If 21st Century Progressives led the 19th Century Abolition Movement, we’d still have slavery, but we’d have limited it to 40 hour work weeks, and we’d be so proud of the progress we’d made.
In earlier eras of U.S. history, progressives believed they could fight injustice and move society forward, and they did so. Today however, many progressives have lost faith in their ability to affect significant change. Many are content simply to tinker with problems, whether the issue is getting living wages for work, ending poverty, or removing toxins from our food supply.
For example, consider universal health care. All progressives claim to support this, but many aren’t willing to fight for it — not because they believe it’s bad policy, but because they believe it is “politically unrealistic.” When our proposed Minnesota Health Plan is offered as a way to deliver universal health care, some dismiss it as legislation that can’t happen for decades. They talk about universal health care but offer and support proposals that are mere band-aids.
It is instructive to look back to the past. Despite the reality that men were the only ones who held office and the only ones who could vote, suffragettes fought and won the seemingly impossible goal of gaining the right to vote. In the 1960s civil rights activists believed they could get rid of segregation laws and get equal rights under the law. When told they were expecting change to occur too rapidly, Martin Luther King wrote a book explaining, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
Today, however, regardless of the speed of other changes in society, many progressives have lost hope. For them, such a book would now be titled, “Why We Need to be Pragmatic and Accept Token Change.”
This timidity can be explained by decades of defeat at the hands of right wing politicians like Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, which caused many progressives to retreat from a “Politics of Principle” to a supposed “Politics of Pragmatism” that is not only lacking in courage, but also has been highly ineffective.
Under the politics of principle, the progressive movement would fight for the goal, using pragmatic politics only to figure out how to promote the message.
But with the current politics of misguided pragmatism, some progressives calculate what is politically acceptable, and then determine what they will stand for. For example, using this “pragmatism,” President Obama decided to push for health insurance for more instead of health care for all.
One cannot totally fault the President for failing to push for comprehensive reform. He shied away from principle-based reform because he knows that members of Congress working on health reform take big campaign contributions from the health insurance lobby and other powerful interests. He knows that they are afraid of nasty campaign attacks and believe they need the big money to win reelection.
“Pragmatically,” Democrats in Washington are pushing for “universal” health care that isn’t universal. They are pushing for reforms that cost more, not less, and policies that focus more on their sense of pragmatism than on real public health and prevention.
It’s time for progressives to have the courage of our convictions. If we claim to believe in universal health care, we need to fight for it. The MN Health Plan — which covers everyone for all their medical needs, and costs less than we are spending now — is on the table. Those who are not willing to take on the powerful insurance lobby, ought to be honest and admit that reelection and other priorities matter more.
Refusing to fight for it because it is “not politically realistic” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, dismissing it as something that will take decades to pass means leaving the problem to the next generation.
Whether the issue is living wages for workers, environmental protection, or LGBT equality, many progressives have lost courage. They fight to raise the minimum wage by fifty cents for every dollar that inflation takes away. Even in victory, we accomplish little.
It is time to move beyond fear and stand up for the principles we say we believe in. Minnesotans deserve nothing less.