As progressive Democrats, we advocate many issues. But to win, we need TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together. (More)

Democratic Solidarity, Part II – TRUST

This week Morning Feature explores whether solidarity is returning to the Democratic Party. Yesterday we considered the media narrative of ‘special interests.’ Today we look at our common interest of challenging privilege. Saturday we’ll discuss how to better organize around that common interest.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Most of us first heard that in reading about President Abraham Lincoln. He gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858, during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. While Lincoln lost that election to Stephen Douglas, that speech and the campaign debates set the stage for his successful presidential campaign two years later. Lincoln didn’t write that sentence – he was quoting Mark 3:25 – but he recognized its truth in the conditions of his day.

As we saw yesterday, that sentence also captures the key challenge facing the progressive movement and the Democratic Party. Pitted against each other by conservative narratives – and at times by shortsightedness – progressive groups have too often seen their own issues as ‘special’ and other progressive interests as secondary or even contrary. That left us vulnerable to defeat in detail: falling one-by-one to a well-funded, well-organized conservative coalition.

Our (not really) different issues

In December 2009, I suggested a constellation of progressive issues:

Progressive Issues

I offered definitions for those issues in that essay, and noted those six issues are illustrative rather than exhaustive. In that essay, I suggested that division among progressives comes less from disagreement on any given issue than in how each of us prioritizes them. It’s natural to want progress on one’s own priorities first, and to be disappointed and grow angry when we repeatedly hear “wait your turn.”

But I’m increasingly convinced those aren’t really six different issues. Instead they’re one issue – privilege – viewed through five different lenses.

Sometimes the connection is obvious. On education, for example, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) wrote:

If there’s one great leveler in our society, it’s education. The United States offers free education to all children, a promise that even those from the poorest families have an opportunity to better the lives.

Progressives care not only about the quality of education for our own children, but insist that every child should have access to a quality education. In other words, education should not be rationed to the privileged.

The privilege element of corporatism is equally obvious; when corporations run society, wealth and opportunity flow to the already privileged. Similarly, civil libertarians recognize (or should!) that government rarely oppresses the privileged. As for war, President Dwight Eisenhower said this about defense spending:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

The environment is also a privilege issue. Pollution disproportionally affects the poor, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Institute for Environment and Development are just two among many groups who agree that climate change will impact the poor first, and most severely.

TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together

When we look closely at our progressive issues, we see that each is about privilege, “private laws” that benefit a chosen few at the expense of others. The chosen few – ‘exceptional‘ individuals and groups – are The Powers That Be. And as we saw yesterday, privilege means never having to say you’re sorry for claiming and asserting power.

The others are The Rest of Us … “special interests” in the mainstream narrative. And as we saw yesterday, when we stand separately, we make ourselves special interests. But when we stand together, we become an unstoppable force: the force that ended slavery and later Jim Crow, guaranteed women the right to vote and own property, broke up monopolies, ended child labor, legalized unions, and mobilized for fairer and safer workplaces. Progressive icons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not blaze single issue trails. They rallied for and around each other …

… even when the issue of the day was not their top priority. That required trust. They had to trust that – when the issue of the day was their top priority – others would rally for them as they had for others.

How do we rebuild trust within the progressive movement and the Democratic Party? It begins with recognizing that our common issue is challenging privilege. To challenge any privilege – wealth, race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc. – is to challenge the legitimacy of all privilege. And because we are challenging privilege, we can’t blithely compare our efforts and outcomes with those of our opponents. It’s easier to defend privilege than to challenge it. As progressives, we need more pieces to fall into place: an acknowledged problem, a solution that will help, public support for that solution, and institutional organization to make it happen.

To get those pieces in place, we need TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together. Tomorrow we’ll discuss concrete strategies for how to build it.


Happy Friday!