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You have an opinion, but do you have what it takes to be heard?

Conor Williams
Washington, DC

Conor Williams

I’m working on a PhD in Government at Georgetown, so I’m full of ideals, but my optimism is tempered by experience.

In search of a coherent left

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Conor Williams's earlier post here.

Very little is clear in the American political world right now. What is clear, however, is that our president is: a radical Marxist, a corporate capitalist, a closet fascist, a Kenyan anti-colonialist, a secret Muslim, a white-hating racist, a willing imperialist, a spineless peacenik, and a weak-kneed dictator whose immovable radical convictions are ruining this country.  Worst of all -- he's a progressive! Hide the children! To hear some conservatives tell it, this means he's also a eugenicist who hates the Bible more than anything except for the American Constitution. In this view, progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Jane Addams nearly ruined the nation in the early twentieth century. 

So who were these dastardly evildoers? What did they believe? In the early 1900s, growing American industrialization led to increasingly exploitative market behavior. Progressives argued that the huge changes in modern economic capacity required new kinds of political regulation. Nonetheless, conservatives lined up to defend the free market against progressive legislation making child labor and violent employer suppression of strikes illegal. Progressive attempts to publicly regulate food and workplace safety, to establish maximum labor hours and minimum wages met with similar resistance. If you have adequate ventilation and illumination in your place of employment, if you are permitted some say over your work schedule, blame progressivism. Progressives must also be faulted with supporting women's right to vote, the National Parks system, and the direct election of American senators. 

To put it bluntly, this isn't nihilism, Marxism, socialism or fascism. The truth of the matter is that progressivism is a homegrown political movement. Progressives argue that the ideals of the American Founding should inspire our politics, not the specific institutional contours of the original document. If we are prepared to admit that women deserve the right to vote and African-Americans are full citizens, we should be prepared to accept that the Constitution occasionally needs to be reinterpreted and changed in other ways. Progressivism is about adjusting American democracy to more fully and fairly address political challenges. 

Put simply, progressives ask how American political institutions can be made more just for all citizens.  Right now, this means allowing all citizens of any sexual orientation to serve openly in the military.  It means admitting that all children in the United States deserve an equal chance at receiving an effective public education.  This means defending the American tradition of accepting immigrants as an essential part of our political community.

Progressives believe in holding the United States accountable to its highest promises, not a lowest common denominator.  Like any serious democratic movement, this requires dialogue and debate, not aimless, arbitrary name-calling.  Conservative claims notwithstanding, progressive willingness to engage in serious discussion of policy options has frequently been rewarded with cynicism and even violence. 

So how come so many Americans can't pick the president out of an ideological lineup including Hitler, Stalin and Osama bin Laden?  While Glenn Beck and his ilk are determined to distort Obama's record, he (and all progressives) certainly must share some of the blame.  Instead of emphasizing their populist commitment to American equality, progressives have presented themselves as technocratic problem-solvers.  They've frequently tried to justify controversial new policies on practical grounds, rather than ethical ones.  While cost considerations are extremely important, and now more than ever, that which is cheapest or most efficient is not always the right thing to do.  Progressives need to make a more robust and compelling case for themselves. 

As I've argued elsewhere, like their heirs from a century ago, progressives must respond by refining their project and reinforcing their commitment to a broader, more meaningful democracy.  Above all, this will require more compelling populism and a corresponding grassroots movement which can challenge the Tea Party's hegemony in the media spotlight.

Read more entries from this challenge round. And come back Friday to vote. 

By Conor Williams  |  October 18, 2010; 12:52 PM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge
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Previous: The Democrats' slow spinning curve ball | Next: Do we believe in government?


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This is the Best piece written in the contest, with few even in the ballpark. Thorough discussion of Progressives past, present, and future. Only fault is that it was a bit long for most. Still, truly Great Pundit writing.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 20, 2010 11:45 AM
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This one had me feeling like I was listening to a radio call of a prize fight: a right, a left, another left, a right, a right, a left.

I got lost.

Who won?

Posted by: colonelpanic | October 18, 2010 11:29 PM
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Thanks for your comment. A few thoughts:

1) I'm not sure it's necessary, though I think that it's the truth about progressivism. In this piece I wanted to show that progressives don't hate the Constitution or the Founding, etc.
2) I think that progressives will do better if they argue in terms that are familiar and compelling to most Americans. We have to start where we are as a community, not where we'd like to be.

I'll keep thinking about that, though!


Posted by: conorpwilliams | October 18, 2010 3:35 PM
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Where is Ms. Guyamfi (sp.) when we need her?

FYI, she was one of last year's 10 finalists and had a wonderfully approachable writing style. As I slog through these blog posts, I appreciate more and more how rare that is.

Posted by: MsJS | October 18, 2010 2:50 PM
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Well-argued, but:

Why do you think it's necessary for progressivism to have a grounding in the Founding or that it be "homegrown"?

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 18, 2010 2:40 PM
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