find theirs. They find it instead, along with the creative drive to give it expression, in an inner moral consciousness that connects them fundamentally to other human beings and to all the natural creation.
Martin Luther King is, I think, an excellent historical example of the progressive prototype. He was born to be a prophet and speaker of inspirational words. He was also endowed with the passion to carry that talent into the world as leader of a movement dedicated to the ends of human dignity and social justice. In the pursuit of that vision, as we know, he ran into roadblocks imposed both by those who considered him not a liberator, but a threat to their way of life–and at first, also, by a timid national leadership that failed to give him needed support. In the end, however, King succeeded in securing new federal legislation that ended racial discrimination as a legal barrier both to voting and to open access to schools, public accommodations, and employment.
Driven by their own moral consciousness, progressives have no need to validate their sense of identity by winning out over others. Instead, they are driven to develop and apply their inborn creative talents in a way that helps build a society in which all of its members have the material security and opportunities needed to develop and apply their own. In the end, most people I’ve met who show progressive political leanings find far greater joy and value in their own or others’ constructive application of inborn creative abilities–in any field, from the arts to engineering or finance–than they do in the achievement of even their own material or social “success.” At the deepest level, their mission is to help make that experience available to as many people as possible.
Still, conservatives commonly brand the politics of progressives as “class warfare.” Lacking the moral sense to appreciate the evidence of good faith in people motivated by values different from their own, they often view those differences in terms of “us against them.” They therefore not only discount the idea of economic fairness as inconsistent logically with what they conceive to be a human instinct for personal gain and power, but suspect that those promoting it do so in fact as a way of “punishing the successful” and of dominating those they claim to want to help. Even most conservatives who are struggling economically see things this way. They believe that, no matter how dismal their own prospects, taking recourse in any programmatic remedy formulated by detached politicians and government bureaucrats would prove even worse. It would reduce them to the ranks of America’s controllable “losers.” And that would rob them of the freedom to pursue success on their own and the chance, however illusory in fact, to become the “winners” they believe American society calls on them to be.
Finding Guidance in Hallowed Texts, Not the Mind or Heart
There is still another impediment in the conservative mindset that makes it unresponsive to progressive political reforms aimed at advancing any forms of social justice, including economic fairness. Because American conservatives, both in private life and government, characteristically lack theempathy needed to perceive the good faith of people with ideas different from their own, they often regard and respond to them in terms of stereotypical judgments they find and believe validated in scripture–in particular, the Old Testament of the Bible. In reality, this hallowed traditional text is hardly a reliable guide. It reflects in large part not transcendent verities, but the triumphalist views of winners in secular struggles for power, some of which are probably in any case largely mythological. Nevertheless, because American conservatives tend to consider the Bible both providential and unimpeachable, their resort to it for ready answers to complex moral and ethical issues throws up high barriers to any counter-balance by humanistic progressive ideas.
For guidance in solving complex social and economic issues, conservatives often look to the U.S. Constitution, which they also consider, as they do the Bible, providential and unimpeachable. While progressives interpret Constitutional provisions broadly, in order to better relate them to the conditions and needs of a society that is today far more technologically advanced, urbanized, populous, and interlinked than was the society in which the Constitution was written, conservatives tend to read its provisions, now more than two centuries old, as quite literal prescriptions for the political management of the modern society in which they live. In so doing, they find continuing validation of a political order initially fitted to the nation’s demographic and economic makeup at the time of the founders–one marked by an unchallenged predominance of property rights over human rights and by rapidly emerging disparities in wealth and living standards.
Finally, besides finding guidance in the Bible and the Constitution, conservatives look to a third providential and unimpeachable source to directly manage the economic order and relieve them entirely of any necessary governing role. That source is, of course, the “free market.” Conservatives revere it as if it were God-driven and believe that efforts to regulate it in the broader interests of society as a whole, even with the greatest discretion, are self-deceiving, unrighteous, un-American, and wicked.
With their predilection to seek guidance from what they believe is revealed truth, rather than from a moral sense of human connectedness and the power of human reason, it would seem that, to the conservative mindset, deliberate choices are inherently suspect.
