Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Progressivism = Patriotism

Unless our conception of patriotism is progressive, it cannot hope to embody the real affection and the real interest of the nation.
--Jane Addams,
Newer Ideal of Peace
On a recent weekend morning, I was looking for TIVO’s MLB broadcast schedule. My TV’s remote was surfing through a melee of channels when I discovered an unexpected ‘wave’ on C-SPAN’s Book TV. An incredibly articulate writer, Eric Liu, was nimbly fielding questions from an informed audience which had obviously done its homework. I watched appreciatively as Liu struck all of the right tones and hit all of the right notes. I decided to dig deeper.

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer have co-authored (2007) The True Patriot, a lean and slick red volume which pleads the cause of a new Progressive patriotism as an antidote and antitoxin to the apostasy – some dare call it treason – of the Busheney regime. The way I read it, The True Patriot encourages liberals to become Progressives, about which I have written previously. Liu and Hanauer also show, in their hard-bound pamphlet, how a patriotic progressivism can gain adherents among centrists and righties. This pamphlet can be read on line. In the excerpts that follow, all of the emphasis appears in the original, except for my editing which appears in red. This

We are still sickened at how the moment after September 11 was squandered: a moment when the world was with us, utterly and when all Americans were yearning to be part of something greater than ourselves. We abhor the way political conversation has, ever since, settled back into a predictable pattern of cheap polarization, staged conflicts and false choices. We reject the idea that politics is about the promotion of one’s narrow self-interest and the underlying myth that millions of little acts of selfishness add up some how to a healthy community. We believe that in these cynical times – especially in these times – there should be a higher call to country first.

Readers should know that we are Progressive and Democrats ….. for too long, the Democratic Party has lacked a compelling story than can capture the moral and political imagination of most Americans. Too many of our progressive liberal friends are content either to carp from the sidelines, to wait for Republican acts of self-destruction, or to play tactical word games that position progressive liberal stances palatably while failing to articulate an overarching vision of the original purposes of politics and policy.
Patriotism, as an idea, has been co-opted over the course of a generation by right-wingers who use the flag not as a symbol of transcendent national unity, but as a sectarian cudgel against hippies, Franco-philes, free-lovers and tree-huggers who constitute their caricature of the American left. The American left, for its part, has been so beaten down by this star-spangled caricature, that it has largely ceded the very notion of patriotism to the right.
We were cheered by the 2006 elections … but we do not kid ourselves: that election was a negative referendum on a failed administration. In order to lead with a true mandate, and to earn enduring and affirmative public trust, progressives have to articulate a coherent moral framework that is compelling to most Americans and within which policy positions fit.

The authors’ research led them to re-examine the core roots of Americana: in our philosophy, politics, linguistics, religion, demographics, culture and history. Original documents and writings of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert King are reproduced, along with iconic photography. The authors were intent on their pamphlet being firmly grounded in American soil.

We freely admit that there is not one original idea in this pamphlet. We simply captured the essence of what America’s civic leaders and heroes have been saying for over 200 years. It was through our year of research that we realized that America doesn’t need a new politics, it simply needs to connect with its original patriotic traditions.

Those traditions are grounded in civic virtue, in the simple precept of country over self. They rest on a notion of public morality, which is a very different notion of morality than the one that dominates contemporary elections. Ultimately, we seek a revival of a civil religion: a patriotism every American can be proud of ….. we simply love this country. We want to make it safer for people to say that – and we want to make it harder too. No one should feel sheepish about professing patriotism, but no one should be able to get away with mere profession …..

We are neutral. As we said, we are active Progressives citizens. We hold many liberal beliefs. But we aren’t blind either. Today, only one in five voters self-identifies as “liberal”. Yet a deeper probe into the values of voters reveals that a great majority would embrace the patriotic virtues we lay out in this document – virtues, as you will see, that we believe to be inherently progressive. In short, we believe our particular conception of patriotism can bring people back into the Progressive fold and create a last electoral majority.

Finally, patriotism is the dominant frame for Progressivism because it overrides the Libertarian’s notion of absolute individual liberty.

….. the only thing in America that trumps freedom talk is patriotism: an appeal not to self-oriented choice, but to shared pride in what our freedom has enabled, pride in being a part of a world-changing experiment.

