The progressive dilemma

The progressive dilemma

- in Weekly Briefing


To govern or fight?

The year is 2019. President Rand Paul is preparing to implement a new federal statute that calls for the construction of a multi-billion dollar, two-thousand mile-long, 15-foot fence on the U.S.-Mexico border that will feature machine-gun-toting guards posted in observation towers every 200 yards. The monstrous new edifice – which has come to be called “Paul’s Wall” by proponents and opponents alike – is the source of enormous controversy and ongoing court challenges by immigrant groups, civil libertarians and environmentalists. It has been loudly condemned by the United Nations.

Now, however, in the fall of the year, it’s crunch time. A movement is afoot in progressive circles to block funding for the new wall at all costs. Democrats, who recently won back a narrow majority in the House during the 2018 elections but control only a minority in the Senate, are being urged in some circles to do whatever it takes in order to stop the wall – including shutting down the government and throwing the fragile world economy into a profound crisis by causing a national default.

New House Speaker Xavier Becerra of California, who ascended from the Number Three slot to leadership of House Democrats after the retirement of Nancy Pelosi, is especially torn about the proper response. Economic advisors assure him that default will lead to swift and disastrous consequences for average Americans – especially his own low and moderate income constituents – and likely provoke global instability and widespread violence. But the wall is enormously unpopular with much of the Democratic base and especially Hispanic-Americans like himself. Many important voices are describing it as a “make or break” moment in American history.

What to do?

“Nuclear” options

This little scenario may sound like a Kafkaesque bad dream – and let’s hope to God it is – but, as you have no doubt quickly discerned, it also bears some real similarities to the recent drama that gripped the American government.

And while this specific crisis will never actually come to pass if there is a shred of justice left in the universe, it is all but certain that something of enormous, “life and death” importance to progressives will find its way onto the national agenda in years to come. At some point, conservatives will push some fundamental issue – some bedrock principle for the liberal base –into the policy sausage grinder and threaten its future.

And, at that moment, the question will be: How far should progressives go? Should they risk economic chaos? Should they threaten state-by-state “nullification” or even secession?

This may sound like a bit of extreme rumination, but the hard truth is that American politics have changed in recent years. Some tactics that were largely unthinkable for an extended period in our history – big, basic power-plays that we long dismissed as the stuff of banana republics and newly-emerging African states (things like challenging the legitimacy of elected officials and threatening a national economic crisis to resist a duly-enacted law) – are back on the table.

After decades of what can only be described as respectful and consensus-oriented – even polite – politics, American conservatives have taken off the gloves like never before. Fueled by seemingly unlimited hordes of cash from an array of hard-right corporate oligarchs and the irrational but still genuine fears of the aging and soon-to-be minority Anglo population, the right is playing a take-no-prisoners brand of hardball.

And make no mistake, this is not just “politics as usual” as the apologists in the conservative think tanks would have you believe. Whether it’s perfecting gerrymandering in unprecedented ways, waging round-the-clock, 365-day-a-year attack ads against disfavored politicians, holding “academic” discussions about the feasibility of states exiting the union, helping to flood the nation with weapons, shredding nonprofit regulations and campaign finance laws or, literally, holding the world economy hostage in an attempt to repeal a duly enacted and Supreme Court-certified law, the right has dramatically escalated the political battles of our time to new and potentially dangerous levels.

This new, win-at-all-costs reality is in effect at all levels of government. As local commentator Gary Pearce noted the other day, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has even taken political patronage – an issue that he and his allies have long railed against with some justification – to new heights.

Just win, baby?

So, what do progressives say and do in response to this new reality? Should they fight fire with fire or, as so often seems to have been the case in recent years, put city, state and country ahead of politics and play the role of responsible grown-ups?

Proponents of both views make a strong case.

For those championing a harder line, it’s clear that accommodation and compromise have gotten progressives precious little. As these observers watch more and more of the hard-fought economic gains of the 20th Century rolled back and repealed, they see scant advantage in playing nice. “Look at the New Deal and Great Society eras,” they argue. “It was only when people took to the streets and embraced genuinely left positions that any progress at all was forged.”

These people see the Obama presidency as a lost opportunity and rue the fact that the President has so seldom attempted, in the tradition of both Roosevelts, to confront the nation’s “malefactors of great wealth.” “Hell, even when he’s cozying up to Wall Street, they’re going to call him a socialist; the least he could do is occasionally put up a real fight,” goes the logic.

For those in favor of a more restrained approach, however, hard-line confrontation is a fool’s errand. “Like it or not, the right has vast resources and a large and motivated base,” goes this argument. “President Clinton proved that it makes much more sense to appeal to the middle and win slow-but-steady progress as demographic change gradually transforms the nation for the better. If he hadn’t wasted so much energy and political capital on his absurd personal problems and thereby handed the reins to George W. Bush, the nation might now be in the early stages of a new, golden age.”

Going forward

So, where do you come down on this debate? Especially here in North Carolina – a closely divided state in which progressives have both the burden and luxury of reassessing who they are and what they stand for as they contemplate an inevitable ascent to power at some point – this is a discussion that needs to take place.

Over the coming months, we at NC Policy Watch will be working to spur this conversation – in our commentaries, on our websites and social media sites, in the mainstream news media, at our events and wherever else caring and thoughtful people converge. We look forward to this discussion and hope you will consider being a part of it by providing your input and feedback.