Apparently, only actions governed by sanctioned tradition or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economic providence can be trusted. Interestingly, this same point of view is expressed in the Biblical Eden myth, which fundamentalist Christians hold to be historical truth. In this familiar story, God forbids Adam and Eve–on penalty of death–the moral freedom to discriminate between good and evil. It is little wonder, then, that conservatives see as the greatest threat to their own security the economic programs, social reforms, and regulations promulgated by the secular federal government–most of which, as viewed from the progressive standpoints of morality and reason, plainly support what is good for the society or control or outlaw what is bad.
Distrust of Government
In his 19th-century travels through the U.S., Charles Darwin perceived that Americans characteristically distrusted the honesty of the leading businessmen of their day, though they also admired the “sharp dealings” by which they achieved their success. Today, struggling Americans of a conservative mindset have perhaps an even greater distrust of the federal government, whose officials they see as tempted not notably by greed, but by the far greater attraction of importance to the powerful. A compelling case for such distrust can in fact be drawn from recent American history.
The economic crash of 2008 deprived millions of Americans of jobs, livelihood, and savings. In its wake, it appeared to many, perhaps especially to working conservatives, that they had been abandoned by their government when they most needed its help. After all, in faithfully upholding their part in the American social contract by working hard and “doing the right thing,” hadn’t they obligated those presumptively charged with enforcing the contract to uphold their right to a livelihood? “Why?” they undoubtedly asked themselves, “does the government do nothing to help me get new work at a living wage so I can maintain an income for my family? Why doesn’t it help me fight foreclosure on my house, when it’s not my fault that I can’t keep up with the mortgage payments? Why did it instead spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street and the automotive companies–which, unlike me, are largely responsible for their own failures?”
For millions of Americans dealing with these issues, long-held historical dispositions to rugged individualism and distrust of government were now compounded by a profound sense of helplessness and unfairness. It was hardly surprising, then, that they viewed the government’s bailout of the banks not–as it arguably was–a needed strategy to maintain a functioning economy, but, instead, an unforgivable misuse of their tax dollars, with themselves the powerless victims. They also saw the bailouts as unjust, since they appeared discriminatory against their own interests as ordinary people and blatantly in the interest of fellow members of America’s ruling elite. That perception was made especially keen by the many reports in the news that top executives at rescued financial firms were making off with huge bonuses and, as the figure has it, “laughing all the way to the bank.”
In the aftermath of the ’08 crash, the anti-government attitudes of many working conservatives undoubtedly hardened. It now seemed clear to them that government was not a defender of the “social contract” they had believed in, but a nefarious machine programmed to pursue the single purpose of expanding its own dominance and power. Conservatives had long half-believed the canard that one way by which government sought to expand its dominance was to seduce the electoral loyalty of the masses through a continual expansion of the “safety net” for those unwilling to work, the disabled, and the elderly. Now, the ’08 crash seemed to provide undeniable evidence of how it sought also to expand its power. It did so by partnering with corporations in a “crony capitalism.” In exchange for expected campaign contributions with which government’s human expeditors, its senators and congressmen, could continually buy back their offices, it backed policies favorable to corporations, thereby increasing the reliance of each partner on the other and augmenting the power of both. What was also apparent, however, was that the broader effect of the government/corporate alliance was to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. To balance its support of corporations, big government had to cut programs and investments supporting the middle class, thereby restraining job creation, lowering wages, reducing consumer spending, and decreasing opportunities for laid-off workers either to get a new job that paid a living wage or to start a business of their own.
It is understandable that victims of the structural inequality that now shapes the American economy very much fear losing the freedom to shape their own economic future and build a good life for themselves. I think it is this prospect they have in mind when they talk about their determination to “take their country back.” The now hardened anti-government sentiments of many struggling conservatives pose a challenge to progressives who might seek to gain a fair hearing from them for their own principles and policies, since they can of course only become effective through legislation and implementation by the federal government. But, as I hope to show, winning over struggling conservatives, as well as alienated non-voters, may not be an impossible dream.
