A Progressive’s Call to Arms (What to Prioritize & How to Win)

The cover image for this essay is an emblem taken from the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment’s flag, used during the Revolutionary War.

In a previous entry, I discussed where I fall in the political field, and why an overall balanced system is beneficial to any form of extremism. I reiterate that, while my policy positions may sound radical to some, they are meant to counteract the disastrous shift of the overton window to the very top right-hand corner of the spectrum. We need idealists from the Left-Libertarian quadrant to counteract the Right-Authoritarian status quo, so that the public discourse as a whole shifts back to the center. Forty years of neoliberalism has failed this country, creating an unprecedented inequality of wealth, two disenfranchised generations of Americans and no great vision for the future to inspire us. Consumerism-Materialism doesn’t make people happy and is quickly killing our entire planet. We need to rethink the way we organize society if humanity is to survive at all, much less prosper.

Proper Election Reform Must Take Priority

Before I go any further, I’d like to repeat one of the mantras of my favorite politician, George McGovern, that “America needs liberals and conservatives.” The issue is we don’t seem to have liberals or conservatives anymore–we have neoconservatives, evangelical reactionaries and neoliberals in both parties and they have led us astray. The only true dividing factor between whether a person is Democrat or Republican anymore is where they stand on wedge social issues like women’s bodily autonomy, LGBT civil rights and black people suffering a disproportionate amount of police brutality. While I personally feel very strongly about each of these topics, I also sincerely believe they’re being used by the rich and powerful to divide us so we fight ourselves over relatively minuscule problems, like what bathroom transgender people use. (And before anyone cries “ism,” I say that as a transwoman myself.) What we should be focusing on above all is that the billionaires are killing our livelihoods and the environment with their greed. Surely all of us, black, white, man, woman, gay, straight can agree that the powers that be fucked us all over when they took a bailout in 2007 and again in 2020 at our expense while our cities lack safe bridges and (in some cases) clean water. We can focus on social issues after this primary threat against the well-being of the human race is addressed; when it comes to economic reform, the rising tide will lift all ships in the meantime.

If we reform the election system to adopt range voting as opposed to first past the post, it would allow for a greater number of parties to have a viable chance of success without taking away votes from their most ideologically similar counterparts. This would allow for all the neocons, neolibs, libertarians, social conservatives and progressives to coalesce into new, more philosophically consistent parties who don’t need to force themselves into unnatural and often self-sabotaging electoral coalitions in order to win. Each ideology would stand or fall on its own merits, neither hampered nor unduly aided by the baggage of their strange bedfellows from the two party system. When the various factions of both major parties are free to go their separate ways in a post-Range Voting system, then we may be able to compromise with different parties on common ground. Progressives and Right-Libertarians could team up to repeal the War on Drugs and surveillance state, for example. Progressives would be free to tackle the true problems dooming civilization rather than hindered by status quo politicians propped up by the wealthy elite buying their way to victory in the primaries and ensuring another wasted four years voting for someone who’s objectively terrible. (Just not so terrible that they want to roll back gay/women’s rights fifty years.)

I’ve noticed a persistent, well-meaning but misguided notion from many people that repealing the electoral college alone would fix America’s broken voting system and make third parties viable. I must gently but firmly argue against this position for the following reasons. First, to repeal the electoral college we would need a constitutional amendment in order to secure against a supreme court case. This enormous hurdle, which I remind you entails a two-thirds vote from three-fourths of all state legislatures, would not be required for a switch to range voting as opposed to our current first past the post ballot. Article II, Clause 2 states that state legislatures determine the means by which their respective electors will vote, meaning we could make progress state by state rather than an all-or-nothing gambit to amend the constitution. (Considering how polarized America has become in recent decades, and that even a simple amendment assuring equal status to women failed in the recent past, I doubt any of us will see a constitutional amendment of any kind for the foreseeable future.) In addition, expending political capital to repeal the EC would not give third parties a leg up, it would only mean the more populous states’ votes weigh heavier. First past the post is therefore not only the greater impediment to progress, it’s also the simpler of the two barriers to solve.

