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What is a progressive?

 Word games

What does the DFL party stand for? “Progressive values” would be a standard answer. When Mike Erlandson announced his candidacy for Congress in the Fifth District, he said: “To win for ‘progressive values’, you have to know what you’re doing.” He had been outgoing Congressman Martin Sabo’s top aide for many years.

The word “progressive” is like a talisman in circles of the Democratic party. But does it have practical content? In today’s context, it may be that “progressive” means, as Paul Wellstone said, being part of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party”. In other words, these are not “new Democrats” or people who compromise with the Republicans. They are true blue Democrats who are idealists.

But, again, what is the policy content of progressive values? Let’s start with the dictionary definition. Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines “progressive” as “a person who is a progressive, especially one who favors political progress or reform.” This dictionary defines “progress” as “improvement” or an “advance toward perfection or to a higher state.” In other words, the progressive believes in improving society. However, anyone would be for that. It all depends on what each person believes to be a better society.

It used to be that leftist political types believed that society was moving inexorably toward a more perfect state. Some believed that the progression of society from capitalism to socialism was scientifically predetermined. Others saw the social-welfare state as the culmination of society. The word “progressive” also has the definition of “moving forward and onward”. Society was moving forward and onward toward a higher state; and political progressives would be in the vanguard of persons pushing for that change.

But then came Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, defying the consensus of intelligent political opinion. These were reactionary conservatives flying in the face of historical trends. Lo and behold, history moved in their direction. Today, the driving force of political change in the United States is conservative. Liberal politicians are scrambling to keep up with the changes. Communism is dead. The welfare state is being dismantled. Conservatives, not liberals, seem to be the ones who have a program and know what they want.

An interesting fact is that “liberals” today seem ashamed of that label. Few politicians identify themselves as liberal; “progressive” is the preferred term. For some reason, political liberalism has become associated with the idea of taxing and spending without limit. (But, of course, President Bush, a nominal conservative, is the big spender par excellence.) The dictionary definition of a political “liberal” is “one who advocates greater freedom of thought or action.” I must admit, that definition fits my political philosophy. I’m proud to say that I am a liberal in those terms.

Ironically political liberals are today people who are pushed around by conservatives. They are gun-shy politicians ashamed to admit that they are liberal or that they stand for Civil Rights or oppose the war in Iraq. They know instinctively that many Americans do not share their values, believing them to be culturally elitist. So a Democrat like John Kerry shied away from overt criticisms of President Bush’s policies in Iraq. He tried to rely upon his own better credentials as a decorated Vietnam war veteran to counter the patriotism issue and show himself capable of leading a country to war. But it didn’t work. Bush still pushed him around.


Historical context

Back to the idea of being politically progressive. Three times during the 20th century major political figures in America ran for president as the candidate of a “progressive” party.

The first and most successful was former president Theodore Roosevelt. When his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft reversed Roosevelt’s conservation policies and brusquely pushed through his own nomination at the Republican convention in 1912, Roosevelt bolted the party. He ran for president as the candidate of the National Progressive Party (sometimes called the “Bull Moose Party”) in 1912, finishing second behind Woodrow Wilson but ahead of Taft. This party’s platform included women’s suffrage, direct primaries, initiative & referendum, and recall of elected officials. The first two planks were achieved.

The second presidential candidate to call himself a “progressive” was Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin. Originally a Republican, Senator LaFollette opposed U.S. entry into World War I. After the war, he opposed the League of Nations and the World Court. He also advocated shifting the burden of taxation to the rich. “Fighting Bob” LaFollette was the Progressive Party’s candidate for President in 1924. He received 5 million votes in the election but died soon afterwards. His Progressive Party died, too.

Again, in 1948, former Vice President Henry A. Wallace campaigned for President as a “progressive”, backed by communists and other extreme leftists. He polled 1,150,000 votes, mainly from New York state. This brand of politics wilted during the McCarthy era.

Taken as a whole, progressive politics seems to be a stance taken by mavericks who object to positions taken by the political establishment. It seems to be left-of-center with respect to a populist orientation. The progressives have been people who believed that their politics would improve society and improve the lives of average Americans. Does this describe what is happening in the DFL party today? I think not.

