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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.

Learning to Love the USA

Editor's note: For Thursday morning's post, the contestants were asked to revisit one of their earlier posts and respond to a commenter.

Back on Monday, I wrote a piece defending the homegrown ancestry of American progressivism, which led commentator WalterSobchak2 to ask:

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

I didn't have much time to think it through, so I answered along these lines: "I don't know if it's necessary, but progressivism is American, like it or not, and if they want to convince Americans, they'd better emphasize that." Since the Monday post covered the first point (progressivism is as American as apple pie), today I'm going to focus on why progressives need to "speak American."

Last October, I attended a talk by William Galston as part of the Center for American Progress' "Progressivism on Tap" series, and he said something that's stuck with me ever since. He explained that--à la Rumsfeld--you "go into politics with the culture you have, not the one you wish you had...the United States is not Sweden." The upshot, as I take it, is that progressives have to approach their fellow-citizens as they are. I've been thinking about that ever since, and I'm fairly sure he's right.

Some progressives spend a lot of time asking each other, "What's the matter with the U.S.A.?" They rarely mean the Upper West Side. They've spent plenty of time maligning Middle America (call it "the red states," call it "real America," whatever you like) in recent years, and that is a serious error. Progressives dismiss broad swathes of the country as ignorant do themselves a serious disservice. When they insult whole regions of the United States, they get mistaken for hating America, and people stop listening.

So if we don't emphasize our American roots, we'll lose arguments AND elections. Barack Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention is still the best recent attempt to include everyone in a progressive vision for the country. If we want to bring the country forward, we have to speak in terms we all hold dear. In other words, we have to speak in American terms--and the Founding is a good place to start.

It's not only about electoral strategy: it's about being a better democracy. Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest (Middle) Americans, spent more time thinking about the great American political experiment than almost anyone else.  In his First Inaugural, he argued,

A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.

If progressivism is about invigorating and defending American democratic life, it must learn to appeal to the whole country. Democracy is about debate, not dismissal. 

Now don't get me wrong. Though I'm a proud Middle American (from Kalamazoo, Michigan), I won't make blanket excuses for a whole region, just as progressives should be careful to indict it wholesale. Middle America has its "sins," as great (Middle) American poet Carl Sandburg called them. Ultimately, no single state, region, political movement, or ideology has a monopoly on righteousness or sinning.

So there you go, Walter. I'm with Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in." I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's as progressive a credo as you're gonna find anywhere. 

Read more entries from this round. See what the judges think. And cast your vote on Friday.

By Conor Williams  |  October 21, 2010; 8:57 AM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge , response to readers
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Conor strings together a glob of high-minded verbiage here, but in the final analysis, his seeming olive branch to non-progressives is really a Trojan horse.

What I read isn't so much a desire to relate to non-progressives or tailor progressive goals to what the majority of Americans really want. No, what I think Conor's really saying is that progressives need to be smarter and slicker with their propaganda, the better to lull their fellow Americans to sleep until progressives can quietly consolidate their power.

Like many progressives, Conor throws around words like "democracy" and "debate" but shows no real interest in what non-progressives have to say. What he really wants is to sell the rest of America a bill of goods by cloaking progressive ambitions in a package of red, white and blue.

Sorry, Conor, but in emphasizing style over substance, you've done exactly what you recommended against doing: you "insult(ed) whole regions of the United States."

See, we non-progressives can read your playbooks, too, and we can't help noticing that your entire post mirrors the writings of Saul Alinsky, especially when he advised radical organizers to speak the language of the middle class.

Alinsky also wrote: "All great leaders invoked 'moral principles' to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of 'freedom.'"


Posted by: UponFurtherReview | October 23, 2010 8:56 AM
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This whole episode makes me queasy.
Nothing worse than a Progressive who is so enamored with himself.
Reminds me of the Nazi's perverse practice of forcing musicians among their victims to play beautiful classical music as they marched them to their certain demise.
Putting a phoney, pleasant veneer on your vile agenda for the country will not really help your cause, you hard hearted Progressives.

Posted by: realitybased1 | October 22, 2010 10:49 AM
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Great conclusion. Republicans should learn from Republican Abraham Lincoln. Today they would oppose him.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 22, 2010 9:58 AM
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Thanks for the comment. Your question was a good one...well worth reconsidering.

That said, I wonder why I can't just agree with everything you're charging and still hold my position (as outlined above). Yes, progressives need to have faith in their convictions. Yes, the Founders weren't perfect (some less perfect than others). I still think progressives will be stronger if they explain their convictions in a way that links it to historical American values. If we're elitist about this...we're not gonna get any traction. Now I'm repeating myself. Time to put the contest on ice and wait for tomorrow's voting returns.



Posted by: conorpwilliams | October 21, 2010 5:19 PM
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I have to agree with Walter. I've been disappointed to see how hostile some other aspiring pundits have been towards their readers. In your case, however, you have treated Walter as a good-faith interlocutor and spared him the disparagement some others have cast on people who took the time to read and consider their writing.

Well done, Dude.

Posted by: jlupfer | October 21, 2010 12:44 PM
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Thanks first of all for writing such a thoughtful answer when we both know there's an easy (and very apropos) way of dismissing anything said by a "Walter Sobchak".

"You're not even wrong, Walter..."

In any case, I thought this was a fine follow-on to your earlier piece, even though I can't say that I agree with you (despite being a fellow transplanted Midwesterner). It almost certainly isn't right or wise for the left to dismiss many Americans as ignorant. However, I think that having the faith of our convictions as progressives ought to mean that we think that our policies can stand or fall on their own merits.

I'm probably a tough guy to convince on this score. Because I study electoral institutions, I've got a pretty dim view of our founding fathers as institutional designers. (I think of them like pre-integration baseball stars - great for the era, but didn't have the best competition - probably would suffer in comparison with modern ballplayers).

I really appreciate your taking the time to address my comment though. Hopefully you'll convince plenty of other progressives (if for no other reason that I'd like for us to win a little more often)!

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 21, 2010 11:19 AM
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