Progressives Can Gain Support from Non-Voters and Struggling Conservatives
Given the results of the 2014 midterm election, it seems evident that progressives face immense challenges in 2016 to rally both the mass popular movement, and then the votes, that would be needed to put a president and congressional leadership in office committed to redirecting national politics toward the goal of economic fairness for working families. To begin with, it is certainly the case that, in both the primaries and the general election, the great majority of voters with a stake in the current political system–and there remain scores of millions in that category–will undoubtedly, as they always have, vote in what they deem to be their own self-interest. Even most Democrats will probably support candidates who favor economic policies they think will either add to their pocket or avert any “redistribution” from it.
Besides a relatively small, but largely committed, body of self-identified progressives, two groups of Americans compose the natural pool from which progressive candidates for national office might expect to draw votes and support. One is the sixty-three percent of eligible voters so alienated from, or uninterested in, the current political system that they couldn’t bring themselves to participate in the 2014 midterms. The other group consists of the millions of economically struggling Americans who did vote in that election but gained nothing from it–a large part of them natural conservatives. Both of these groups stand to gain most from the “bold ideas” for economic change that only progressives offer. (American blacks will vote for progressives in the general election, when the opponent is a Republican. But, in primaries, I suspect, they will vote for the establishment Democrat.)
I strongly believe that to first get a fair hearing from both politically alienated and conservative-minded Americans, and then cultivate their support, progressives must present their ideas in a way that helps dispel the deep suspicion both groups have that the federal government really has no answers for their problems. That suspicion is plain in the case of non-voters. If they had any hope that government could make a positive difference in their lives, they would surely take a chance on that possibility by casting votes for candidates who offer plausible proposals for making good on it. In the absence of voting records and exit-polling data, however, we can’t be sure why non-voters harbor the doubts they do.
The case is different with conservatives. I think we can discern the basis for their distrust from exit polling and voting patterns in stronghold conservative districts, and from the chatter on conservative-radio talk shows. They all suggest doubts that the federal government can pass any major legislation, no matter what its ostensible aim, that does not serve primarily to help powerful interests, enhance the careers of the politicians who back it, and expand government control over those it affects.
Conservatives harbor these doubts for an understandable reason. They recognize that, as is the case with most individuals, their own impulse in any competitive challenge, whether personal or in business, is to try to gain the greatest possible advantage for themselves. They assume prominent politicians have the same impulse, but recognize that they are much better positioned than they are to gratify it. This is because ordinary people, in their own competitive engagements, struggle against competent rivals or a free market that puts limits on their powers. But federal lawmakers, often backed by the promise of majority party-line support, face little or no effective counterbalance from the public as they shape major legislation to mutual advantage with corporate power brokers. Their constituents may have voted them into office in the first place, but all but a few are thereafter totally disengaged from active efforts to influence policy.
Progressives Need to Present Their Policies in the Context of a Moral Vision
This brings me to the major point of this paper. I believe there is an effective approach progressives can take to gain a fair hearing for their policy proposals from the many millions of alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives who are among those who can benefit from them most. That approach is to consistently present progressive policy proposals in the visionary context of building community. As I use the term here, highlighted in italics, it does not denote a reality, but rather an ideal that conservatives resist because they do not perceive any connection between individuals that transcends their separate identities and roles. However, this visionary conception also represents a reality that progressives would actually undertake to create. It would take the form of a nation-wide American community abounding in interconnected interests and activities, in which each member assumes and willingly acts upon a genuine concern for the well-being of all the rest.
Of course, creating and sustaining such a community would require a scope of government involvement that has been a traditional turn-off for conservatives. However, I believe progressives can in at least two ways make a compelling case for building an American community that, especially in today’s very refractory economic conditions, can win over many struggling conservatives. First, by relating specific policy proposals to the moral vision of building “community,” progressives can present them in an entirely new political framework. That will divorce them from any association with the current system of Washington power politics–which are disdained by conservatives as well as progressives. And, second, by pointing out the characteristics of the community they plan to build, progressives will make it clear that, under their leadership, the federal government will operate very differently from the way it has operated under preceding administrations. The “new American community” would be fully committed to true equality of opportunity. It would enact laws that serve the common good, not special interests. It would ask the very rich to give back more generously from their own superfluity to help provide a decent life for the many now struggling whose efforts helped make their success possible. And it would offer opportunities for all citizens to control and shape their own economic future. In such a society, each citizen would be valued for his or her contribution, and joy would be found in the multifarious creativity of citizens freed from oppressive want.