The Dansey Flag, used by the Delaware militia during the Revolutionary War. It is actually named for the British Captain William Dansey who took it home to England as a war trophy.

The Need For a True Opposition Party

To summarize before we move further, the first order of business is to allow for a more expressive ballot. Once this is done, all other reforms will be exponentially easier to enact. For the next round of progressive changes to have a chance, we will need at least one true, hard-line, left-wing party in America if for no other reason than to keep the overton window balanced. To those who would argue that the Democratic Party, in its current form, is “far left” or “radical left” I would remind you of the following:

The Republicans have shifted further and further right over the last 50 years until we now have literal fascists running it. This was a gradual process which began with Goldwater’s unapologetically extremist stance in 1964. The most famous words in his own convention speech were: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Then Nixon, and later Ronald Reagan, expertly swayed as many single issue voting blocs as possible to their new Moral Majority coalition Specifically, they appealed to Southern whites disheartened by the civil rights act with the Southern Strategy, evangelicals angry at Roe v Wade by merging religion and politics, and appealing to gun owners as well. The war on drugs was specifically begun to disenfranchise black communities and the “New Left” anti-war hippies.

So the Democrats, whose previously successful New Deal coalition had been splintered through circumstances I’ve discussed before, had no overarching strategy of their own for electoral success. They got decimated in the 1972, 1980 and 1984 elections as the Republicans managed to assemble a new, more popular platform among voters. Losing confidence in traditional left-wing policies, they shifted right too in order to meet in the new middle and try to appeal to everyone while abandoning their traditional base. This was especially true under Bill Clinton’s “third way” strategy, with the idea being to triangulate the electorate and cast as wide of a net as possible. Over time, as Republicans grew bolder and less willing to compromise, Democrats continued to pivot to the new middle that was subsequently created, and so the overton window shifted and left-wing principles were forfeited.

If you need more convincing, consider how in the ‘70s the Democrats had a candidate who was pro Universal Basic Income, decriminalization of drugs, single payer healthcare and LGBT rights. Most of those positions have never been embraced by nominated Democratic candidates ever again. Watch Mondale and Dukakis’ convention speeches where they openly praise Reagan (!) and make a point to list all the ways they’ve amended their policies to be more like him. Watch the debates from each cycle and make note of how the Democrats adopt the talking points of the Republicans from the previous cycle (like “war on drugs,” “tough on crime,”) and how they always disavow the term “liberal” whenever the Republicans throw it at them like it were an insult. This isn’t spin, the speeches and debates are out there in their entirety for you to watch on your own, and I’ve already written summaries of the highlights elsewhere on my blog.

We can even put aside arcane history lessons and just consider the facts of the present. Are the Democrats Marxist? No. Despite what you hear on FOX, they’re not advocating the seizure of privately owned infrastructure to be controlled by labor unions or a vanguard party on behalf of workers. Are they mutualist/distributist? No. I’ll bet 90% of the Democratic bigwigs don’t even know those terms exist, much less what they entail. Are they pro unions? Not since the ’70s. I’ve yet to see any mainstream Democrat encourage unionization and/or strikes. Are they welfare capitalist? Not unless you count a halfhearted whimper as they go along voting against SNAP or anything more than a token show of opposition when Mitch McConnell blocks the new stimulus checks. Are they proposing pro worker reforms like more sick days, parental leave and labor reps on the board of directors for corporations? No. Are they talking about a post working world via Universal Basic Income in conjunction with automation? With the exception of fringe candidate Andrew Yang, that’s also a no.

