Playwright George Bernard Shaw reportedly described England and the U.S. as “two countries divided by a common language.” As with many such aphorisms, it’s difficult to pin down exactly who said it first and in what form. The health care debate has highlighted a fact that makes some progressives uncomfortable: we progressives and the Democratic Party are a coalition rather than a unified bloc. We are divided by our common issues, and when we refuse to admit that our discussions can and do get very ugly.

Divided By Our Common Issues

As Ed Kilgore wrote in The New Republic two weeks ago, there is an ideological division among Democrats and, I’d argue, even among progressive Democrats. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald amplified Kilgore’s thesis two days later, focusing on the issue of corporatism. Since then there have been many diaries here on DailyKos exploring the divide over corporatism.

I think it’s a mistake to focus solely on the fault line of corporatism, and in fact focusing on that one issue highlights why we progressives so often overlook our legitimate ideological differences. Because we share many common issues, but we don’t share them identically.

Six progressive issues:

Progressive Issues

This diagram offers six constellations of issues, and I’ll offer some working definitions for purposes of discussion. This list is illustrative rather than exhaustive, and the issues are not ordered by any supposed or suggested priority.

  1. Privilege – Overt discrimination and systemic inequality of opportunity based on race, sex, wealth, sexual orientation, religion, age, and similar issues.
  1. Education – Funding for, access to, teaching methods, and curriculum contents in education, ranging from pre-K through university, and (for many) the lessons we teach in our media.
  1. Civil Liberties – Respect for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and due process of law, as distinct from selective, arbitrary, and/or overreaching government intrusion in our lives.
  1. War – Ending our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also avoiding new conflicts, reducing the dominance of the military over U.S. policy, and the like.
  1. Corporatism – Reducing the dominance of mega-corporations and industry lobbyists over our government and our economy.
  1. Environment – Several issues including climate change, pollution, biodiversity, clean energy, agriculture, and eco-sustainable lifestyles.

A question of priorities:

Each of these issues is a constellation of several specific political questions, and while most progressives generally agree on most of those specific questions, we often disagree on priorities within each of the constellations. For example, we tend to be more sensitive to indices of privilege that work against our own identities, so while I may empathize and care about others’ privilege issues, other privilege issues may not be as salient for me. Conversely, privilege issues that are paramount for me might not be as salient for others.

We may also disagree on the priorities of the constellations themselves. Glenn Greenwald and others have suggested that corporatism is (or should be) progressives’ top priority, but others can reasonably argue that our first priority should be privilege, education, civil liberties, or war, and some would argue that with potentially catastrophic climate change possible within this century, making anything else our first priority is analogous to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Overlaps and distinctions:

Each of those constellations overlaps each of the others. Some political questions touch on two or more constellations, and different people will view such questions differently, depending on which issues are paramount for each individual. Where our varying priorities lead to the same or very similar solutions – e.g.: that Republicans’ Policies Are Bad – our differences may be unimportant or even invisible.

And therein lies the rub, as the Bard would say. When we don’t recognize our varying priorities, and those differences lead to different solutions for a political question or differing opinions on what question should get the first or most attention from government … it’s far too easy to attribute legitimate policy disputes to illegitimate motives. We start to question who is a “true progressive,” who is a “purity troll,” who is a “corporate shill,” or who is an “Obama worshiper.” Once we start slinging accusations, reasoned discourse usually stops and the pie starts flying.

Which of those constellations is most important to you? Which is least important to you? And as we discuss this, please remember that “least important” does not mean “I don’t care about that at all,” but simply “I think the others are more pressing right now.”

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Happy New Year’s Eve!