Oliver Willis

21st Century Progressive: How Do We Get There?

One of the things I admire about the modern conservative movement is that they have an internally coherent value system they use to gauge conservative politicians by. It doesn’t make sense outside of conservatism, but they have what they believe is a value system that conservatives should abide by. On the left, any such system is – at best – a haphazard hodgepodge. We need to change that.

But first, let’s go back and look at what worked and what hasn’t worked.

There are, for my purposes here, three distinct progressive movements in the last century worth looking at that had long-term effects.

The Original Progressive Movement. This movement, at the turn of the century and extending into the 1920s has a huge legacy – including but not limited to worker’s rights, environmental conservation, and most importantly women’s suffrage.

The Civil Rights Movement. The most successful progressive movement of the last century, this changed the face of America and the world.

The Vietnam War Protest Movement. In my view, this is the most problematic movement. It was undoubtedly a mass movement, but I believe its legacy is one of more failure than success. The popular conception is that people massed against the war and it ended. In fact, the war raged on for years while the protesters continually upped the ante. It didn’t work. The war didn’t end until casualties began to mount.

The perceived success of the Vietnam War protest movement has, I believe, hobbled a lot of progressive movement in the 20th and 21st century. People believe the idea that you a mass of people will simply convince those in power to concede. This doesn’t work in America.
While mass protest movements are unusual in the Middle East and had success, they are – as currently constructed – practically useless in America where corporate clients can just as easily assemble a “protest” as Code Pink. To the average American, they are “priced in.” Someone is always protesting about something and no matter the inherent value, the impact is negligible.

The protest movement faced a test in the war on Iraq and it failed, miserably so. The protests against the war did not change public opinion; they did not create a threat for elected officials to be afraid of. The protests against the Iraq war were a failure.

I don’t believe all mass protests are a lost cause; they just have to work differently. The protests in Wisconsin got national attention because they were not rote and they involved organized labor. It isn’t an everyday occurrence for people to occupy a state capital. That said, they didn’t break the back of Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on labor. Conservatives got the laws they wanted on the books.

We have to throw away the idea that simply protesting – the simple act of “getting out into the streets” without a real message or plan of action — will effect change or should be the central organizing activity in a progressive outreach effort. It doesn’t work, it probably never really work, and it won’t work.

We need to go back to what worked, the early progressive movement and the civil rights movement, and refine what did work and combine it with 21st century persuasion and engagement techniques.

There has to be a core idea, most important of all. I think the left has failed at this, partly because liberalism has often gone with what I deride as the “cumbaya” approach: the idea that if everyone has input, ideas can be rolled up together into something that can be sold.

That doesn’t work. There is a reason why past progressive movements solidified around leaders with defined ideas and goals. You had Mother Jones organizing labor and against child labor. You had Martin Luther King arguing for passage of the civil rights act. You even had the President, Theodore Roosevelt, agitating against the trusts and in favor of federalizing massive tracts of land in order to protect them.

There are some current progressive campaigns that have their hearts in the right places, but insist on asking everyone for input and produce a laundry list without a core.

We need goals, and we need targeted measures of success. It isn’t about what “feels right” or “feels good” but rather “what is accomplished?”

There is also the idea about what it is to be a progressive. I think it means we believe in forward thinking solutions that make life better for the most possible people. I don’t think it means being opposed to profit or personal enrichment, nor do I believe it is solely about one’s pet causes.

For myself, a Progressive America means one in which everyone has a decent shot at the American dream, that we can enrich ourselves and our communities without engaging in practices that suppress others or harm the world around us.

This seems to me an idea – with possible modifications — that a political movement could coalesce around and enact as a litmus test for leaders on multiple levels. I believe the way to get there is to integrate what has worked in the past, and bury what didn’t work – despite a collective belief otherwise – while constantly adding on new technologies and techniques as their success is proven.