So, in terms of the economic axis, the current incarnation of the Democratic Party is not left-wing in any meaningful sense of the word. In terms of other important social issues, they lack the conviction to adopt important reforms which, by now, a majority of Americans support, like medicare for all and legal weed. The last Democratic president was just as pro war as Bush, expanding our operations into 7 countries, breaking Libya as bad as Bush broke Iraq and droning people regardless of innocent casualties. Obama could have curtailed NSA surveillance and told the DEA to stop going after cannabis by himself using executive orders. He could have used the bully pulpit to decry the PATRIOT Act and Citizens United ruling to encourage protests and a groundswell of backlash against them, but he didn’t. For better or worse, he gave us the Republican healthcare plan from the ’90s and it was called “progressive” by our supposedly “liberal media.” (They’re so left-wing they’re all owned by six conglomerates.)

Now let’s combine the past and the present. Compare the policies of Huey Long, FDR, McGovern and even Adlai Stevenson against the policies of Hillary, Obama and Biden. Now consider that even Republican presidents of the previous generation like Eisenhower and Nixon were willing to work outside the private sector, like with the highway system and EPA, respectively Ask yourself what, if anything, really makes Obama, Hillary or Biden anymore left-wing than last generation’s Republicans. Would any of those three have seemed out of place at a ’50s or ’60s RNC (minus their halfhearted support of gay rights after it was already popular)? The parties have undeniably shifted–to the right–when our current supposed liberal saviors aren’t so different from past Republicans and our current Republicans are outright fascists and white supremacists who want to roll gay rights and abortion access back to the ’70s.

If we look outside our own bubble in America for a minute, we’d also notice that other countries have long since fixed problems we’re still quibbling about with no end in sight. No conservative party in the rest of the developed world would dare touch their respective universal healthcare plans because they’re so popular it would be political suicide. Universal healthcare is popular in America too, but not among the health insurance lobby so it’s a non-starter even to the supposed “party of the working man” Democrats. By any logical analysis of the data: past, present and worldwide, America is a far-right country without effective left-wing resistance. Every article I’ve seen discussing this bizarre notion that the Democrats are “far left” always focuses solely on social wedge issues, and the voters have lived so long in a world where neoliberal economics are unchallenged they’ve forgotten there used to be more to “leftism” than just “isn’t a total asshole to minorities.”

The Headman Flag, used by an unknown regiment during the Revolutionary War. Named in honor of Sergeant Headman, who kept and preserved it after the war.

The End of Compromise

Under normal circumstances, I am a huge proponent of compromise and incrementalism. As I’ve said earlier, extremism in any direction is unstable and not in keeping with the reality that complex systems require some degree of balance. Democracy literally can’t function if any faction is too obstinate to meet the other in good faith. Unfortunately, these are not ordinary times, and for better or worse the modern Republican party has shown that it is no longer willing to regard the Democrats as worthy of basic respect. I have listed several examples already, and for the record this inflexible brinkmanship predates Trump–it goes back at least to the ’90s when Newt Gingrich controlled the House. (I’ve also seen several publications cite the recent crackdown on pork barrel legislation as another contributing factor, since there’s less to incentivize an individual politician to go against the party-line vote without it.) It has trickled into the unelected political pundits who no longer build their message on a coherent ideology but rather “owning the libtards!” / “librul tears!”

Democrats always cave in to the Republicans instead of holding their ground. From Obama promising to be a bipartisan president while Mitch McConnell vowed not to give him an inch to Biden still promising he can “work with Republicans” in 2020. That kind of appeasement is exactly how the overton window has slide so far right that Biden and Hillary are considered left-wing and we never make any headway even in power. This is why we are constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils, why both parties are crony capitalists. I’ve seen this attitude time and again, where so-called Democrats are unwilling to even try to fight for real change in this country out of fear that the Republicans won’t like it. There’s this attitude that centrism* is the only philosophy that’s “realistic” without anyone offering a shred of proof why bland ideas alone can win. Why don’t the Democrats just not promise anything with that line of thinking? Why not let the Republicans write our platform for us, since apparently, they alone should dictate policy.

