Progressives need to grow the hell up.
What they need to outgrow is a certain prominent feature I have noticed in the political psychology of progressivism, especially – though certainly not exclusively – religiously grounded / motivated progressivism. Progressives, both religious and secular, entertain a certain, usually more or less implicit, nostalgia for perfection ... the perfect political candidate in particular. Sometimes they think they actually find such a candidate ... Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, etc. ... and become over-the-top enthusiastic for the candidacy of that person. Sometimes that candidate ends up being elected. But then -- as is bound to happen -- the progressive favorite, once in office, fails in addressing some issue especially close to the hearts of progressives (closing Gitmo) or compromises about something equally critical (single-payer health insurance) or – this is a real killer in terms of progressives’ view of the paragon’s ideological virginity – talk to and hobnob with the opposition ... etc. ... or the progressive icon may even fail at some point in his or her election campaign, e.g., Barack Obama's distancing himself from the remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. At that point, the progressive paragon’s erstwhile supporters discover that their icon has, sometimes through political necessity, sometimes through blind circumstance, sometimes -- yes, let's acknowledge it -- the cupidity normal for mortal human beings, (what progressives at least see as) feet of clay. Quick! Somebody interrupt Game of Thrones with this apocalyptic newsflash: They are not perfect, after all.
Furthermore, this lack of perfection need not result from any kind of venality or moral turpitude or deficit of principle. That may or may not be the case. Rather, the imperfection, the ostensible failure, may often be marred by the routine rough-and-tumble of compromise, the mutual back-scratching that is always a part of often-sub-rosa negotiations, and the usual rubber-chicken-and-bad-jokes dialectic of the DC cocktail circuit. There is even a technical term for this process. It is called politics. The attitude seems to be straight out of II Cor. 6:17: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate ... and touch not the unclean thing" (KJV). Hence both the fatal flaw and the sustaining paradox of progressivism, as well as the reason the Tea Party, never hesitant to sully its hands by actually getting candidates elected, was so much more politically effective than the Occupy movement, which always seemed much more concerned with overturning police cars and having sex in Zucotti Park: progressives have a tendency to expect their politicians to be above politics.
So, once polluted by the realities of retail politics, the erstwhile angel becomes, in many progressives' eyes, a fallen angel. Hence yet another instance of the New Testament in action in even secular progressivism, in this case, an instance of James 2:10: "Whoever violates [the Mosaic law] in one point is guilty of [violating] all" or Jesus' remark to the effect that merely contemplating adultery is morally tantamount to actually committing the act. (Question: in that latter case, what does one have to lose by physical consummation? But never mind ... ) That scorched-earth ethic is one reason true, consistent progressives are so ineffectual: they demand -- even as they deny doing so -- a level of moral and ideological perfection mere humans are simply incapable of. And religiously grounded and motivated progressives sometimes take that propensity one step farther and apparently deny forgiveness to the person who has disappointed them, e.g. Prof. Cornel West's October, 2014, critique of President Obama. God may be relied upon to forgive. Religiously motivated progressives ... well ... not so much.
The latest manifestation of this tendency is the determination among some progressives -- how many is not certain -- to either simply sit out the election or even (we may hope) in a few cases, if you can feature this, to vote for Donald Trump rather than to support Hillary Clinton. I agree with a recent Robert Reich post that Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for the political system we have, and that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for the political system we need. (I'm pretty sure that is a fair paraphrase of Sec. Reich's position.) Now, to be sure, I support Bernie Sanders myself. Also, to be sure, I am as wary of Sec. Clinton as everyone else, and have the same reservations about her essential honesty. That latter caution became even more pronounced recently when the Office of the Inspector General issued its de facto reprimand of Mrs. Clinton in the matter of her use of, personal e-mail server for the processing and storing of classified State Department e-mails.
But where I fundamentally part company with my progressive siblings -- for such I still consider them, their callowness and naivete notwithstanding -- concerns the even more fundamental issue of the nature and criticality of this particular presidential election. If this election turned on differences in particular, discrete policies -- immigration, climate change, income inequality, TPP, etc., etc. -- Sec. Clinton's fast-and-loose shenanigans with classified State Department e-mails would, in my mind no less than the minds of others, be immediately and categorically disqualifying, quite arguably even indictment-worthy -- as may well turn out yet to be the case. There was a time in my professional life when, as a civilian consultant to the Defense Department, the group that I managed and I depended critically upon the integrity and confidentiality of State Department communications with host governments and security agencies for our security, electronic and even physical, when traveling to foreign countries, especially NATO members, and working with their defense ministries on classified projects. That was at the height of the Cold War. The stakes were high. (Hence, also, my lack of empathy for Bradley -- now Chelsea -- Manning, though I regard the Snowden case as qualitatively different, since my understanding is that the latter did not involve the divulging of the actual contents of diplomatic / security communications.) So if this were a normal election, implicating "normal" issues of policy, I would see Sec. Clinton as, yes, presidential timber -- but rotten timber. But ...
