Progressivism is about deep introspection

By Hollie Russon Gilman

Over the past year I have continually assessed what it means to be a young progressive and whether or not this title aptly suits me. Perhaps second-year syndrome includes a restless desire to do something. The friends who were comfortable with video games and discussions of the Phaedrus suddenly host conferences, brown bags, lectures, and rallies. All in the name of a grandiose purpose to add that “real life” dimension to our academic experience. For me this has been characterized through my involvement with progressive organizations on campus.

What does progressive mean anyway? It’s about finding a new dialogue. We need a new way to talk about youth civic participation. I believe we need a rejuvenation of ideas, and this begins with people believing that activism still matters. Yet, does this actually mean anything? Through the year I have been struggling with two competing visions of myself. On the one hand is the girl who loves big government and believes that social problems can be fixed with a lot of money and ingenuity such as the New Deal or the Great Society. Ideas and politics matter and are our best vehicles for change.

However, if I believe that government can solve problems, then I must be willing to accept the realities when an administration uses its federal powers in ways I believe to be deleterious to our society. Then perhaps it is the active involvement of citizens that foments change—“everyday” people who organize and speak out. Or maybe it was due to the unrest and protests of the 1960s, which is the reason for legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Because of my struggling identity within these two, I have met opposition from all sides. I keep on comparing the idealized notion of my college self—the girl I envisioned planning mass protests and locked in the Admin building— to the reality of a girl who still believes the system can be an effective mechanism for change. Then I wonder about the most haunting concept of all: is my generation’s progressive moment centered on an educated involvement with mainstream society? Is my behavior an affectation of going to the University of Chicago?

Maybe it is none of the above. Maybe my experience working on the Kerry campaign left me inspired yet distraught. Maybe it’s due to living in a very progressive, open-minded urban area surrounded by a diverse group of people, opinions, and beliefs at all times. Perhaps the biggest problem is the label of progressive or the idea of labels in general. Labels only reify preexisting conditions and divides that I find counter-productive. Even when I say, “I surround myself with a diversity of beliefs,” I am furthering a dialogue of the “other.”

I yearn for a debate about ideas and policy initiatives, not about the clothes people wear, the people they hang out with, or their overt partisanship. And yet I often find myself sinking to the lowest common dominator and only disappointing myself in the end. As I prepare for a summer in D.C. I do not want to be a vapid politco or a disenchanted activist. I want to be something else entirely. I want to be in a place where progressivism is not a stigma or a dirty word, but a way of looking toward the future. I believe that leaders do matter and that tomorrow must be better than today. It may start and end with the same place: the communal experience.

The only thing I’ve learned for certain after this year is that the relationships we form while following our passions are what sustain us. It is these relationships that enable the support and inspiration which are necessary for all people. It starts with finding people who share your belief and then, in a rather Cartesian way, abandoning them and finding those who dislike, disagree, and perhaps even abhor you, your views, or maybe even see so much of themselves in you it scares them. And then, perhaps, this leads only back to the beginning when you have changed—as, presumably, have those around you—and you reach a level of comfort where you do not fear offending anyone because you are surrounded by people who share your vision. And at this moment of complete comfort is when you must start the process of self-discovery and discomfort again.