What does it mean to be a progressive Democrat today?


What does it mean to be a Democrat let alone a progressive one these days? The question was prompted by my recent op-ed in Minnpost where in response to an argument against the State of Minnesota granting the NFL tax exemptions to host the Super Bowl, one reader wrote that he supported public funding for the stadium along with the tax breaks, and that he was a Democrat and a “fairly far to the left one too.”

Since when does a progressive Democrat support tax subsidies and breaks for billionaires and hugely profitable private companies that generate few jobs for working people and provide entertainment (in person) that only a few can afford? I thought that was what the Republican Party did? With Democrats like this, who needs Republicans.

But the debate over tax breaks for the Vikings stadium and the NFL does prompt a broader debate about what it means to be a Democrat or a progressive these days? It is certainly not good old-fashioned economic liberalism. This is not Bill Clinton liberalism that supported NAFTA and welfare reform and which Mitt Romney once warmly embraced as the kind of Democratic Party politics he liked.

Instead, the progressive politics that appears dead is that of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Teddy Roosevelt. It is about a 21st century version of the Great Society and the New Deal. It is about redistributive politics that seek to raise those at the economic bottom, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and wrestle control of political power in the United States from corporations and plutocrats. It is about the spirit of John Rawls, Michael Harrington, and Dorothy Day and a commitment to believing that the government has an important role in make sure we are a nation that is not one-third ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed, that kids should not go off to school hungry, and that corporations should not have the same rights as people. It is the idea that we help out the least advantaged and most vulnerable first and that the rich have an obligation to help the poor.

What has taken over for Democrat Party politics is warmed over Republicanism–the centrist sort of corporate politics that some GOP once represented but now have abandoned as it races further and further to the right, embracing xenophobia, homophobia, and a market fundamentalism that Social Darwinists would embrace. Oh, and vaccines cause mental retardation and global warming does not exist, at least this is what many current Republicans believe. Even the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln supported civil rights, but not this party–instead it is committed to fine vision that a nineteenth century politician would weep over. But now consider the Democrats.

Start at the top. Obama ran promising change. The reason why so many are disappointed in him is not that he was too far left but that instead he failed to deliver on his lofty promises. At inauguration Obama had a window to change America but he flinched. Carpe diem was not his motto. But in reality, Obama was never a progressive. He ran for president opposing a single payer health insurance plan and instead embraced the Republican plan that Mitt Romney adopted in Massachusetts. Obama was not originally in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and he did not embrace same-sex marriage until public opinion and political necessity dictated he do so.

Obama has deported more individuals than any other president, he supports coal and nuclear power, and his big victory in repealing the Bush era tax cuts came with a reinstating of the payroll tax, imposing on Americans a more regressive and costly tax system than before. Obama also defends the use of drones to kill Americans abroad, and he refuses to make any serious changes in an NSA surveillance program that runs roughshod on the civil liberties of Americans. And in 2008 he took more money in from Wall Street than any presidential candidate in history.

Across the board many Democrats seem confused to their identity. They support public subsidies for downtown ball park stadiums and convention centers ahead of neighborhoods. They defend NSA spying on Americans except when they are spied on. They take little action to address the impact of money in politics and instead beg for money from big donors and PACs. They offer few real substantive ideas regarding how to tackle issues such as the achievement gap and the economic discrimination against women (who still make only 77% of what men make).

Worst of all Democrats lack the guts to fight. Why? Democrats (and one should not confuse the current party with progressivism) believe that they are the caretakers for government. They believe that they need to be responsible and not run the risk of shutting the government down for fear of how it would ruin the economy or hurt people. But conservatives know this and take advantage of the Democrats willingness to blink. But guess what? By blinking the Democrats are screwing over poor people and the economy slowly by giving ground one inch at a time and they seem unable to recapture it. Until Democrats are willing to fight and show conservatives they are willing to shut the government down and hold conservatives responsible they will never win.

What passes for progressive Democratic Party politics seems so bland. Same-sex marriage? Supporting it a decade ago was progressive but now that is mainstream. Opposing NSA spying on Americans? Even Rand Paul does that. No one should be against strengthening anti-bully legislation. This is not progressive politics but just common sense. Yes, raising the minimum wage to an adequate level is good progressive politics, but few talk of living wages these days.

Progressive politics is dead so long as it is married to the current Democrat Party. Progressives need their own TEA Party revolution on the left–one that engineers a new rhetoric and take over of the party. One that is not willing to play it safe and worry that if a few Democrats lose that means the Republicans win. It means a willingness to fight for what you believe in. It also means believing in something worth fighting for.