In recent months, the common good has emerged as another conceptual frame for Progressives. We love talk of the common good. It arises from exactly the same set of principles we believe in, and it reminds us that rugged individualism is no way to get a barn built. But while the common good rhetoric is necessary, it is not sufficient. We just don’t think it packs the same punch as patriotism. Pound for pound, and appeal to pride is more powerful than the idea of sharing. We want to take that fact of human nature and exploit it – for the common good.

….. this country was invented in the name of progress, justice, and betterment of self and society …. Love of country has, no doubt, been invoked to justify many acts of barbarism in human history. But love of this country – an embrace of what America ideally embodies – means love of universal ideals of human rights and aspirations.

The authors emphasize that even in this world of globalism and international corporations, nation-states are still the major actors on the world – especially the United States:

….. ours is the only nation designed to mesh cultures together and create new heartier hybrids. No place better embodies, and no nation has more leverage to propagate, the very qualities of an enlightened global community.

Here’s how the book is organized:

The structure of New Patriotism is:
  • A simple moral code: a distillation of what we believe to be a true patriotism

  • A manifesto that puts the code in context, describing the situation we Americans find ourselves in today, and offering our alternative, a proudly progressive conception that all Americans can embrace

  • A “Ten-Principle Plan, “ illustrating the public policy choices that flow from our core values – but, crucially, emphasizing that leaders should lead first with deep principal rather than specific points of policy

  • A model speech … to use or adopt to spark debate about patriotism and public morality.

  • A set of challenges and questions for the reader.
The devil is in the details, I know, but I’ll skip the cold cuts of this book to get to the real beef. The authors, in their speech template, both congratulate and criticize liberals and conservatives. Too many of my best friends are liberals, so I’ll skip their share of demerits and concentrate on the load on conservatives’ shoulders:

… here is where so many of you have been wrong:
  • You’ve been wrong to assume the market is always right.

  • You’ve been wrong to assert that what you fear must be evil.

  • You’ve been wrong to leave so many disenfranchised and unfavored people on the sidelines of public life, and off the roster of our national team.

  • You’ve been wrong to assert that citizens working together to solve shared problems – in a word, government – is itself the problem.
There are too many people calling themselves conservatives today who are preaching selfishness, narrowness, hatefulness, and fear; who have replaced the word of God with the hand of the market. That is not you. That is not what you want to protect and preserve. You are a conservative for good reasons: because there is no substitute for tradition and its timeless truths. Because, if you cut the cord to our past, then it gets awfully hard to make sense of the presence or the future. And yet the market, and the market ethic of naked selfishness, does cut that cord everyday.

Liu’s and Hanauer’s template speech ends on a note on the responsibilities of citizenship to insist on Progressive framing and imaging:

Our first duty as citizens is to be honest with ourselves and to distrust those who preach only what we want to hear: who tell us that America will be better off if we treat taxation as confiscation; if our resources are more deeply exploited; if our public infrastructure and institutions more neglected; if our children are made to pay later for today’s profligate spending; if our own views and faiths are used to suppress the views and faiths of others.

We know, in our hearts, that such a path leads to slow-motion ruin.

Now we have to imagine a better path:
  • Picture it: a politician who truly puts country above party or self – and is rewarded for it by the voters.

  • Picture it: an impassioned Great Awakening that sends us and all our neighbors into a revival of civil participation – in our clubs, churches and communities.

  • Picture it: young people who want to serve the community not because it looks good on a college application but because it flows from the values and ethics their parents and teachers have imbued them with.

  • Picture it: Americans of every income bracket supporting policies that will pull up those in the brackets below.

  • Picture it: the kind of mobilization of human capital that we saw in World War II, but this tie, leaving no groups out in the cold.

  • Picture it: a new American ethic that says the economy exists to serve us, not vice-versa.

  • Picture it: other nations, large and small, racing to imitate America – and the world being better off for it.

  • Picture it: history books that describe these times – our moment – as the “Pivot Generation,” the era when things could have gone bad and instead turned around, enduringly, for the good.
To the jaundiced eye of the average internet prowler and blogo-spheric lurker, these homilies and platitudes might fail to impress. I would remind them that context is everything. For too long, movement conservatism has manipulated and policed our society’s images, frames and language. Lethargic liberalism has been an unwitting accomplice. It’s time a more energetic and infused Progressivism to recognize, rediscover and re-invigorate the crucial images, frames, and words from our own past. That’s the surest way to restore American democracy and re-start the 21st century.