... this is not -- I say again, not -- a normal election. And that for two reasons: (1) the Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, is -- let's call things by their correct names, shall we? -- a rather explicitly avowed fascist, who (2) either does not understand the US Constitution or who understands it and does not care. What is at stake in this election is not a difference as to policy regarding the most effective way to address climate change, or even whether climate change exists as a human-made phenomenon. What is at stake in this election is not the best way to address income inequality. What is at stake in this election is not how extensively the US should involve itself in confronting the threat of ISIS / ISIL in the Middle East. All those are important issues that, in a normal presidential election cycle, would deservedly dominate public debate and discourse. What is at stake in this election is not even Sec. Clinton's integrity as a public official, a consideration that would be decisive under virtually any other circumstances. But -- to repeat -- this is not a normal election. What is at stake in this election, rather, is nothing less than the future, arguably even the continued existence, of liberal (in the classical sense), latitudinarian, constitutional government. For the first time since the first presidential Inauguration of George Washington in 1788, the Nation faces a non-negligible possibility that the next person sworn in as President and Commander-in-Chief will be someone who does not believe in, and in many critical ways, is hostile to, the very Constitution he would be sworn to uphold. In public statements, Trump has vowed to shut down mosques in violation of the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment; deny citizenship to children born "feet dry" on American soil in direct violation of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment; violate that same Amendment by deporting 11 million (Trump's own number) undocumented immigrants by denying them due process, which that Amendment guarantees to all "persons," i.e., not just "citizens"; and to take the Nation back to the late 1790s -- the Sedition Act of 1798, in particular -- by reinstating the crime of "seditious libel," according to which media and individuals can be criminally prosecuted for criticizing the government, verbally or in writing.
Given what is at stake, a protest vote consisting of either de facto voting for Trump by default, or of voting for Trump explicitly in order to protest the candidacy of Sec. Clinton over Sen Sanders -- a protest vote that, in a normal election, would be quite defensible -- would constitute nothing less than an irresponsible betrayal of the American constitutional tradition at least as egregious as the proposed policies of Donald Trump. As such, a protest vote would be -- as most progressives apparently have never stopped to realize -- an equally egregious and irresponsible betrayal of Sen. Sanders' own principles, policies, and proposals. I have never met Sen. Sanders, but based on his public statements and his Senate career, I gravely doubt that he would support a protest vote that lent de facto support to the candidacy of a fascist demagogue who stands for everything inimical to Sen. Sanders' values.
The usual rejoinder to Donald Trump's rhetoric, of course, is some form of "Aw, he's just foolin' wit-cha! He doesn't really mean it. It's just rhetoric." Two responses: (a) one of the classical mistakes most often made by people of good will who are accustomed to living in a classical liberal, constitutionally governed polity is to react, upon meeting a megalomaniacal demagogue, by saying "He's just a buffoon, a court jester ... and he doesn't really mean it". And he may not mean it -- until he does; (b) if it is "only rhetoric," "only talk," then so is, e.g., President Washington's farewell speech, the Gettysburg Address, Mr. Lincoln's Second Inaugural, etc. Rhetoric means something. Words count. It's "just rhetoric"? Well, by that standard, so was Barack Obama's repudiation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- and so was Wright's "damn America" sermon in the first place. I wonder how many people -- how many progressives -- would be as blasé if Donald Trump talked, not about building a fence, but invading Mexico to stop illegal immigration. Would that be "just rhetoric"?
I would certainly agree that things have come to a sorry pass, politically, when a presidential election degenerates into a choice between which of two about-equally-distasteful candidates is least repugnant, and one is confronted with the prospect of voting for the lesser of two evils ... or perhaps the least evil of two lessers. My choice will be determined by which candidate poses the lesser threat to the US Constitution. Everything else -- and I do mean everything else -- is negotiable. And therein, I think, lies the greatest challenge to progressives in terms of "grow[ing] the hell up": this is not the best of all possible worlds; sometimes it isn't even a good world; sometimes it's just the world, and you have to grit your teeth, square your jaw, and hope to do better next time. Under such circumstances, committing seppuku by simply opting out is just a juvenile Byronic temper tantrum. To not choose is to choose.
As Tom Paine said on the eve of the American Revolution "These are the times that try [our] souls". I make the much more modest claim that this is a time that tries our maturity. Or -- a more contemporary example -- there are the immortal words of that great 20th-century philosopher Mick Jagger: "You can't always get what you want, / But if you try, sometimes / You might just find / You get what you need".
James R. Cowles
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