Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to Restore Political Fortitude I: The Center-Left Elite

Are you a liberal or preogressive leader or activist? Remember how you went into politics to change the world for the better? I know you did, because that’s why any liberal or progressive goes into politics. Guess what? You need courage and vision to change the world! So courageously follow your principles and you will change the world!

The centrist capitulation machine that dominates DC needs to become stronger, more confident, and more courageous in its politics; it needs to become an unstoppable train engine of progress. If its main figures will not, then they need to be replaced as leaders. It is imperative to establish an inviolate norm that our politicians and pundits will successfully promote our principles, or they will be replaced by those who will. It may take a few years and may involve some short-term losses to get that message through, but it must be done, even if it that means accepting that more members of the GOP will be in office temporarily. They are always in power de facto anyway, so in reality that is not as big an objection as people often fear. We must have confidence and faith that the right side will win out in the long run, if its advocates fight for it. 

I have been arguing that, as humanity faces a perfect storm of economic, political, social, and environmental system crises, the Left has to grow stronger and more unified in order to overcome the entrenched interests that are the sources of the problems. And, I have argued, that requires the Left to exercise the civic virtue of political courage or fortitude.  Of course, that’s just a start, and we need more than just this to move the world in the right direction: we need lots of organizing, communicating, and protesting, campaigning, legislating, and policy implementation. The Left is already good at most of this, actually. Its failures are largely due to poor leadership and direction, symptoms of missing fortitude, stamina, and focus. The base does not lack for motivation but only want for guidance and direction, and indeed are tired of being demotivated by their so-called leaders. Cultivating fortitude among both our elite leaders and our grass-roots is thus a necessary first step to political victory.  
The Occupy movement, a truly grass-roots movement, has been inspirational in demonstrating what political courage can do, but will not be sufficient. We’ve needed more fortitude on the Left at the grass roots level, but we need it even more at the elite level. The protests have done amazing things to change public debate, especially in making economic inequality a legitimate part of political discourse again. If Occupy becomes a mass-movement to address issues of class in the way that the civil rights movement addressed issues of race, then it will do tremendous good for decades to come. But changes in civil society eventually have to translate into changes in public policy too, and that means that liberal politicians, pundits, pollsters, and activists have to grow some damn backbone.  The Left elite need fortitude more than the base, who have been angry at injustice and eager to act for a long time, as the Occupy protests show.  
The first step in restoring political fortitude is to accept that conflict is part of politics.  Accept that assertiveness is part of a moral and mature human character, and part of good citizenship.  Accept that peace and tranquility in the real world must often be defended through conflict in the political world.  Defending democracy, equality, and freedom require taking strong stances and saying “no” to would-be abusers, and it is moral and right to do so. As you fight politically, think of yourself as a paladin, a champion, a defender of justice and the good -- for, if you think about it, if you argue and debate and march and fight for liberal values, you actually are those things! 
If you are not part of the grass roots but are already in a position of leadership, or at least are part of the party machine or punditry you, especially, must accept that conflict is a part of politics, for you have accepted a position that has fighting those conflicts as part of the job description. You must accept that it is your responsibility to fight those conflicts with all you heart and ability. You are, in the end, defending the lives and well-being of real people out in the world, people who need health care, and education, and jobs, and freedom from endless war, and protection of their privacy and political rights. If your activist base are the paladins defending these needs and values, you are the captains of the paladins. You therefore have a grave responsibility to do all that you can for the common people’s lives and welfare. You are a leader; act like one. If you cannot, then the moral thing for you to do is to resign and make room for someone who will.
At least be willing to stand up for principle as an experiment, and observe the results. Continually testing the political winds and running toward the center only makes people think that you are weak and variable and untrustworthy and incapable of making a real decision, and they rightly lose respect for you for it. Try, for once, for God’s sake try to stand up for something good, and stick with that stance, and observe what happens to your reputation and to public opinion about you. People, including the independent center, respect strength and fortitude. Furthermore, people like their social programs because those programs make a middle class possible, allow for upward mobility, prevent suffering and improve quality of life, and often save life itself.  So, dammit, start selling those policies for what they are -- the morally right way to run an economy -- and start proudly claiming them as the products of liberalism. Do that for two election cycles and the pendulum will be well on the way to permanently shifting Left again -- increasing the security of your legislative seat. And many of the real problems that bedevil us will be on the way to being solved, too. 


  1. Is there ever a time when we should compromise and/or negotiate or should we always hold to our stance?

  2. There are many times when compromise is a virtue, but these are not those times. For compromise to be fair to all and to achieve a genuine public good, both parties have to negotiate in good faith, fulfill their commitments, and respect the basic agency and dignity of their opponents. But conservatives have not treated liberals that way in decades; instead, they do everything they can to take unfair advantage, they negotiate in bad faith, they renege on deals, and they continually tar liberals as un-American, stupid, misguided, weak, disloyal, and every other negative thing they can. In those circumstances, when your opponent only takes advantage of your compromises to push their own agenda, it makes sense to stick to principle, and allow compromise only when  tactically necessary.