The Progressive Problem: Is Purity For Losers?

David Leonhardt says the left has a problem. They just can’t stop losing.

The biggest lesson is simply this: The American left doesn’t care enough about winning.

It’s an old problem, one that has long undermined left-wing movements in this country. They have often prioritized purity over victory. They wouldn’t necessarily put it these terms, but they have chosen to lose on their terms rather than win with compromise.

He’s certainly got a point, that what they call a “progressive” agenda is so absolute that it tolerates no discussion, question or challenge. And as Leonhardt notes, many people generally approve of much of the agenda.

Immigration? Most Americans want more of it. Abortion? This is a pro-choice country. Fracking? People now understand its downsides. Strict gun control? Affirmative action? A wealth tax? Free college? Medicare for all? Widely available marijuana? Americans want it all, activists claim.

But many do not, or more precisely, are not absolute in their support.

They often do so by pointing to polls with favorably worded, intricate questions — and by ignoring evidence to the contrary. Affirmative action, for example, typically loses ballot initiatives. Polls show that most Americans favor some abortion restrictions and oppose the elimination of private health insurance.

The thing is, progressive activists are right about public opinion on some of these issues. Most Americans do favor higher taxes on the rich, marijuana legalization and additional gun control. But too many progressives aren’t doing an honest analysis of the politics. They are instead committing what the journalist Matthew Yglesias has called “the pundit fallacy.” They are conflating their own opinions with smart political advice. They are choosing to believe what they want to believe.

But this misses a point about the progressive left, that it not merely promotes different approaches to problem solving, but approaches its solutions based upon ideological assumptions that are inviolate. If identity politics is correct, then white people must sacrifice for black people, men must sacrifice for women, straights must sacrifice for gays, and everybody must sacrifice for transgender people. And if identity politics is incorrect, then there is no justification for any of it and it all falls apart.

Leonhardt’s solution is progressive pragmatism.

By designing campaign strategies for the America they want, rather than the one that exists, progressives have done a favor to their political opponents. They have refused to make tactical retreats, which is why they keep losing.

Can there be a “new and improved” Bernie Sanders who supports capitalism? Would anyone believe it? Would it be true or just an obvious ploy to pander to the middle to get elected, whereupon the socialist would emerge to do what he believes should be done?

To the practical politician, tempering one’s platform, moderating one’s views, trying to find the sweet spot where one can push an agenda in a way that accomplishes positive change without pushing beyond the point of political acceptability and functional tenability, would be a smart tactical approach. But that’s got nothing to do with those crying for transformational change, for a fundamental reinvention of our economic system, or for the majority to become subservient to the minority because of some deep sense of guilt and shame for past offenses.

There is no such thing as a “practical” revolution. Much as Leonhardt is right that the packaging is designed to fail, there was no other branding that stood a chance. Without half a nation paying for freebies for the other half, Bernie would have no agenda. And those who support this agenda refuse to admit that it’s just because they want what he’s handing out. People who can’t afford health care want free health care. People who have chronic illness want someone to pay for their chronic illness. And people with huge college debt want debt relief. It’s self-interest. It’s good for them, even if it comes at someone else’s expense.

The problem missed by Leonhardt is that the supporters of the “free for me” agenda justify it by believing in an ideological right to it, whether because they’re part of an oppressed group (whether or not they have ever been oppressed) or by wrapping it up in empty platitudes about it being a “right” compelled by “human dignity.” By stridently claiming it as their due, the people who will be asked to sacrifice for it are pushed to respond that they worked for it, suffered for it, sacrificed for it, already. In reply, they’re called names and cast as evil for their unwillingness to accede to the deep feelings of those who want to take the food out of their children’s mouths.

The practical and tactical approach that Leonhardt suggests isn’t a bad idea at all, except for the fact that it would be a total lie, would contradict their fundamental justification for their agenda and would make their base of “free for me” sad people angry. Acknowledging that there are many aspects of their agenda that have broad support isn’t sufficient, since their ideology is absolute. If a woman has bodily autonomy, then she has it from the day she conceives to the day the baby comes out and can abort any damn time she chooses. If abortion is murder, then it’s murder from conception to birth. But there is a middle ground, that abortion up to the point of fetal viability is a tenable compromise.

The problem with the progressive left isn’t that it’s incapable of branding itself in a way that’s acceptable to most Americans, but that without purity, it wouldn’t be the progressive left. It would be old school liberalism. And as the left reminds us constantly, liberals are the problem, the new conservatives, the real evil standing in the way of their revolution. There’s no way to repackage the left that overcomes this reality, that rejects their entire ideology in favor of one that wants to help all Americans rather than their chosen few.