Not a Friend to the Common Man or Woman

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, which is the state affiliate of the Democratic Party, evokes the image of populist farmers battling the railroads and labor unions in their early days of struggle. In the battle between poor and rich, workers and management, this party takes a stand on behalf of impoverished, powerless people, one would think. But, in fact, the Democrats are beholden to well-heeled special interests. Their policies often hurt economically disadvantaged persons. This party is less a “cause’” than a collection of past causes that have become demanding constituencies. Like the Republicans, this party has become a coalition of special interests, dependent on large contributions to finance its increasingly expensive campaigns.

Where the Republicans might draw upon private businesses for financial support, the Democrats rely on labor unions, trial lawyers, and nonprofits. Rich people and foundations, providing large pools of “other peoples’ money, are a special friend. Not infrequently do wealthy individuals such as Mark Dayton or Kelly Doran run for high office under the banner of the DFL party. The DFL’s likely candidate for Attorney General this year, Matt Entenza, is married to a top official of United Health Care, a profit-making corporation which services nonprofit HMOs. In 2004, Entenza and his wife, Lois Quam, contributed $600,000 of their own money to Democratic causes.

Is it a sin to be rich? No, the Republicans would be first to admit. But the health-care industry is a sick sector of the economy, consuming 15% of GNP and 27% of the state budget. Rapidly rising health-care costs have pushed corporate giants such as General Motors toward bankruptcy. How does United Health Care (UHC) fit into the picture? It charges “higher-than-average fees and administrative costs to Medica from which it obtained a management contract without competitive bidding. Anderson consulting claimed that UHG’s processing fees were 26% to 40% higher than the industry on a per-unit basis, its 35% profit margin was well above the industry average, and its “substandard” service cost Medica $10 million in losses. So much for the entrepreneurial spirit.

It was Bill Clinton, the “New Democrat”, who rammed NAFTA through the Congress with promises of pork-barrel spending to please reluctant members. It was he who spearheaded “welfare reform” targeted to society’s economic and social underclass. A contributing editor to the Pulse newspaper in Minneapolis writes from a leftwing perspective: “The greatest obstacle to change in America is the Democratic party and it needs to be destroyed. The Democratic Party is a graveyard of every progressive social movement: farmers, labor, blacks, women, gays, seniors, Hispanics, and the environment. The DFL is the cesspool of politics.”

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, DFL-controlled local governments are chronic abusers of TIF districts, eminent domain, and building condemnations for reasons other than health and safety. Favored developers such as George Sherman and Dick Brustad and municipal-bond brokers such as Rebecca Yanisch’s husband work in close cooperation with elected officials, providing mutual favors. City inspectors work closely with the police to target the owners of buildings linked to criminal activity. On the theory that “problem properties” cause crime, city officials have directed housing inspectors to find something wrong with the condition of buildings and sometimes condemn them.

The St. Paul police ordered Nancy Osterman, a city resident who had formerly used illegal drugs, to infiltrate a group of current drug users and inform on them. Osterman refused, fearing for her own and her children’s safety. Then the city turned housing inspectors loose; they peppered her house with work orders. One inspector told Osterman she had to sell the house to a named associate for $40,000 or he would make sure that it was demolished. Instead, she sold the building to a man who owned property across the street. The St. Paul city council gave him 60 days to complete a set of work orders if he posted a $10,000 bond. Thirty days later it voted to have the house demolished, keeping the bond money. The house, located at 14 E. Jessamine Street, was finally torn down on March 23, 2006. DFL mayor Chris Coleman called this demolition of a structurally sound building worth $280,000 a “commitment to safe and livable neighborhoods.”