*Note that when I say “centrism” in this context, I’m referring to the artificial, and dangerously lopsided center that has formed after decades of the overton window sliding to the right. Besides everything else I’ve mentioned, I largely blame the media for this phenomenon. Nobody who talks about bombing another country or rolling in the national guard to Minneapolis is ever asked how much it will cost. Yet anytime anyone suggests we fix the healthcare system or roads suddenly it’s “where’s the money gonna come from!?” “how are you gonna pay for that!?” “that’s not fiscally responsible!”

If anyone reading this shares such sentiments, then ask yourself why you think Democrats can’t win campaigning on positions that are inherently popular with the American people. Is it because you believe the current electoral system favors rural voters, and therefore Republicans? Well, now you know why I feel we need to prioritize election reform before anything else. But also, consider then that electoral coalitions are not set in stone. The Democrats can and must shift our electoral coalition to scoop up single issue voters and/or those disaffected with the current GOP platform. This is exactly what Nixon did via the Southern Strategy I mentioned; he saw a niche the Democrats had abandoned and he seized it. We can do the same thing with the research to spot an opportunity as well as the marketing to rebrand ourselves to those voters. Just as an example, if we drop anti-gun rhetoric (which for better or worse, is largely unpopular with a majority of Americans) then that previous Republican bloc can be split in half if not fully converted, and the advantage it used to give them is neutralized.

Also, remember that historically, the exciting dark horse candidates are usually the ones who win it for the DNC. Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama are good examples–nobody saw them coming and they rose to prominence by virtue of their charisma and/or touching on exactly what the electorate wanted at exactly that time. I’m personally not a big fan of any of their policies, so don’t take this as an endorsing their ideas as a winning strategy. My point is merely that the DNC is always lying when it shows obvious favoritism to a dull as dishwater, “nothing will fundamentally change” candidate who “can work with Republicans.” Traditionally, it’s the boring, tired, centrists whose “turn” it is that tend to lose–Hillary, Mondale, Gore, Kerry. If Biden bucks the trend it’s only because Trump is uniquely terrible and the economy is as weak as it’s ever been. In my experience as a layman fan of American history, my experience is that since the advent of mass media like the radio, TV and internet, the most charismatic candidate in the general always wins.

So, if Democrats and/or left-leaning voters are smart enough to apply these lessons, we can still win in spite of the disadvantage the electoral college and first past the post systems create. We will also need to stay focused on state and local elections to spearhead the arduous but necessary change from first past the post to range voting. And once we get power, we need to understand that this isn’t a friendly disagreement among respectful peers anymore. For better or worse, the Republicans have changed the rules and turned politics into a life or death struggle to survive for many disadvantaged Americans. We need to stop playing nice with people who have proven time and again they’re ready and willing to stomp on our throat the minute we show vulnerability.

Flag of the Bucks of Massachusetts, the only regiment in the Revolutionary War comprised of Black Freemen

1 Comment

  1. Interesting and different political analysis. The big difference in your few from what I read everywhere else i9 what you see as a drift to the right by democrats while everywhere else I read about a drift to the left by Republican’s. Either way you make a good point that now they are so similar we need a true opposition party. It would be nice to see a party for limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty. The Libertarians sort of fill that role but still have not made a impact on the political system. Maybe it is just that the American people no longer care about freedom or limiting government power and so both parties reflect the view of most modern Americans. A luke- warm moderate or centralist position afraid of both socialism and capitalism, and fearful of anarchy and authoritarianism. Too afraid to take a real stand for either side? The fear of the other has polarized the public to the extent that there is no willingness to look at the big picture and make the compromises necessary to improve things for everyone without considering ideology. Maybe the parties just represent the ignorance and fear of the electorate. If so education seems to be the solution. But this would require more open mindedness thoughtfulness than most today have. Another well written and thoughtful essay by Cassandra.

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