Midnight Thought on How not to talk to Progressive Populists during the campaign


I know that it is all the fad to use the term “progressive” in the American radical left, moderate left, and moderate right. But sometimes its used in a way that really cheeses me off.

The Secret Ballot in New York, early 1900’s

I first encountered references to progressive populism while in High School in the 70’s, while in college in the early 80’s realized that I am a progressive populist, and indeed some of my time and effort in graduate school in the early 90’s was spent in mastering the basics of the American Institutional approach, which was originally established on the foundation of the American Pragmatism that provided the philosophical underpinnings of American Progressivism.

The 17th Amendment

Someone who argues that the differences between Senator McCain and Senator Obama are not big enough to justify voting for Senator Obama may be a leftist, they may be a radical, they may be a Liberal (in the American as opposed to European/Australian sense), they may be a whatever-you-wanna-callit … but I cannot fathom how anyone can style it as “progressive”.

So, if you are talking to a Progressive Populist during the campaign, trying to talk them into voting for Nader (or trying to talk them into voting for Barr, since pragmatically it means the same thing), don’t do it by first presuming that you are speaking for all progressives. Not unless you are sketching out a pragmatic political strategy for making progress.

Progressive …

So, do you hope for shit so bad to happen that people will be outraged and rise in revolt?

This is a political position that shows up from time to time among advocates for change, but its not a progressive position.

The progressive position is to identify substantial changes that represent real progress, and work toward achieving them.

This is very firmly rooted in American Pragmatism. From a Pragmatic perspective, none of us have a privileged, insider position with respect to “the one and true way”. Indeed, the more radical the change, the less confidence we can have in anticipating what the full effects of the change will be. The more dramatic the break from existing institutions, the more varied and deeper the unintended consequences of the change, and therefore the less confidence we can have in the benefit of the reform.

Indeed, the test of the pudding is in the eating, and the perils of unintended consequences are highlighted dramatically in the impact of the “success” of the Temperance movement.

Progressives take the historically-established fact of unintended consequences seriously. When there is a choice between making progress and conserving ourselves to win the big revolutionary change that will justify all our movement building and hard work … progressives choose making progress.

Its kinda what the “progress” is doing there inside the name.

… Populist

But why Progressive Populist? Doesn’t Populism involve talking to and taking seriously a bunch of uneducated, ignorant red-necks? Who would want to do that?

Well, you want to do that, for one, if you think that each person has the same intrinsic worth.

And you want to do that, for two, if you want to be successful in establishing a change coalition.

You have to talk through the reform agenda that you want to pursue with all types of people … and you have to do it seriously. What are their concerns? What do they want to achieve? Can the proposed reform agenda address those concerns? What side-effects of the reforms are they worried about?

How can the potential of the reforms be made compelling enough to justify the risk?

This does not mean commissioning a poll or form a focus group to find the way to spin the policy agenda during a political campaign, or to select which points to run on. Rather, it means we need to build a movement built on engaging with a broad range of people on a year-round basis.

Obama, McCain, and Progressive Populism

All of this is a lot easier said than done. It sure as hell is a lot easier blogged than done, because the blogosphere can only ever be part of the infrastructure for a Progressive Populist movement.

Now, the substantial argument against Senator Obama would seem to be that too many people are investing too much hope in Senator Obama … that someone who is, in the American political landscape, moderate-left, and who would be, in the European political landscape, moderate-right, cannot deliver the real changes that will realize those hopes.

However, that is not a complete argument, on its own. Even if true, it does not lead directly to the conclusion that we are better off supporting the politics of fear and descent into fascism offered by Senator McCain.

The thing is, that disappointment will be the case no matter when the politics of fear and the slide into fascism is first kicked out of the White House.

Whoever kicks the radical reactionary wing of the Corporate Party out will disappoint the highest hopes invested in them … and lacking a strong progressive populist movement, the odds are strong that it is going to be a representative of the moderate wing of the Corporate party, like Senator Obama, who will be that winner disappointing that hope.