In presenting such a vision to alienated non-voters or struggling conservatives, progressives could invoke a single moral principle to explain what moves them to embrace it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The motivation could also be defined in a single apt political slogan: “The narrow special interests are doing fine. It’s time to serve the broad common interest.”
Here are several related ways in which I believe that, by grounding their policy proposals in the moral vision of community, progressives can greatly improve their chances of gaining the support of both alienated non-voters and many active voters of a conservative mindset:
- Most Americans are appalled or “turned off” both by negative campaign ads and the partisan wrangling in congress that has led to procedural paralysis. When they hear progressive calls to “break up the banks,” or assaults on “the Koch brothers,” it sounds to many of them like “politics as usual.” In confronting America’s gross economic inequality, progressives need to make clear what they positively stand for. Another way to express that purpose is this: “It used to be, ‘You’re on your own. It’s every man for himself.’ Now, ‘We’re all in this together.'”
- By grounding their policy proposals in a vision of America as “community,” rather than as a Mecca of freedom for individual ambition and gain (think Marco Rubio), progressives can make clear that their politics are derived from a moral center and aim to empower those who struggle for a better life, not further privilege a small ruling elite. Unlike mainstream Republicans and even “liberal” Democrats (like Hillary Clinton), progressives can argue convincingly that they offer a new direction in national politics that differs fundamentally from the lobbyist-driven crony capitalism now in place.
- One offshoot of the progressive orientation to “community” is the political commitment to serve “the broad common interest” rather than “narrow special interests.” Another is to expect that very rich Americans will understand that their “success” would not be possible without the interconnected economic infrastructure built up and sustained by the efforts of their fellow countrymen. They therefore have a moral (or ethical) obligation to accept more steeply progressive taxation to help meet the unmet needs of both the country and its people.
- Given the implications of their commitment to “community,” progressives can make a believable case to the 63-percent of disaffected eligible voters who didn’t turn out for the 2014 midterms that they can be trusted to do all they can to provide economic opportunity and the chance for a better life to all Americans who are presently without them.
- With further reference to their vision of “community,” progressives can convey the important message to millions of struggling conservative Americans that they seek to so transform the aims of government that distrustful conservatives can relate to it in new and more positive ways. Rather than fearing an invasive, dominating government moved machine-like by its own self-interest, conservatives can credibly view a progressive government as a democratic partner genuinely committed to the well-being of its citizens.
- Given the commitment of a progressive government to serve the common good, conservatives need no longer persist in the “rugged individualism” that has been getting them nowhere in an economy dominated by powerful corporate interests. Instead, they can look forward to government programs that go beyond mere income supplementation to actual empowerment. Such programs will give them real control of their future through new economic opportunities that will allow them to create and prosper in accordance with their own skills and efforts.
- Finally, simply placing individual policy proposals in the moral context of building community can give them all greater weight and impact. Each proposal will be understood to represent not simply another government program, but a necessary step in creating a more humane society. From this, it will also be clear that the legislative action required to turn each proposal into law will no longer be driven by the demands of profit-hungry corporations, but by the needs of the common good.
Of course, even if their proposals are grounded in a moral vision, progressives may not be able to convert to their cause hardened Tea Party-type conservatives who believe any government programs pose a threat to their personal freedom. Nor will they sway any individuals with a vested interest in the current political system. However, by combining their proposals with reasoned spiritual aspiration, progressives may well find it possible to gain the support of millions of Americans who are either politically alienated or economically struggling, including cultural conservatives. Many of these people are now, as never before, feeling the pinch of low, stagnant, or reduced wages, and beginning to recognize for the first time that America’s “little guys” are getting systematically screwed. A good portion of them will undoubtedly perceive that it is now in their own self-interest to join progressives in building an entirely new social system geared to economic fairness and the common good. The progressive narrative will also appeal to a smaller group of non-political but “born” progressives whose better angels tell them there are higher possibilities for human society than a continual struggle of all against all for a livable piece of the economic pie. Such struggle is in any case, as current data show, a lost cause for many in the lower segments of America’s ninety-nine percent.
