Reclaiming my Progressivism

Is it really far left if everyone is for it?

President Donald Trump has been very angry recently. Apparently he decided to watch the Democratic Convention and is unhappy with what he is seeing. Although, before that he was watching the Fox News and unhappy with what he was seeing and after that he was watching … I dunno … children at play? Possibly a fluffy kitten? And was unhappy with what he was seeing. While this is an amusing prospect for any rational American, his strategy for re-election — if we can reasonably use any of that phraseology — does involve an interesting mode of attack.

In a tweet issued on August 19, 2020 at 3:33 PM. Trump encouraged a boycott of an American company because apparently they’ve banned his political hats. Given Trump’s oft contested grasp on reality precisely what Goodyear Tires did or did not do to incur his wrath is somewhat immaterial. Additionally, it would appear that the entire issue was, in fact, based on a misunderstanding.

But there are two important points to note about this tweet.

Firstly, regardless of how often President Trump or members of his family or administration engages in such behavior it ranges from unethical to illegal for a government official to use their office to advertise for a given company. Probably this particular incident doesn’t expressly violate the laws and ethical rules in place prohibiting government employees from using their position to enrich themselves, but it’s not a good look.

But secondly and arguably more importantly, Trump seems obsessed with the idea of what he calls “Radical Left Democrats.” And this is not something he alone seems to care about. Certainly, and particularly with this wording the “radical left,” serves as a bogeyman for some conservative voters and members of the Republican Party, but terms like the “far-left,” or “progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” have dominated the media landscape as a shorthand for divisiveness among liberal voters since at least 2016. The Republican strategy seems to be to use the specter of the “Radical Left,” to solidify its own base whilst telling young Democrats or liberal voters that their concerns are being ignored by their Party. It’s worth questioning what exactly the term means and whether it signals actual divisiveness particularly among Democrats.

For all the repetitions of terms like, “establishment Democrat,” “centrist,” “far-left,” and “progressive,” the conflict between the purported factions of the Democratic Party are largely manufactured. There may be angry rhetoric on social media sites and there are certainly provocateurs some strategic and some genuine, but ultimately when one examines the ideology of self-proclaimed “progressives” and the “establishment Democrats,” with whom they are contrasted there is not much light between their views.

There is even an argument to be made that the new progressive wave is in many ways more conservative than the Democrats currently being lambasted as “centrist,” or “establishment.”

The origin of the apparent conflict is that political ideology tends to be multi-factorial. Very few voters are truly so-called single-issue voters and therefore quantifying ideology requires a statistically multidimensional approach. This is nothing new. In 1953 Hans Eysenck published “Primary social attitudes: a comparison of attitude patterns in England, Germany, and Sweden,” in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. This paper and the book which followed it proposed that ideology and political positions within it could be represented in two dimensions including “radicalism versus conservatism,” and “tough-mindedness versus tender-mindedness.” There are deeply problematic (read: racist) aspects to much of Eysenck’s work including both “Primary social attitudes,” and The Psychology of Politics (1954), but the point is well taken that ideology is best represented in multiple dimensions even if there are better means of arriving at what those dimensions should be.

Eysenck continues to be cited, but later social scientists and political scientists have debated whether ideology is best conceived in one dimension, two dimensions, or nine or more dimensions. There is also debate on exactly which of these dimensions is relevant and what their order of importance should be. A rather heated scholarly debate on the relationship between political ideology and dogmatism, authoritarianism, and ideological rigidity took place in the 2003 Psychological Bulletin between Jost et al., authors of “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” and Greenberg and Jonas, authors of the self-explanatorily titled, “Psychological Motives and Political Orientation — the Left, the Right, and the Rigid: Comment on Jost et al. (2003).”

Where this scholarly debate becomes relevant to the practice of politics is the relative valuation of ideology. Ideally, there would be absolutely no ethical issues with any political position, but the practice of democracy demonstrates that there cannot be a separation of the political and the personal. Lives are impacted by the practice of politics and politics would not be important if they did not have direct influence — for better or worse — on people’s lives. The conflict — if there is any — within the Democratic Party then is not really a question of absolute political position of any given policy or politician, but instead which dimension or spectrum of political ideology is most consequential on people’s lives.

It is therefore not difficult to imagine why the economic dimension of political ideology became the most important for the “progressive wing,” and why other Democrats might consider other positions more important or more defining. Prior to 2016 and particularly among Republicans fiscal conservatism — as opposed to social conservatism — was a defining factor in how a politician might behave legislatively. For Democrats while there certainly was a trend away from fiscal conservatism this was not as defining for liberal voters as it was for conservative voters. Simply stated, liberals are less likely than conservatives to base political ideology on economic theory. However, the economic dimension is considerably easier to plot with clear delineated positions ranging from far right capitalism to far left communism. When compared to a spectrum on hierarchy versus egalitarianism or big versus small government, it is considerably easier for a voter to describe their economic position particularly relative to other voters or politicians.

However, 2016 was not the first time the term “progressive” was used and it better describes civil rights icons like John Lewis, Corretta Scott King, and Martin Luther King Jr. than economic purists. While the new progressive movement has since taken on the liberal values of earlier progressives who defined their liberalism more multi-dimensionally, the original thesis of the new progressive movement was that economic equality would wipe out racial and gender inequality. Unfortunately, that idea ignored, among other things, inherited wealth and institutional bias. For example, it might be nice to wipe out student loan debt and make a university education free, but the major beneficiaries of such a policy would be largely white and middle class due to the legacy of red-lining and how feeder schools work. Major oversights to one side, when such issues are discussed most self-avowed new progressives are very open and receptive to the more nuanced and multi-dimensional liberalism of the so-called, “establishment Democrats.”

After all, it is such establishment Democrats who took the party of Woodrow Wilson and turned it into the Party of Barack Obama.

As the debate between Jost et al. and Greenberg and Jonas shows, when identity becomes tied to a political position there is a risk for ideological rigidity or dogmatic behavior. In a democracy where compromise is usually necessary and often beneficial ideological rigidity is not useful and tends to have an opposite effect than intended. This is not to say that personal clarity and conviction are not excellent traits, but there is a difference between negotiating for a policy because it is a good policy and doing so to express allegiance to a power structure.

Ideological rigidity in negotiation means a smaller win-set or window where mutual agreements would be considered a “win.” Far from forcing the other party to simply cave to your demands the far more likely scenario is that they will walk or cut you out of the negotiation. It can be described as “letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.” In elections this can play out and has played out in third party candidates sapping just enough support off of the more “moderate” candidate on their side to ensure a victory for the candidate furthest from their views.

Returning to President Trump, this divide and conquer strategy seems to be his aim. This strategy — or more correctly the Democrats failure to effectively counter it — is a large part of why Donald Trump currently occupies the office of the President (despite losing the popular vote by historic margins). In 2016 there were multiple third party candidates as well as an effort to siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 2020, much to Trump’s consternation, the Democratic Party seems to have learned its lesson. Despite attempts to stir up the sort of conflicts that sell papers during an election season and with one or two exceptions, the Democratic Party seems to be speaking with a unified voice. The Democratic Party is the United States’ major liberal Party and while gradations of liberalism certainly exist and will be negotiated over time, for most liberal voters they will be immaterial. Particularly in the face of the existential threat to the United States that a second term for President Trump poses, the rational liberal voter will not be immediately concerned with the exact shade of liberalism represented by Joe Biden or Kamala Harris.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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