The point is that the DFL party no longer represents the little guy (or gal) but has become an arrogant, entrenched monopoly in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The element of “democracy” is missing from its agenda. Its more idealistic members tend to gravitate toward the Green Party which at least has a program for constructive change. This has only inspired the Democratic establishment to seek legal action to deny Ralph Nader and others access to the ballot; or, in the city of Minneapolis, to redistrict the Ward boundaries so that both Green incumbent city council members would be running against other incumbents; or, in general, to disparage Green candidates in general as representing “throwaway votes”. One would think that political progress would include the idea of presenting the voters with a full set of choices in election to public office. Instead, the Democrats, calling themselves “progressive”, seem determined to thwart choices other than themselves.

Bill Hillsman, the advertising genius behind Paul Wellstone’s upset victory for U.S. Senator in 1990, has said that “the Democratic Party would rather maintain a self-perpetuating organization than win.” A standard operating procedure is to tell rich persons who want to run for office as a Democrat first to “raise a lot of soft money for the party.” Hillsman warned: “Don’t be fooled - they’re not going to put any of that money back into your race unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.” The Democrats, said Hillsman, “have plenty of money to run strong races in those 25-40 (Congressional) districts (where the outcome is in doubt). But they hold that money over the heads of the candidates as a carrot and a stick. They tease them with it, and then they say, ‘But you’ve got to play ball.’ You get a purity test.”

I have personal experience of the party’s chicanery at the highest level. In 2004, I entered the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary by completing an application and paying a $2,500 filing fee. In early January, I drove east before heading down to South Carolina to begin my campaign. On the way, I telephoned a political reporter for the Greenville News. He told me that my name had been removed from the primary ballot. During the next three days I telephoned the South Carolina Democratic Party’s headquarters in Columbia numerous times to seek an explanation but was always told that the person with that information, the executive director, was either at a meeting or out of the office. So I had no alternative but to drive to Columbia myself.

It turned out that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terence R. McAuliffe, had exercised his authority under rules for the party ‘s 2004 national convention to declare that I was not “entitled to obtain delegates” at the convention because I was not a “bona fide Democrat.” A reason was that I had run in the Independence Party’s primary for U.S. Senate in 2002 (which was true) and had also been a member of the “Affordable Housing Preservation Party” (which did not exist). Since published writings were considered relevant to this determination, I showed state party officials a copy of a book coauthored with a former Democratic member of the U.S. Senate and another for which a current Democratic Congressman had written a foreword. When I pointed out such things by telephone to a staff person at the Democratic National Committee and offered to discuss them in person, he discouraged my visiting the DNC’s Washington, D.C. office and said he would get back to me the following week. He never did.

The point is that rules of the Democratic Party allow the national chair to remove candidates from presidential primary ballots if he deems them not having met the party’s purity tests. The more democratic way would be to leave the decision to the voters which candidates to prefer. McAuliffe was able to remove my name from the South Carolina ballot because state law allowed the party to control its own primary. If I was not entitled to delegates, my name could not appear on the state ballot. State law in Louisiana, on the other hand, guarantees an open primary ballot. I went on to campaign there in February and March 2004 in the Democratic presidential primary and finished fifth among seven candidates with 3,100 votes. To me, that was real democracy. The South Carolina election was an event too much rigged by party officials.


An Extinct Volcano: Labor Unions

Does the Democratic Party have an idealistic core including some “progressive” element? It may be that many Democrats, especially at the grassroots, are idealistic. But I would contend that is not the spirit of the party. The movers and shakers, like most experienced political types, are power hungry. The organization itself feeds on the spirit of past movements which have hardened into powerful organizations.

In the days of FDR and the New Deal, organized labor was a movement. This was a time of crushing poverty when industrial workers organized themselves into unions, conducted successful strikes, and won wage increases and benefits that built the American middle class. One thinks of the gutsy Reuther brothers shutting down the assembly line at the Kelsey Hayes Wheel Company, a supplier to the auto industry, and then, in the confusion, signing up stunned workers to join the union. What made labor a movement in those days was its core of idealists who advanced selfish interests, to be sure, but who also were connected with the larger community and had a vision of a better society for everyone. The UAW in its 1947 strike against General Motors argued that the company could afford both to increase wages and maintain stable prices for consumers.