Progressives Need the Help of Conservatives To Build an American Community
Whatever challenges may be encountered, I believe strongly that the infusion of progressive values in our political debate, and, ultimately, progressive leadership of our national government, are critical to America’s future. That’s because, as I see it, it is only progressives, inspired by the creative wellspring at their moral center, who have the necessary vision to conceive and drive social change in the interest of the common good. That can never be the work of conservatives, who by their nature strive instead to defend existing interests and beliefs that give them their sense of identity.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that a proper conservative role in government is also indispensable. That role is not, however, as it has been so markedly throughout the Obama years, simply to block or seek to destroy all government programs designed to benefit ordinary people. It is, instead, to refine them, if needed, to more closely meet the practical requirements of effective implementation. This is a task for which the conservative mindset is far better suited than its inspirationally-based progressive counterpart. In legislating, as in all acts of creation, the vision must come first, but then the forms by which it can be best and most fully realized. It is only by combining the creative powers of progressives and conservatives that transformative change for the common good can be made workable in the real world.
Conservatives in every walk of life demonstrate their practical capacities every day in the most familiar ways. For one thing, they are the natural generators of wealth–our entrepreneurs, business executives, and bankers. They are in most cases, too, our policemen, firefighters, and nurses. In their devotion to “family values,” they help to remind progressives of the important roles of tradition, family, friendships, and work in supporting our lives with beauty and stable points of reference. And, on the political front, they can play a useful role in the legislative process by making sure that visionary initiatives for change are not excessive in scope or pace, and will actually win the acceptance of most Americans.
At the same time, of course, progressives hope that their vision of governance for the common good can induce many conservative leaders to stretch their sense of connectedness and obligation beyond personal claims and attachments, to the greater American community–even the global community. To do that, however, conservatives need to broaden their capacity, over a wide spectrum of issues, to “walk a mile in the other guy’s moccasins” and to recognize that, just as their own privileges and freedoms would not be possible without the consent and labor of the broader community, so they are morally obliged to reach out to the needs of that community. This is especially true now in America, where a tiny minority enjoys riches beyond imagining, while millions of others–certainly most of them through no fault of their own–find themselves increasingly insecure economically and politically powerless. Fortunately, a small overlap of shared psychology offers some hope that the progressive appeal to the cause of human community might elicit at least some positive response from conservatives.
Building a Mass People’s Movement
In reality, only a progressive president and a majority of committed progressive lawmakers can effectively solve the problem of America’s extreme economic inequality. It must be recognized, however, that both progressive governance, and the reforms it would seek to implement, representrevolutionary change–far beyond any conceivable change resulting from transitions between the two mainstream political parties. It is therefore almost certain that no progressive government can be elected without the preparatory stir, support, and consciousness-raising of a massive people’s movement–one mobilized on many fronts and in many places throughout America to protest chronic joblessness, underemployment, insufficient pay, reduced upward mobility, and today’s obscene income inequality.
A few years back, the Occupy movement began to attract some public attention to these issues, but, with an eye to still open possibilities in 2016, that start must now be broadened to include the full range of socio-economic and age groups in the American body politic. Only a mass movement of the people, taking actions that range from letters to the editor, phone calls and emails to congressmen and senators, to marching in the streets, can create an environment of support in which committed and politically talented progressives like Bernie Sanders can be persuaded to run for federal offices from president on down. Only with such support can they wage effective campaigns and, by winning, actually and seriously pursue policies that could bring American society closer to the realities of economic fairness.
Today, many progressive activist groups are already hard at work mobilizing a people’s movement to promote progressive legislation in Congress and lay the groundwork for a people’s movement to promote and support progressive policies, candidacies, and campaigns in 2016. I believe those efforts can be made more successful in two ways already suggested in this paper. One is to balance the necessary, but negative, calls to “break up the banks” and rein in the Koch brothers with an equal emphasis on the positive implications of progressive policies and governance. The second is to coordinate a common set of positive progressive messages with as many other activist groups as possible.
