Democrats generally think of themselves as the progressive voice in American politics. But what does this mean? In light of the recent election, we need to give serious thought to how to put the party back on course. It is not just a matter of choosing who will lead us. Some soul searching is in order.
Traditionally the progressive movement in the US has fought the polarization of wealth and supported trade unions, standing with the working class against capitalists who enriched themselves at their expense. In the 19th Century the rallying points were abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and prohibition. The civil rights movement was another powerful progressive cause.
But when people use the word “progressive” today to describe a candidate what comes most quickly to many people’s minds is a quite different phenomenon, that I call cultural progressivism.
For many, support for “women’s right to choose” has become a litmus test for being progressive. The progressive democrats in Rhode Island, for example, list abortion rights and gun control as their two top issues. Gender related causes centring around homosexuality and transsexual rights are also prominent. Same-sex marriage has aroused powerful emotions in large numbers of people.
All too often the intensity of people’s feelings about pelvic issues has given them increasing prominence at the expense of the political and economic left. If the Democratic party wants to become an effective political force for good, it needs to distance itself from the cultural left, pay attention to the needs of non-elite whites, and make alliance with religious progressives.
Religious faith has traditionally been a powerful motivation for the call for social justice. Martin Luther King was a minister and his version of social gospel Protestantism drew heavily upon the Hebrew prophets in their burning condemnation of injustice, oppression of the poor and vulnerable and the hypocrisy of the rich. And King’s Christian commitment to found our society on justice and charity appealed to the churches. The black churches were one of the most important forces in the civil rights movement. And in our day Pope Francis provides a religious progressive voice, adapted to our contemporary situation and including reverence and concern for the Earth – our common home.
Cultural progressives, however, have set us on a collision course with all the major religions. As shown in the recent election, the rainbow coalition could not mount a winning campaign. Spurning an invitation to address white Catholics at Notre Dame (against Bill’s advice by the way), Clinton focused her campaign on people of colour, women, and LGBTQ organizations, and was sandbagged by three major things.
First, the idea that all women would rally around a woman for president because she was a woman was laid to rest decisively. Women without college degrees went for Trump (62 percent to 34 percent), and she barely even won white women with college degrees with 51 percent.
When you think about it, women are half the population. Why should we all think alike? The idea that we should seems to me and many women I know as an insult to our intelligence and right to make up our own minds on issues. In fact, women who value what they think to be distinctively feminine and central to their identity as women, will react with deeper hostility to a woman whose views fly in the face of what we value than we would to a man with the same views.
Second, all non-elite voters reacted very negatively to her and voted for Trump because she was perceived to be an elitist who held ordinary working class people (especially men) in contempt. That people of colour found Trump too much to stomach is not surprising, but any Democrat would have performed as well or better with them than did Clinton. The early New Left with which I was involved in Madison back in the mid-Sixties appealed to me in large part because of its confidence (as set forth in the Port Huron Statement) in the capacity of ordinary working people to participate in decision making both in the economy and in politics.
I will never forget our jubilation when the Teamsters refused to cross the picket line of the striking teaching assistants. Just why the left has become so elitist is something with multiple and complicated causes that are connected with the gender agenda they have embraced. The idea that we can rise above atavistic feelings ranging from fear of invasion of women’s spaces by men calling themselves women, to a desire for grandchildren (and the sort of marriage that produces them) is a fantasy of the educated elite.
Third, she created a well-founded perception that, in pursuit of the gender agenda, she was prepared to persecute traditional forms of religion. As a result religiously minded voters voted for Trump in larger numbers than they voted for the younger Bush or for Romney, both of whom were much more pious than is Trump. Her commitment to defending even partial birth abortions repelled even some moderate pro-choice people.
In short, to pick up the pieces the Democrats need to distance themselves (I identify myself as either an Independent or as a pro-life Democrat) from the cultural left and get back to basics.
I don’t want to be read as advocating the suppression of the cultural left. But we cannot let them drive those who disagree with them out of the party or hold valuable social programs hostage to their agenda.
Not every program aimed at women’s health needs to provide for abortion. For example, decent prenatal nutrition and medical care for all women is something on which we could and should all unite. The current contenders for leadership have ceded too much ground to the cultural left. We need fresh blood and fresh ideas.
Democrats for Life of America has launched a campaign to elect “whole life Democrats” that could be useful in thinking through a potentially very attractive alternative to the mess we have now.