Should progressives play just as mean and nasty as the ideologues on the other side?
Maybe it's because progressives are soft and naïve. Maybe it's because they're a frequently divided and disparate movement with a long and varied list of distinct priorities. Maybe it's just because they cling to a shred of human decency and a belief that love and tolerance rather than wealth and greed and meanness ought to be the underpinnings of human society and governance. Maybe it's some combination of all three.
Whatever the reason, progressives are almost always thrown for a loop these days when they confront the cold reality of what the right wing is willing to do and say in order obtain, exercise and hold on to power. Like an abused family member who is stunned into a dumfounded silence when he or she experiences just how low their seemingly civilized spouse or parent is willing to sink in order to exert power and control, modern progressives are almost always slow to respond to the right wing's acts of political hardball.
Whether it's the post 9/11 deceit of the Bush-Cheney administration, the shameless and systematic looting of the national economy by fabulously wealthy individuals and corporations over the last couple of decades in the name of "free markets," or the stunning and seemingly insatiable greed of the modern health insurance industry, progressives have frequently responded with a kind of sheep-like passivity. It's as if they just can't believe the other side would really be doing what they're doing – on purpose, with genuine malice aforethought.
"Come on, they wouldn't really do that," goes the thinking. "This is the United States of America, not some backwater banana republic."
Oh yes they would
But, of course, the truth of the matter is that, with the complete takeover of the modern conservative movement by social and economic fundamentalists, there is very little that the right won't do or say. As with so many other groups of true believers throughout history who have seen the world in "black and white," "either-or," terms, for the modern American right, the ends justify the means.
Think about it for a minute. Look at what's going on in North Carolina of late – especially in Wake County where a new school board majority is moving to dismantle a painstakingly constructed system with scarcely a nod to openness or process, and where a group of conservative county commissioners has shown a willingness to compromise the physical comfort and wellbeing of their fellow commission members in order to consolidate power.
Consider the following inflammatory and dishonest language from a letter authored by one of the chief shouters for the local conservative movement as he attempts to call true believers to action next week for a Wake County School Board meeting.
"The results of the election and the resulting agenda of the freedom loving members of the board is (sic) not sitting well with radical union organizers.
With them the education of students does not come first, politics and payoffs are more important.
Clearly union organizers will stop at nothing to protect the status quo at the expense of our children, taxpayers and the will of the voters….
You will need to arrive early, because the disruptive union organizers and special interests will certainly try to fill every seat to keep your voice from being heard. Let me be clear, union organizers will fight our new school board at every turn and you must join the fight now so the noisy union bosses and special interests do not win the day."
"The question is, will the overwhelming majority of voters who oppose forced bussing (sic), wasteful spending and forcing unwilling parents into year-rounds schools be listened to? Or will union organizers, special interests and defenders of the status quo stop the change voters demanded."
This outrageous, absurd (and poorly spelled) letter comes from the group, Americans for Prosperity, which of course is one of the key rabblerousing arms of the advocacy empire of right-wing millionaire activist, former state House Republican leader (and school board campaign architect), Art Pope.
Ends justifying the means
In many ways, it should come as no particular surprise that we should see such over-the-top, ends-justify-the-means behaviors. If you (like the denizens of the Pope Empire) really believed that your side has unearthed the inerrant Word when it comes to how our economy should be organized or the supposed inherent evil of most public institutions, you too might feel inclined to do and say whatever it takes to win – even if it means denying bathroom and food breaks to elderly elected officials or spreading malicious lies about those who would dare to stand in the way of your plans.
You might also feel inclined to engage in the kind of one-way, hyper-partisan hypocrisy that so characterizes the far right in North Carolina – a movement in which Republican Party leaders like Pope himself and former Pope-Civitas Institute boss Jack Hawke shuttle back and forth with regularity between nonprofit, supposedly nonpartisan, think tanks and partisan campaign work and in which Democratic politicians (sorry, that would be "Democrat politicians" in the officially permitted conservative terminology) are the only ones ever subjected to serious criticism (much less, investigations and exposés) from the supposedly nonpartisan think tanks.
Compare and contrast this with the frequent and pointed criticisms leveled at Democratic officials by progressive nonprofits and other activists. Consider the virtual pages of N.C. Policy Watch, where our columnists, bloggers and cartoonist skewer Democrats on a regular basis. Look at the scores of commentaries in which Chris Fitzsimon has lambasted policies and actions of Democratic officials for lack of openness. Look at Democratic activist, Joe Sinsheimer, who has made a name for himself exposing and publicly attacking prominent members of his own party.
This is the kind of honest behavior and genuine analysis that would never be permitted in the monolithic right-wing movement of this state. When it comes to Mike Easley or Jim Black, the Pope Empire will be only too happy to turn its "opinion journalists" loose to dig up and sensationalize whatever dirt it can find or manufacture. When it comes to bullies like Wake County schools boss Ron Margiotta or any other Republican official, however, any abuses of process will be ignored or dismissed as necessary under the circumstances.
So, what should progressives do and say in response? Should they work to become just as mean and nasty? Should nonprofit think tanks like Policy Watch adopt the same level of thinly veiled partisanship as the competition?
The answer is "yes" and "no."
No, progressives don't need to transform the employees of their think tanks and nonprofits into fundamentalist, partisan hacks or adopt the right's ends-justify-the-means approach to every issue. If the heart of your philosophy is based on the pursuit of truth, it would be a grave mistake to start basing your actions on ignoring it. Over time, you'll become just as twisted as the other side.
On the other hand, yes, progressives should become, if not mean and nasty, a hell of a lot tougher. Truth telling need not always be polite. For too long the right has gotten away with murder in North Carolina by simply out-shouting progressives and stunning them with The Big Lie. Progressives have grown so used to hearing absurd whoppers from the other side that they often forget to speak up and remind everyone else – the news media, their friends and neighbors – of the truth.
And one need look no further than the Wake County school board or county commissioners to see what happens when progressives passively allow ends-justify-the-means ideologues to seize power.