The progressive left aren’t losers because they’re too stuck on purity. Without purity, they have no reason to exist. But Americans aren’t buying what they’re selling, no matter how they try to package it. The lie would be trying to pretend they were merely liberals, willing to compromise, willing to face the irrationality of their ideology, willing to find solutions everyone can live with.

17 thoughts on “The Progressive Problem: Is Purity For Losers?

  1. Denverite

    Hear. Hear. Purity based thinking must always fail.

    Some wisdom from Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism:

    “[P]roblems connected with the uncertainty of the human factor must force the Utopianist … to try to control the human factor by institutional means, and to extend his programme so as to embrace not only the transformation of society according to the plan, but also the transformation of man…. It seems to escape the well meaning Utopianist that this program implies an admission of failure even before he launches it. For it substitutes for his demand that we build a new society … the demand that we ‘mould’ men and women to fit into his new society. This, clearly, removes any possibility of testing the success or failure of the new society.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Nor will the poor or middle class. They worked hard for what they’ve got. Not everyone inherits fortunes. Some people are constrained to work for it, and they may take umbrage at other people deciding to give it away for them.

    2. Doug Fawcett

      The top 1% of income-earners in the US earned 21% of the income in the latest available data… and paid 38.5% of the income taxes. They’re already paying a larger share than they get. (Source: IRS statistics, 2017)

      The bottom 50% of income-earners, that’s half the country, paid 3% of the income taxes. It’s not about the rich being willing to allow you to vote away their wealth; empirically, they are, to a considerable extent. It’s about everyone, rich and poor, being unwilling to allow progressives to vote away the entire economy and the country.

      1. SHG Post author

        You know the funny thing about hard working poor people? They want the opportunity to not be poor, and the last thing they want is to have that opportunity taken from them so they will spend the rest of their lives poor with no hope of success.

        1. Doug Fawcett

          Believe me, I know that feeling. Like you, I’ve been there myself. Rich or poor, it’s good to have money.

        2. JAV

          And as you mentioned before, if that hard work, and maybe a touch of luck takes you out of poverty, you might think you deserve to keep much of what was earned.

          It’s one of those things people aren’t buying from Progressives; it’s okay to tax the rich, not just because they have the money, but because they did not really earn it.

          1. SHG Post author

            Bezos started in a garage. Did he earn it? He came up with a better mousetrap, so yeah, he did.

  2. GBarry

    There is no question that the current “progressive left” gets themselves tangled up in identity politics and purity battles. However, to focus on that is to miss the larger point the underlies the appeal of the new left – the complaint is that our economic and political systems are largely the creation of a few, for their benefit. You complain about people wanting “free stuff”. The issue is that our tax dollars go to a lot of “free stuff” that benefit a small number of very wealthy people, and not to issues that would benefit a larger number of not-so-wealthy people. And classic liberalism, in this country, has failed to address these issues, hence the rise of the progressive left (ineffective as it may currently be).

    The current progressive left doesn’t trust old school liberalism – they view it as inherently compromised, bought off by policies that paid lip service to liberal ideals, yet produced no changes to the system as a whole. Which, of course, leads to concerns over purity (though the self-aggrandizing nature of purity battles can’t be dismissed, either). As a practical matter, the progressive left has moved the liberal left in its direction – it’s possible that the less doctrinaire progressives will feel that this is enough. We’ll see over the next few election cycles how it all plays out – after all, a democracy guarantees the government we deserve, if not necessarily the one we want or need 🙂

    1. SHG Post author

      Saying vapid crap doesn’t make it so, no matter how many words you murder in the process.

      The issue is that our tax dollars go to a lot of “free stuff” that benefit a small number of very wealthy people, and not to issues that would benefit a larger number of not-so-wealthy people.

      Prove it.

      1. GBarry

        “Saying vapid crap doesn’t make it so, no matter how many words you murder in the process.” Never have truer words been spoken about the internet. Prove it? On the internet? To what standard – your satisfaction? Not bloody likely – I have a day job, after all. And I am unlikely to convince you of anything you don’t already believe via a few sentences in a text box. In any event, the point is that given that some people who are not you believe it, and as a result they reject the compromise of which you speak, because they view that compromise as favoring a chosen few rather than all Americans. While that hardline viewpoint is unsuccessful at the ballot box, they have moved the center of mass of the democratic party left, so they may still have some influence even if they remain unwilling to compromise. We’ll find out shortly if that is the case.

        1. SHG Post author

          Some people (who are not me) believe it, indeed, and they have moved the center mass of the Dem Party left. Some people eat Tide Pods.

        2. Skink

          I agree with you in every way. Sadly, I must bar you from the Hotel pool and lounge. There’s a possibility you might pee in the pool and sniffle in the lounge. In the current environment, both are public hazards. So too is reproduction, but I have no influence with that. I hope you understand.

Comments are closed.