Today, most unions have been in place for many years. Big labor has shifted its attention from grassroots organizing to winning concessions from government through its friends in the Democratic Party. In return, of course, it contributes money to political candidates and supplies campaign workers. Even as established organizations, labor unions provide a needed service in representing its members in disciplinary matters, in bargaining for wages and benefits, and providing a certain check on management abuse. Organized labor brings balance to the contractual process. However, its idealistic luster is not so bright compared with the old days.

A big reason is that, after many years of successful bargaining, labor has given its members substantially higher wages and benefits than what nonunion workers enjoy. In a given strike, the demand for still higher wages or preservation of existing levels of compensation do not come across as a just cause to others who also work hard but do not enjoy such wages and benefits. In the most recent bus strike in the Twin Cities it seemed to me, for example, that, with bus drivers averaging $20 an hour or more, it was hard to argue that the strike should be prolonged and should continue to inconvenience the customers of bus service who typically would earn only a fraction of that wage. Likewise, the high wages in U.S. manufacturing industries achieved through successful union activity serve either to raise the price of products to less well-plaid consumers or cause U.S. factories to shut down as production is outsourced to low-wage countries. In short, the union model of an idealistic movement breaks down as the wage disparity between union and nonunion workers increases. Union members then seem more like members of a privileged group than persons fighting for the betterment of society who, on that basis, would enlist our sympathies.

There is an additional problem in labor’s fastest-growing sector: the public-employee unions. Their members are employed by government bodies whose managers are elected officials. To the extent labor is involved in election campaigns that have put certain people in office, the elected officials face a huge conflict of interest. They have a responsibility to the public to bargain with the union to minimize costs or otherwise protect the public interest while they also have a debt to the union that helped get them elected. One thinks of former Minneapolis city council president Jackie Cherryhomes whose first husband, Dan, was president of a union representing city employees at the time when she was first elected to the Council. Did Jackie Cherryhomes as the city’s “management“ bargain conscientiously with its unions or “give away the store”? I do not know - the couple was divorced during her term of office - but the tendency would be for politicians beholden to labor to be sympathetic to union demands and leave the costs to future officeholders.

Then there is the issue of work-place rigidities and incompetent employees who cannot be fired. Employers have a legitimate right to organize operations in a flexible and efficient way and to get rid of incompetent or disobedient employees. Unions have an equally legitimate right to uphold standards of contractual agreement, human decency and fair treatment. Abuses can occur on either side.

A situation which has drawn attention is the public-school system which some believe is dysfunctional. Poor management may be partly responsible but so may incompetent or inadequately performing teachers who are protected by unions. As a results, parents want to transfer their children from poorly performing schools to better performing schools. New charter schools may be created. While it’s hard to measure “quality” in education and the attempted measurement is subject to abuse, there is a consensus in the community that we cannot afford to maintain poor schools as the future of our society depends on educating today’s children.

Another Extinct Volcano: The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement has defined the Democratic Party since the 1960s. Since then Mayor of Minneapolis Hubert H. Humphrey delivered the stirring speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention urging support for a Civil Rights plank, the politics of the DFL Party is especially wedded to it. The movement to secure civil rights for African Americans is, however, just the beginning of a chain of similar movements to secure similar rights for other groups of people who saw it as a model for their own social and political advancement. That extended movement is what is being discussed here.

The African American Civil Rights movement has its roots in slavery, the U.S. Civil War, southern reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era of segregated society. After African Americans had served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II, black athletes such as Joe Louis and Jesse Owen became widely admired, international communism was making an issue of the Negro’s poor treatment in the United States, the case of Emmett Till’s murder stirred international outrage, and the Montgomery bus boycott lifted Martin Luther King Jr. to a position of leadership in the black community, a political consensus emerged, supported both by labor and business, that something had to be done to overcome the racial inequalities in U.S. society.

It may be that John F. Kennedy’s election as Presidency, which involved overcoming anti-Catholic prejudice, set the stage for a broader and more lasting attack on racial prejudice. Kennedy had gained southern black support by his phone call that released Martin Luther King from jail. Then came the Freedom Riders, the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma march, and other pro-integration activities. The Kennedy administration was at least mildly sympathetic. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the new president made Civil Rights legislation a priority. Black Americans received full voting rights. Fair housing laws were enacted. Essentially the federal government was exercising its political muscle to undo segregationist policies in the south and in the north as well.

