Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Virtue of Political Fortitude

I wish to discuss with you, and commend to you, an ancient civic virtue needed to develop strength and confidence to stride to a brighter future.  That is the civic virtue of political fortitude, by which I mean courageously, vigilantly, relentlessly, and audaciously standing up for proven political principles of justice, equality, freedom, and democracy, even when apparent short-term interest or political calculations deem otherwise.  Political fortitude means having the stamina, steadfastness, loyalty, optimism, and faith to stand and fight for - and vote for - proven principles.  (I will go into the details of this definition in another post).  Democracy requires bravery and determination, and I want to call you to the courage of your convictions. 

The Left sorely lacks political fortitude, as the Washington DC liberal establishment’s repeated capitulations have demonstrated.  That is why they are always on the defensive, always hanging on by the skin of their teeth, always losing on policy even when they manage to eke out an election win.  This has been a terrible problem for fully two decades now.  Its absence is devastating, because without courage and stamina our politicians fail to advance liberal social and economic policy -- and that ultimately impoverishes real lives and leaves democracy itself vulnerable to plutocratic and militarist attack.  If the Left doesn't develop its political fortitude muscles soon, then in another decade or so the conservative Right will have consolidated near-complete power, America will become fully and permanently a militarist plutocracy, and we will quite likely will go through an ugly authoritarian period.  We don't have much time to find our strength.

Imagine the world if the Left actually argued for its principles with courage and conviction, rather than always conceding the basic argument to the Right and then attempting to moderate it by saying "yes, but...".  We believe our ideas are better; would they not spread if so promoted? Would Left-leaning independents not gain greater confidence in an ideology willing to defend its principles? 

Imagine the world if the Left stopped thinking in terms of political calculus and always acted from motives of principle. Would we not immediately begin changing the public debate, and within a few years form a unified political front ready to take on all contenders?

Imagine the world if our side took the political initiative and tried to win, rather than constantly playing not to lose. Would we not lead the world to the better future we know we can all share, rather than incessantly defending against the outrages of the insane Right? 

Imagine if the Left’s leaders negotiated the hardest bargains possible, using their power to actually pass legislation and implement the rational policies that its members support. Would the positive effects of those policies not win the public over and melt opposition, as with Social Security and Medicare in the past? And wouldn’t the rank-and-file have trust in their leadership again? 

Imagine the world if the Left's leaders showed some loyalty and stuck by their people --  following the conservatives' rule of never publicly criticizing a member, instead of dishonorably insulting their base as a "professional Left” or abandoning their prominent figures to conservative scandal-mongering.* Would we not then have greater trust and confidence in each other, and the unity needed to make winning political battles routine? 

Isn't a stronger and braver Left the kind of Left that would win? A Left that would make the world a better place?  A Left that you would be proud to be part of?  Isn't it a Left you would donate money to, go to a rally for -- and vote for? Having confidence in our principles is not only right, it is appealing, especially to people who are currently filled with the doubt and fears natural to this current crisis, and need exemplars of political valor to inspire them.

You already have political fortitude in you.  Can you imagine yourself in a debating situation, for example, a local school curriculum fight, standing up for what is right in the face of a conservative injustice?  Can you imagine literally standing up, declaring your opposition, and stating the reasons why? Even with the odds against you or facing disapproval or ridicule?  Maybe right now you don't feel like you could actually do it, or you don't know where or how, or who would join you; those doubts are OK and normal.  But if you can just imagine doing it, even someday if not today, then you already have fortitude in you.  It just needs to be activated and cultivated.  And that is something that we can all help each other do together.  We can all state our beliefs bravely around the office, the dinner table, or online; we can visit and support an Occupy protest; we can call up a political group, party, or candidate and offer to volunteer. 

Your homework for today: practice your own political courage, and encourage someone else to as well.  Really - I mean it! 

* This is not to say the Left is immune to wrong-doing, only that we shouldn't allow the Right wing echo chamber to make political hay out of it. For real violations, keep the discipline internal instead of letting the conservatives magnify it for propaganda advantage; and of course, actual law-breaking should be handled by the justice system. 


  1. What a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Left! Finally a straight-forward Manifesto we can all get behind. Thank you Jeff for your insightful and sane commentary. Carmen

  2. Jeff:

    You said, "Imagine the world if the Left stopped thinking in terms of political calculus and always acted from motives of principle. Would we not immediately begin changing the public debate, and within a few years form a unified political front ready to take on all contenders?" I think this is the most important point you have. Specifically, the left needs to change the public debate -- or, what I will call our "everyday discourse."

    What the right is so good at and has generally won -- especially regarding economic policy -- is shaping the political debate. When I think of people like Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachman, it is easy to see how their ideas are far to the right of the mainstream. But, in ten to twenty years, their opinions will be mainstream -- unless the left stands up and opposes them from the left and not the center.

    Consider a few examples: The ideas of Ronald Reagan have become relatively moderate ideas despite being far to the right of the average American in the 1980s. I would venture to bet that if Reagan were running for the Republican nomination today, he couldn't get it. Because of the political fortitude of the right over the years, however, what was once far to the right is now middle of the road; what was slightly left, is now "socialist."

    Consider also our current debate about health care. How could it be that a health care system proposed by "conservatives" like Richard Nixon in the 1970s and "moderates" like Bob Dole is now considered "liberal" or even "socialist" when it is proposed by someone on the "left" like Barack Obama? The answer is clear. Terms like "conservative," "moderate," "liberal," "left," and "right" are relative terms and they have been defined and redefined by the "right," not the "left" over the years.

    What the "left" needs to do if they are to win policy debates is not only stand up for their ideas when it comes to policy, but to stand up for their ideas in our everyday discourse. People on the "left" today should not be defending the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They should be arguing for its repeal so it can be replaced with nationalized insurance (i.e. single-payer) or even nationalized medicine. If the left fails to make this argument in everyday discourse, the left will never win the policy debate.

    Where the left has had success in shaping our everyday discourse and, subsequently, is currently winning the policy debates is in what we might call the culture war. Consider what has happened in the past twenty years with the rights of homosexuals. There was a time when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was considered a "progressive" or "liberal" agenda. Over time, however, Don't Ask, Don't Tell became too "conservative," too repressive. We are seeing the same fight over the definition of marriage and the rights that go along with marriage. It is taking generations for the left to win this debate, but it is happening.

    How/why is the left winning the debate on these "cultural" issues? It is not because the left has better arguments. If that were true, it would be winning the debate on economic issues as well. Rather, the left is winning these debates because it has generally been uncompromising on them. It has shown the political fortitude needed to win not only the policy debates, but the debates in our everyday discourse as well. The left, in short, can win every debate if, as Jeff recommends, it shows the political fortitude to so so.

    Matt Schuster

  3. Spot on analysis, Matt, and well said. You are entirely right - we have to change the public discourse and shift it back in a leftward direction if we are going to have sane policy to solve our many problems. And the centrist liberals who run the show in DC are terrible at this. They allow the Right to set the agenda *all* the time, and rarely if ever make arguments from our morals or principle. Since they never actually argue a case for liberalism, they always lose the debate you can't win if you don't even try!

    And the thing is, *our arguments are better.* Consider the response that Elizabeth Warren's recent comment on class warfare got (see link): it was a concise and powerful argument that inspired the left, got a lot of media attention, and prompted a defensive response from the Right. George Will twisted himself into an intellectual pretzel trying to refute her. If every center-left politician in America said something like this publicly just once a week, they would shift the pendulum of discourse back to sanity again.