But time is not standing still while we wait for the perfect standard bearer to arrive. The climate crisis unfolds apace. We continue are slide toward, or else down, the downhill slope of Peak Oil.

So real progress that is somewhere in the right ball park of the kind of progress we need to achieve is not on offer. And, yes, that’s sad. But its not surprising that its not on offer, because we have not built a progressive populist movement. The corporate mass marketing augmented with Web 2.0 generation organizational tools offered by Senator Obama was filling a social space that is largely unoccupied.

Indeed, in looking to build an actual movement in that space, rather than an astroturf organization as a tool for a political campaign, I see nothing catastrophic in the disappointment that people will feel when it turns out that Senator Obama was, in fact, telling the truth in the Audacity of Hope … he sees serious challenges ahead, and can express the urgency of meeting them, and offers small, unambitious, incremental improvements that are too limited in design to successfully meet those challenges.

But, since he told us that in 2006, we have no excuse not to be organizing now to take advantage of that disappointment, and grow our movement to be in a residence in that populist terrain that Senator Obama temporarily occupied for the purposes of winning the nomination this year.

And if Obama loses?

Well, then it should be obvious … we are expending our efforts fighting the descent into fascism through to 2012, when we probably get Senator Obama’s ideological twin, Senator Clinton, as the nominee, that disappointment in the moderate Corporatist not being the national savior is delayed by four years, at best, and instead of building toward winning as many policy victories as possible from 2009 to 2016 a nomination in 2016, we are looking to winning those policy victories over 2013 to 2020 and winning a nomination in 2020.

And, meanwhile, we are four years further into the climate crisis, and have slide four years further downhill on Peak Oil.


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  1. … of these flame war sessions in own of the town parks that I love to visit …

    … and I put up a rant.

    But I could not help myself. I was so pissed off when I encountered the arrogance of the Naderite presumption of being able to speak on behalf of all progressives that I had to write it off.

    I don’t have health coverage, of course, and with my family history, I can’t afford to let my blood pressure stay that high.

  2. all calicos….. they are a bit well…. cranky at times.

    • Robyn on July 27, 2008 at 22:40

    So, do you hope for shit so bad to happen that people will be outraged and rise in revolt?

    Except maybe for the part about who it is who gets to rise up.

    • k9disc on July 28, 2008 at 04:18

    There are many ways to promote progress.

    I’ll be voting for Obama, I don’t find him that unpalatable to vote for. Incremental change and all, but I do see the value in people who feel stronger than I voting for someone who represents their values.

    Let’s just say that Nader takes 20% of the vote.

    That 20% would be taken into account in the next election, and there’d be huge movement to co-opt that large demographic chunk of voters.

    There is a lot to be said about using your vote to persuade.

    Personally, I don’t see a whole lot of value in presidential politics.

    That’s not where the power is, or should be.

    I have a much harder time trying to wrap my head around the ‘more democrats’ school of thought in congress.

    Somewhere, sometime, we’ve got to take a stand and get a little bit of progress.

    Another thing that I think you may have missed on this essay is that Progressives were more than just about incremental change.  

  3. “Obama good.  No Obama bad.  Vote McCain bad.  Vote Nader vote McCain.  Vote Nader bad.  Progressives stupid.  Stupid purists.  Democrats own all non-Republican votes.”

    That’s pretty much your entry in a nutshell, and there was no need for the usual round of threats and attacks on any who dare voice their dissent or their dissatisfaction with Democrats for having betrayed the progressive movement at every turn.

    NEWSFLASH: it helps not to threaten people.  Your remarks are loaded with hostility, and people respond in kind.  It’s human nature.  My advice, if you can’t come up with anything substantive, is for you to go back to the drawing board until you’ve developed a decent argument.  For someone who seems so bent on convincing voters how crucial this election is, you sure don’t act like you want to win it for your guy.

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