All this is understandable in terms of a political movement which had its roots in real grievances - the indignities of southern segregation, inferior schools for blacks, discouragement of black voting, tolerance of southern-white violence - but more was to come. In an effort to create a racially more equal society, it was decided that black Americans needed to be given special help to make up for the effects of past discrimination. From this decision came presidential orders for “affirmative action”, not just the elimination of current discrimination against blacks but compensatory action to bring them up to the level of whites. The Nixon administration added set-asides for minority contractors to make sure that a certain percentage of public contracts went to them. Anti-discrimination laws created a new concept under the law, a “protected class”, which had special rights in a legal system which professed to treat people equally. After that came mandatory courses in racial (and gender) sensitivity imposed on practicing attorneys by the Minnesota Supreme Court and others to guarantee that, not only were attorneys free of racial prejudice but predisposed to make extra sure that blacks were treated fairly in the courts or something like that.

In the 1960s, northern blacks rioted and burned down sections of large cities such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Detroit even while the legal reforms sought by the Civil Rights movement were being enacted. Black criminals or high-spirited youth have maintained a level of violence in many U.S. cities outstripping the white-on-black violence in previous eras. Faced with a hostile political environment, most whites clammed up to become a “silent majority” even as a vocal minority of whites and a racially mixed cadre in education, politics, the law, and journalism actively supported those racial policies known as “political correctness”. All sorts of dishonest discussions have taken place. People are fearful that if they say the wrong thing about race they will be socially ostracized or lose their jobs. No politician can hope to get elected who does not toe the required racial line.

In the South, however, there has been a dramatic political realignment starting with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s defection to the Republican Party in 1964. In the years since, the Democratic “solid south” has become a stronghold for the Republicans. The electorate both north and south is polarized by race with blacks supporting the Democrats and whites by a smaller percentage supporting the Republicans. Because there are more white than black voters, this has tended to favor the Republicans. But the Democrats can take hope from demographic predictions that by the year 2050 only half of the U.S. population will be white compared with almost 70 percent in 2000. In the meanwhile, the Democrats can make inroads into the white vote by expressing sympathy for women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants to whom the Civil Rights political model has also extended special protections as disadvantaged groups.

I would say that the effort to make women an officially disadvantaged group (and hence part of the Democratic coalition) has fizzled. Women tend to be more liberal than men politically but they are far from being a cohesive voting bloc. The National Organization for Women (NOW) lost credibility when it supported Bill Clinton and other powerful males sympathetic to their cause and sided against powerless women. Yet the pro-choice position on abortion remains a litmus test for Democratic politicians aspiring to leadership. Likewise, there are many gay conservatives even though gays and lesbians qualify as a socially persecuted class. It may be that the religious right, aligned with Republicans, may drive them into the Democratic camp.

The question of illegal immigration is today’s hot political topic. The Democrats eye them as a political constituency; they are actively courting immigrants with the standard Civil Rights type of appeal. The Republicans are of two minds. One type, aligned with the business community, tacitly accepts illegal immigration as a source of cheap labor. President Bush may be in this group. Another type resents the fact that U.S. borders are routinely violated. The fact of illegality is for them a major stumbling block. For this type of Republican (and Democrat) the question is whether we uphold the law or allow political opportunity to trump the law as the Democratic Party seems inclined to do. It’s the same issue as in the Clinton impeachment: Should the president be punished as any other citizen would be if he lied to a grand jury; or was the desire to punish the president politically inspired? Was it all a political game with moralistic Republicans persecuting Bill Clinton for his human foibles and Democrats displaying tolerance?

