In Defense of Pragmatism in the Progressive Movement

We can have our ideals and our values. But let them be aspirational and forward-looking and willing to embrace those who were brave enough to change and open enough to evolve over time.

There is a dangerous precedent being set in our current political discourse. It is a precedent, in my opinion, which runs counter to everything we hold dear when it comes to a government of, by, and for the people – i.e. a democracy.

That precedent is the aversion to any change except the change that most fits with the ideals of some in the present, wholly detached from the context of the past and the uncertainty of the future; and the disdain for the consensus and compromise often needed to win people over on an issue. Some may know it as litmus testing.

In a sense, extremes on either end of the political spectrum exhibit a certain un-democratic conservatism, whereby the far-right seek to invoke and resurrect the ideals and values of a bygone era in an era comprised of a vastly more diverse electorate; a diverse electorate who all value and hold ideal the common dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - the definitions of which have only broadened to encompass an ever growing reservoir of marginalized, excluded, and new participants of our polity. The embracing of the broader definitions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness bodes ill for politicians, since the far-right will, with nostalgic fervor, punish the politician.

But there is also an ex post facto conservatism, which seeks to fix the ideals and values of the present to the past actions of, particularly, politicians who must respond to their constituents and to the changing times. Past actions which could be deemed as novel or brave for the time and context in which they were made are cast into the contempt of a retroactive conservatism that, in the name of consistency, raises a near absolute bar to any change except change acceptable to some in the current times – thereby throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The immense fear that I have of such an ex post facto conservatism is that, counter to what its intent is, it freezes our political discourse in time. The absolute adherence to a strict standard applied to both the past and present creates a political climate where public servants are afraid to take a step in any direction. It demonizes the context and methods by which our country has progressed, i.e. via small steps and movements toward progress ending in an eventual change.

This is partially attributed, in my opinion, to the willful ignorance of the nitty gritty details and work involved in substantive change and the aggrandizement of the glitz and glamour of the peak moments of historical change. We ignore the years and decades of small steps, the small adaptations, if you will, that then leads to the evolution of a society and the subsequent emergence of a new polity and sense of the American identity. This ignorance lends to the collective impatience within which we fester and the discontent with which judgment is cast upon a body (Congress), essentially severing it in half and drowning it in partisan-induced indecision.

So I caution those of my generation, my fellow Millennials, and to the general electorate, to be wary of our discourse and the insensitivity and the incivility with which we engage others. Faithful liberals and progressives that I call friends have been name-called to death with near slurs such as “neo-liberals” or “faux progressives” or “establishment” and “party-line pushers.” In the current discourse, as heated as it is, we risk casting our present ideals and values of some as almighty, wholly ignoring that not only are we unfairly casting judgment on the hard work of our predecessors, in dealing with their times and realities, but we are also unfairly ignorant that, one day, in the future, our ideals and values will themselves become outdated as we ourselves age and will, perhaps, face judgment for what we did in our time.

We can have our ideals and our values. But let them be aspirational and forward-looking and willing to embrace those who were brave enough to change and open enough to evolve over time.