Saturday, February 8, 2014

Progressives Need A Moral Center AND Core Principles

Michael Tomasky,  in his 2002 article 'Dems Fightin' Words' in The American Prospect- zeroed in on why Dems have consistently lost the ability to parry, thrust, fight and RESPOND to the Right wing! And as a result keep losing major policy battles.

Tomasky declared it's because they are too focused on "temperate" or "reasoned" policy discussions!

Tomasky observes that the Dems eschewed political point-making and "hard nosed", no-holds barred political partisanship sometime in the early 70s. They replaced it with discussing fact-based policy points, which appeal to "reason" and "temperance" but do little or nothing for core partisans. The very people Dems need to get out to the polls each mid-term election.

Tomasky reinforced this by noting the Reeps are "unified around a central idea which can be expressed in both positive and negative language: that they are the conservators of liberty and morality, and that liberals are sending the country to hell in overdrive. Whatever Republicans do or don't believe they believe in those two hypotheses. This unity gives them their passion."

In effect, the Repubs KNOW what they are fighting for, the Democrats do not. The Dems, by contrast, are scattered with positions all over the board ….and in between.

Hence, they lack any coherent unified moral position, and their leaders often split – reflecting the same chaos.

Now, George Lakoff has come to pretty much the same conclusion. According to Lakoff, from a January 31 article in the UK Guardian by Zoe Williams:

The progressive mindset is screwing up the world. The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, 'Yes, fracking is fine.' The progressive mindset is saying, 'Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK', when, in fact, they're horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn't know how to describe how horrible they are. There's a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful."

What does he mean by this?  In Communicating Our American Values and Vision, he gives this summary: "Framing is not primarily about politics or political messaging or communication. It is far more fundamental than that: frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. But frames do have an enormous bearing on politics … they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason … For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic."

So, basically, in saying the “progressive mindset is half OK and half awful” he’s asserting that progressives have not forged a coherent, unified mental structure from which to advance their narratives or arguments. Nowhere is this more obvious than the following areas, which also discloses why Dems (supposedly the embodiment of progressive ideals) are so often thrashed on the policy stage, and why they so easily capitulate – as in the horrific December budget deal which gave Reepos almost all they wanted, while taking $23b off the table for our side, essentially leaving the long term unemployed to twist in the wind.

1)     Taxes are of BENEFIT to Society and Increased Taxes are GOOD not BAD!

Instead, too many progressives flee from the T-word, despite the fact it is higher taxes that can support the domestic programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid)  they are supposed to back, as well as allow for mega-projects we need like infrastructure repair.

The must-read article ‘The Next Tax Revolt’ (American Prospect, June, 2009, p. 37) held progressives’ feet to the fire by making them partly responsible for playing into the Reepos ‘no new taxes’ bandwagon.  Part of this is the natural desire to try to protect the lower income quintiles from higher taxes, which leads to gamesmanship – in using the tax code for political leverage. Thus, the author notes:

a platform of no tax increases for the bottom 95 percent can win elections but it reinforces rather than debunks the Right’s fundamental view of the tax question: that public services aren’t worth paying for- and merely suggests getting someone else to pay for them.”

Many of us saw this at the time, which is why we vociferously pleaded for the Bush Tax cuts NOT to be extended, period, for ANYONE- both the high fliers, and the lower tier. The reason is that we knew from several analyses that only getting the wealthy to forego them would not cut the mustard. We needed everyone to sacrifice, since the necessary revenue can’t be found merely by soaking the rich (which also gives the Reepos ammo that the Left always attacks the wealthy)..

But sadly, progressives sabotaged their own cause by arguing for tax hikes only on the richest. Their moral center had thereby been obliterated on the issue because they played right into the Reeps’ mitts.

2)     Environmental Threats Must Be Confronted – Not Dodged!

Thus, to forge a coherent moral center and position there can be no divergence of interest regarding environmental threats.  This leads to a series of elementary actions that can’t be disputed:

-        The Keystone XL pipeline must be mothballed never to arise again

-        Fracking must be cut back given its deleterious effects on  the water supply (especially given how water intensive it is, and 55% is done in the most drought –ravaged states).