The Republicans can argue that they have advantaged their agenda legitimately through the legislative process while the Democrats have advanced theirs through the courts. Brown v. Board of Education introduced sweeping changes in society after the U.S. Supreme Court accepted some rather dubious legal arguments. Likewise, Roe v. Wade set a national standard on abortion by finding a woman’s “right to privacy” in the U.S. Constitution where none obviously existed. Apart from the merits of school integration or abortion, new policy was created through judicial extremism. Such policy as a result lacks legitimacy in the mind of most Americans because the courts are not supposed to legislate. It has helped to establish the Democrats as a party of cultural elites, trampling upon values which many hold dear.

This may explain why the Democrats are afraid to express their views openly. I remember listening to a presentation made by prospective DNC chairs (including Howard Dean) to a group of southern Democrats. A black woman asked the candidates what the party could do to attract more white votes in the South. None would give a straight answer. I thought the woman was asking for candor, but race relations have become such a political minefield that this was evidently impossible. If the Democrats told the plain truth about themselves and their aims, they would alienate that large group of white voters in the silent majority.

More candor was forthcoming from the previous DNC chair, Terence McAuliffe, when he addressed a group of black newspaper publishers at a gathering in New Orleans. The publishers were interested in how much money the Democrats would spend on advertising in their publications. McAuliffe was quoted as saying: “I know we (Democrats) cannot win without the African American vote. I look forward to working with all of you and your publications to make sure we’re getting the message out because I know there’s not a more effective avenue through which to get our message to the African-American community ... You will see an unparalleled investment in your newspapers.” In other words, keep the favorable publicity flowing and the Democrats’ share of the African American vote growing and, on our end, we send you lots of money. This was McAuliffe, the bag man, speaking.

What we have then is not racial fairness and equality, not a sensible undoing of southern segregationist policies, but a system of one-sided political values that threatens and intimidates people. We have a new malignancy of thought centering on the word “racism”. Racism means white racism exclusively since by most definitions blacks are incapable of it. Racism equals prejudiced feelings plus power and whites have all the power, says the prevailing argument. Racism is not the prejudiced thoughts of individual whites but “institutional racism”, the racism of white society. Whites are privileged by virtue of being white, regardless of what they do. And so, white people in America are born with a kind of original sin, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. This is what has become of the Civil Rights movement.

I remember when this movement began and white people were asked to be fair about race relations. If a white person thought black people as a group were dirty or lazy because the person had seen a dirty or lazy black person, he or she was asked to suspend that judgment. Just accept that the individual may be dirty or lazy but do not generalize to an entire race. White people bought into that argument because they did want to be broad minded and fair. But now, a generation or two later, we have reached a point where whites are considered to be inherently racist - not individuals who may display racist behavior but all whites, and inherently so. Here we don’t even need a concrete reason for this prejudiced view of whites; pure prejudice is enough. Aren’t there some aging veterans of the Civil Rights movement still living who can remember the original arguments that were made? Aren’t they ashamed of themselves for having sprung a trap on honest, fair minded people then and not be speaking out now against the abominable outcome of their efforts?

We have reached a point today that what a person thinks or says about race or a related category can be considered a crime, more heinous sometimes than a violent act. We call this a “hate crime” - a crime accompanied by malicious thoughts or speech directed at a protected class. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states plainly that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech” yet Congress has enacted hate crime legislation that makes certain politically disfavored speech an element in certain kinds of crimes; and the same Supreme Court which allowed women to abort their fetuses based on an extremely loose reading of the Constitution fails to strike down what the Constitution plainly prohibits.

We in America have reached the point that, as in East Germany, politically prohibited conversations made in secret must be reported to the authorities for punishment. There is a Minneapolis police officer named Rich Stanek who used to be Minnesota’s public-safety commissioner. Back in 1992, he had participated in the arrest of a black man with the smell of alcohol on his breath. The man accused the arresting officers of brutalizing him and filed a lawsuit against them. In the deposition process, Stanek was asked if he had ever used a racial epithet. Stanek answered “yes” because he had used such a term in a private conversation with his wife about the same lawsuit. This then became a matter of public record.

In April 2004, a group of black ministers, lawmakers, and others in north Minneapolis who learned of the deposition demanded and got Stanek’s resignation from his position as the state’s top law-enforcement official. It was, said one legislator, a “smoking gun” confirming his suspicions of a man who had “often opposed policies and programs important to people of color.” Some were surprised that Stanek had risen so far in the police establishment with that kind of record.

