May 25, 2007

Progressives unite—and divide

"Nobody still believes that government bureaucracy can solve a problem better than private citizens." My friend told me this my first year. I, the young, idealistic progressive who spent the summer working for the Kerry/Edwards campaign, retorted, “Of course the government can fix problems.” That summer my room was lined with posters: “A change is going to come.” I was not only serving the Kool-Aid but also mixing it. I was right out of the school of New-Deal, government-can-save liberalism. A Kennedy Democrat, a believer in interventionist government—a government that actively makes things better for its citizen: A New Deal, a Great Society.

I was ready for change, and then November 2004 came around. I apparently cried for a week straight after Bush won again—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Change was not going to come, at least not this time around. So I tried to find productive outlets for my frustrations: I wrote heavily for the MAROON. I joined the College Democrats. I worked for Senator Clinton for two summers. However, my activities were never enough. I increasingly felt powerless against the deterioration of our civil liberties. I was increasingly incensed about a brutalizing war in Iraq, a conservative Supreme Court, and an inept administration replete with scandal after scandal.

Somehow, panning progressive activities became an outlet for my mounting frustrations. Of course, this too unleashed the Weberian “paradox of consequences.” The more I worked within the “progressive community,” on and off campus, the more I found tensions, discord, and anything but harmony. Get 15 progressives in a room and get 15 different opinions—if you’re lucky. I realized the problems I faced with “progressivism” on campus were the same problems I was going to face in the “real world.” How can we get people who are typically aligned along parochial interests to unite? How can we do this without imposing norms? For instance, not everyone may take my “big government saves the day” stance. As I get older, I am increasingly concerned about maintaining an oikos (private realm) as distinct from a polis (public realm). So while I want the government to provide services, I do not want the government anywhere near my bedroom.

Moral of the story: it’s really difficult. This difficulty is the reason why progressives cannot match conservatives with 15-second sound bites and witty bumper stickers (though we do have a few of our own). Its why we have dialogue, debate, and, of course, dissonance. These are all fundamental parts of why I am a progressive—and yet the source of much chagrin. Inviting a big speaker like James Carville is far from the panacea. However, the Progressive Gala (at least in theory) was always meant to be the beginning of a much larger dialogue. Amidst discussions of New Initiatives and ordering food, this basic core idea of the Progressive Gala has been lost. The Gala was my idea to bring people together in a new way that forced progressives to reconcile our paradoxes in a way that would of course lead to only my dialogue, debate, and disunity—I expect no less.