I’ve already suggested in this paper how I believe progressive candidates for federal office can enhance their chances for a fair hearing from the many millions of politically alienated non-voters and struggling conservative voters who represent a very large part of the potential voter pool to which they must appeal. I’ve proposed that, in view of the disregard and suspicion of government expressed by these groups, it might be effective campaign strategy to sharply distinguish progressive policy proposals by linking them to the rarely invoked visionary goal of building an Americancommunity. In conjunction with that concept, I’ve suggested that progressives should emphasize their commitment to governing for the common good–not for “narrow special interests,” but for “the broad common interest.” I strongly encourage the many progressive activist groups now looking to 2016 to consider a coordinated mutual use of the “common good” theme in building and directing a progressive people’s movement.
Let me suggest still another theme relating to the vision of progressive “community” that I think has great positive appeal and can be used effectively in building a progressive movement. This is the progressive pledge to restore a right most working Americans have long taken for granted, but which, given current economic circumstances, many now fear they have lost: namely, the freedom to control and shape their own economic future.
Progressives have already advanced policy proposals designed precisely to remove the causes of this fear. Bernie Sanders, for instance, has advocated government help for unemployed, underemployed and underpaid workers that goes far beyond mere income supplementation. It would create worker co-ops that empower proud individuals to take the initiative and shape their own economic future. Bernie touts the program this way: “We need to provide assistance to workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives. Study after study shows that when workers have an ownership stake in the business they work for, productivity goes up, absenteeism goes down, and employees are much more satisfied with their jobs.”
The suggestion of empowerment in the progressive freedom pledge is precisely the right approach to motivate struggling, but individualistic, conservatives to give it fair consideration. In addition, the very wording of the pledge helps diffuse any resistance conservatives might feel to a serious appraisal of any idea put forward by a political movement many Americans would characterize as “left-leaning” and therefore vaguely radical and unAmerican. By promising to protect the freedom of workers to control and shape their own economic future, the pledge invokes the traditional American principles of individual initiative, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. All of these overtones resonate with a wide cross-section of the population, including alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives. At the same time, the pledge is an honest reflection of specific policies progressives would actually try to enact. All would be designed to put Americans in real–not just theoretical–control of their lives by allowing them to take the initiative in securing livelihoods that afford them both a decent standard of living and a chance to pursue their own kind of happiness.
Let me conclude here with the following observations:
Today, just 0.1-percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. Yet, if a progressive president with the support of progressives in Congress were to enact reforms to even modestly shrink that obscene measure of inequality, it would provoke the outrage of many of America’s one-percent and their political representatives. If that were to happen, progressives should respond from the same moral foundation that is the source of the policies they pursue. They should declare with their own kind of outrage that, at a time when many Americans, through no fault of their own, are falling into deeper and deeper states of penury and insecurity, the sense of fair play–said to be a characteristic American trait–must surely at long last come into play. What can moral decency possibly mean if it doesn’t require that those with untold wealth give up a portion they will never miss to enable those who have nothing to restore a decent life for themselves and their families?
Progressives should also emphasize another point that is too seldom made. It is not only talented politicians of a progressive mindset that seek to serve the common good. The government of the United States itself properly represents all of the people as a single community, not only a small elite representing corporate interests. If any American government were to actually operate on this principle, it would itself be obliged to look first after the common good, a shift in perspective that would enable millions of ordinary Americans to lead more secure and rewarding lives.
Such a shift would also have a powerful spiritual effect. Today, millions of Americans fear, resent, or ignore their government as an “Other” that wastes their tax dollars and inflates its power at the expense of their own freedom to shape their economic future. A government that seeks instead to empower its citizens to control their future, while also building up a “commons” that can enrich the lives of all, could well transform that fear and resentment to hope and respect, and foster for all of its citizens a joyous sense of community with other Americans.
Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, Bob has continued his work as a manuscript copy editor, and also furthered a lifelong love of learning as a student of political science and philosophy, as a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and as a literacy tutor. A major intellectual influence has been Henry Thoreau, whose many writings promoting non-violent social change and conscience-based independent thought and action have provided the philosophical framework for Bob’s own commitment to social justice and non-violent conflict resolution. Bob is also a member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, associated with Tikkun Magazine, which has published online two of his articles that probe the possibilities for progressive social and political policies within the American corporate/political power system. Bob’s extended Letter to the Editor on the widespread triumphalism in America’s response to the killing of Osama bin Laden has been included in the Summer 2011 issue of Tikkun.