It is not just race that draws out the venom of political correctness. Sexual preference would be another area. Political liberals or progressives often argue that we should adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward sexual orientation; and I would basically agree. What two consenting adults want to do with each other in the privacy of their bedroom is no business of mine. Adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes shaped by the Civil Rights movement changes the picture, however.

The Star Tribune’s conservative columnist, Katherine Kersten, clearly identified the problem. Once sexual preference is cast in the mold of an officially victimized class, then anyone who speaks of such people in less than respectful terms becomes, as she put it, “a bigot”, adding that “in America today, it’s a serious thing to be a bigot. You can lose your job if you displace your bigotry in the work place.”

What is anti-gay bigotry? Kersten gave an example. An actress named Jada Pinkett Smith gave a speech last year at Harvard in which she uttered these shocking words: “Women, you can have it all - a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career ... You can do whatever it is you want.” This remark did not please certain members of Harvard’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance. A spokesperson complained to the Harvard Crimson: “Some of the content was extremely heteronormative and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable.” Smith was forced to apologize.

Across the river, in Boston, a superintendent of public schools sent a memo to all staff members during the controversy about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Referring to “the profound impact on our civic life and discourse” of this decision, he warned his subordinates that the district displayed “zero tolerance” for “discrimination” and “hateful speech” regarding gay marriage or sexual orientation, and, in Kersten’s words, “stated that students and staff members who breach the policy may be expelled or terminated.” So much for “live and let live”, not to mention free speech.

Straight white people in the privacy of the voting booth know that it is Democrats more than Republicans who advance and enforce this agenda of political correctness and some may vote accordingly. Now we know why these people no longer call themselves “liberals” if a liberal is “one who advocates greater freedom of thought or action.”The Orwellian world of the Democrats is quite scary. This may also help to explain why a political figure such as George W. Bush, whose economic and foreign policies are atrocious, can appeal to the mass of voters.

Instinctively, we know that the dogma of political correctness strikes at the core of our freedoms. It subverts the spirit of democracy. It is a dirty kind of politics that maintains itself through intimidation and fear. In contrast, Bush represents an old-fashioned kind of political oppressor, shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor and sending young men and women off to fight and die in foreign wars. Somehow this kind of exploitation, bad as it is, is cleaner than the political mind games.

George W. is refreshingly outspoken, artfully dodging political controversies. I could relate to him on a personal level when I read that Yale’s liberal chaplain, the original Freedom Rider, had once told him, after George H.W. Bush was defeated by Lloyd Bentsen for the U.S. Senate in 1968: “Frankly, he was beaten by a better man.” Seared by the remark, the younger Bush came back with a vengeance. I rather admired that.

The Republicans

Let there be no mistake: I consider the Bush Administration to be one of the worst in American history. As I said, I did not start out disliking Bush, but consider the facts:

* Well into economic recovery, the U.S. government had a budget deficit of $319 last year. It is expected to grow to a record $423 billion this year.

* Our nation’s trade deficit hit a record $804.9 billion last year. That did not stop the administration from proposing even more free-trade agreements.

* The prescription-drug benefit which the administration proposed and enacted has created a new $17 trillion unfunded liability according to Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan Administration Treasury official. This compares with an $11 trillion unfunded liability for Social Security.

* Administration policies have shifted the burden of taxation from those who can afford it to those who cannot afford it.

* The Bush administration has illegally tapped the phone lines of U.S. citizens and deliberately encouraged the practice of torture. It has cancelled U.S. support for the International Criminal Court which would hold political leaders accountable for crimes against humanity and has pressured other countries to violate their obligations under this treaty.

* Refusing to ratify the Kyoto treaty, the Bush administration insists that there is no threat from global warming.

* The Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina was inept.

* The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a country which poses no immediate threat to the United States, violated traditional norms of acceptable behavior among nations and, under the Nuremberg Principles, fits the category of “crimes against peace” whose definition includes “planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression”. This unnecessary war has resulted in thousands of U.S. and Iraqi casualties, destabilized Iraq politically, furnished a magnet for Jihad, and turned world opinion against the United States.