-        Carbon taxes, either via front end (e.g. tax on production) or back end (tax on gasoline at the pump) must be implemented to prevent our hitting the 551 gT limit of carbon deposition, which would lead to going over the critical 2C threshold.

-        Deep sea drilling must also be scaled back and much more rigorous regulations must be put into place to prevent a repeat of the BP oil disaster from ever occurring again.

The danger to the moral center here will come-  as it usually does – from unions, objecting to “loss of  jobs”. But they have to be made to see that these jobs are worthless if people later pay a higher cost in untreatable cancers, or disasters that can affect large swaths of population.

3)     Wars Must Never Be Launched Unless the Nation is Truly At Risk

The obvious standard here, is World War II and the threat from the Axis Powers. In other words, if there is no threat comparable to that, we do not ramp up the war machinery nor do we launch or instigate invasions, occupations or even cruise missile attacks- because we understand the consequences of those actions can only lead to more violence.

This is also why none other than Chalmers Johnson noted it was our aggressive policy decisions, including keeping militarized bases in Saudi Arabia, that provoked the “blow back” of 9/11.  In other words, neither Afghanistan or Iraq ought to have been entered into – the first was misplaced, since it was 19 Saudis that were responsible for 9/11, the second was entirely contrived based on flawed WMD information from an Iraqi defector named “curve ball”.
In the judicious application of a coherent liberal ethics no war would be casually conducted by a random presidential edict, or pseudo-doctrine (i.e. 'Bush doctrine'). Instead, we’d have an actual declaration of war by congress. This would give congress the opportunity to exercise its constitutional duty, while imparting moral and ethical authority in rendering a war truly just. In this light, we'd have no more Vietnams, Iraqs, Afghanistans or other adventures of choice, finagled outside the parameters of congressional authority. For too long wars have been waged through the back door  at great financial and moral cost to the U.S.  The Iraq invasion, for example, never would have been allowed had an actual declaration of war been demanded by congress, as opposed to it meekly rolling over for the executive branch.
4)     The National Security state as it is presently configured is inimical to constitutional rights

Thus, based on the Snowden- released files, we need to scale back the intrusiveness because no truly progressive person can defend or justify a mammoth dragnet sweep program that essentially renders everyone guilty. This disrespects the cornerstone of our republic – the 4th amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Thus, no true progressive ought to have been in support of the NSA PRISM, Xkeyscore, Muscular or other programs. If you're a  right wing militarist, pro-security state fetishist, it's understandable you'd hump for security over liberty, but not as a progressive.

5)     Multinationals Must be Checked – Starting with GMO Foods.

Lakoff was quite correct that GMO foods are “horrible” so why is this even an issue for some progressives? You mean because they’ve bought the codswallop that GMOs will “help feed the world”. They need to do more research, and grasp how a tiny bump in larger crops – but which later lead to a range of cancers- is no gain. Not at all.  You’re exchanging 50 million hungry people for 500 million with terrible cancers in 30-40 years. How does that help the overall picture? Oh wait, yes! Immediate gain trumps the future pain! The mantra of Neoliberal capitalism!

In all these cases, Lakoff and others find progressives fracture and divide.  The trope that trying to get them to cohere toward one objective is like "herding cats" is too weak an analogy. This is because progressives inevitably lose their moral voice and center by the incessant divisions. Their mindset becomes “half ok and half awful”.  So why are liberals-progressive losing the political argument. Lakoff again:

Every year, liberalism cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters' values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality.

In other words, the (current)  vision of progressive politics is compromised and weak. Lakoff, according to Williams,  predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that "if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.”

The problem again is: What exactly constitutes a liberal moral philosophy? I have provided some clues in this post, based on how I see a number of significant and challenging policy issues. My stance is that these ought to be criteria or markers around which a genuine and coherent liberal moral philosophy can be forged. Also with the implication that families themselves can’t exist and sustain themselves if their food and water is poisoned, or  the sources of cancer, or if the climate becomes so chaotic,  violent and unendurable that no human individual can survive – far less a family or larger community.

To quote Zoe Williams at the end of her piece:

This is what he believes it would take to refashion the progressive mindset: the abandonment of argument by evidence in favor of argument by moral cause; the unswerving and unembarrassed articulation of what those morals are; the acceptance that there is no "middle" or third way, no such thing as a moderate.

I welcome any input from interested readers on this!

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