* Now, under its “transformational” approach to foreign policy, the Bush Administration is contemplating regime change in Iran through equally violent means.

This is an extremely poor record. Yet, while I hold the Bush Administration primarily responsible, one cannot overlook the complicity of Congress in creating the mess. Congressional Republicans seem slavishly obedient to President Bush while Congressional Democrats, for reasons stated above, are an ineffective opposition. Forced to choose between one side or the other, I would go with the Democrats. No more needs to be said of Republicans in the Bush era. The country is hurting.

My definition of being “progressive”

If the Bush Administration represents conservative politics, we need an alternative. It would likely be a liberal or progressive politics. As a political liberal, I would be in favor of free speech and opposed to any political forces that inhibit free thought. Political correctness is the bane of current politics. I would favor systematic attempts to violate it in every way. Civil disobedience has never been more needed. Shout the “n-word” on street corners if need be; and let blacks shout “honkey” at whites. It might be good for the political soul to do such things. We should always tolerate free speech.

With respect to being a progressive, we have to have an idea of what progress will bring. In the broad expanse of world history, there is always progress. Unless, of course, the human species becomes extinct, our culture and society advance toward newer and more sophisticated forms. But that does not mean that a given institution will prosper. It does not mean that the American empire will keep expanding or that our kind of “freedom and democracy” will spread throughout the earth.

Maybe the United States will break up into regional states as the old Soviet Union did. Maybe illegal immigrants from Mexico will overrun the country and take over our political system. Anything is possible. This would not be progress from my perspective as an American but it is possible and even tolerable if the human species survives.

Prospectively, the economy is our greatest challenge. For centuries we have lived with a model of economic growth. There were enough natural resources to support that ideal. China recognizes that the old model of growth cannot be sustained because we are running into environmental limitations. In the United States, we are running into an obvious limit of dwindling supplies of oil and gas. Forget whether we are dependent on Middle Eastern oil; the earth is running out of such supplies with respect to the current model of economic activity. But there are other limits as well.

Natural limitations combined with population growth will bring the growth economy to an end. The lesson of history is that such models always come to an end. Powerful institutions, even if they continue, shrink in importance as some other kind of enterprise comes to the fore. So it will be with the business culture. So it will be with education. These are the institutions most threatened with change. (You can read more on this subject at It is Google’s top-rated site under the search words “predict the future”.

My idea of progress would be to have a smooth transition as the growth model of economic activities gives way to something else environmentally less corroding which is also humanly satisfying. A possible element in that new society would be an economy that provides more free time for people. It would allow human beings to abandon the treadmill of constant effort and work as they pass through the competitive processes of education and career to a desired situation in life. One could simply decide that all this is unnecessary to human well being and settle for a comfortable "mediocrity" in socio-economic terms. Otherwise seen, it would be a new abolition of slavery.

It’s important, however, to revive human culture. By that I do not mean mass-produced culture spread through the entertainment media but a culture that takes root in a greater freedom to act as individuals. A self-determined culture might be the end of this new society; it could be relatively cheap with respect to the environment if spread by computer electronics.

I’m suggesting, then, that a progressive needs a vision of a better society as a precondition for political action. Without having ideas of that sort, politicians are engaged in pure posturing or pretending that past causes are still alive. We need to be engaged in today’s realities, abandoning histories that are no longer relevant. For my own part, I think that both political parties have outlived their usefulness. There needs to be a third party, perhaps the Independence party, that rises to the challenge of the new problems and opportunities of our day.

I close on a negative note with the words of Peter Peterson, Nixon’s commerce secretary. “Both political parties,” he said, “are politically incorrigible. They are not facing any problems; they are running from them. They are locked into a politics of denial, distraction, and self-indulgence that can only be overcome if ... you take back this country from the ideologues and spin doctors of both the left and the right.”

The positive note is left to you: You can be any kind of progressive you want to be. Just have a vision. It’s your birthright as an American.


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