The Built-In Trap of Progressive Politics


So, Sam Howard misses the point of my “Whose Fault, RI?” essay by a pretty wide margin.  What makes his piece worth consideration is that I think his misreading has much to do with the folly of progressive thought.

The basic point that Howard never addresses is the question: Who is the RIGOP?  Who is “fundamentally failing at being a political party”?  Being Republican is not an ethnicity.  It’s not an industry or special interest group. Howard faults Republicans for their lack of devotion to the cause of Republicanism, as if a party can or should be a cause in itself, which is precisely the complaint I have against the news media.

Who is to blame for the state of the RIGOP?  Current Republicans, for not trying hard enough?  People who’ve given up on the lost cause and gone back to their lives or left the state?  Lincoln Chafee, for failing to stay and fight for his own definition of the party?  Or is it the fault of those Republicans, like the RI Senate’s five musketeers, who drift so far beyond their base that they lose its devotion?  Or are Democrats who might be Republicans but for Rhode Island’s screwy politics to blame for not waving a more-fitting flag?

There really isn’t an answer, here, because as I stated in my prior essay, there is no naturally occurring thing in nature called “the Grand Old Party.”  There are people with differing interests, and for only a minority are those interests explicitly political.

However, constructing a political worldview around the false premise that opposing teams implicitly exist allows political activists to build simplistic political narratives using the intellectual equivalent of over-sized LEGO blocks.  It’s the people versus the powerful.  It’s the oppressed versus the oppressor.  It’s the minority versus The Man.  It’s the Democrats versus the Republicans.

In that narrative, the GOP and especially conservatives are the villains.  If that’s the definition of the game, why would actual people sign up to be the bad guys? Progressives have subverted the objective missions of the university, the news media, the arts, and public education.  In Rhode Island, Democrats run the table, with paying jobs to supply their activists and potential candidates in between political races. Meanwhile, non-political employers have to weigh the possibility that hiring known conservatives will mire them in baseless insinuations.

That all adds up to a lot of ways for the blue team to harass, belittle, and economically target anybody who steps onto the field to represent the red team.

Nothing illustrates the point about villains better than the umbrage that Howard takes to the notion that I might lay some responsibility on Rhode Islanders for the condition of Rhode Island, calling them “conservatives’ favorite punching bag.”  In a representative democracy, the people have to be to blame, ultimately.  But in the progressive mythology, the general public is a blameless blob pushed and pulled by political forces.

In that view, the public is the ball, not the players.  And Howard’s side is for fair play and gently laying the ball softly on a cushion; the other side is for selfishness and evil, tearing the ball to pieces to multiply the trophies.  How dare those cruel, privileged conservatives — like the former dock worker and carpenter whose words you are now reading — blame the cute ‘n’ cuddly public for the political and media system that they tolerate and perpetuate?

This brings us back to progressive ideology, in which everything must be conceived in political terms.  Just as blacks in the civil rights movement were fighting for their own interests, the progressive believes that rich white Republicans should be fighting for theirs, and all must do so through their designated political parties.  Everything that defines you as a person, they implicitly say, should be whittled to a sharp political point.

It’s a trap, of course.  The progressive will then go on to fault conservatives for fighting for their own massive wealth and special privileges.  See how that works?  If you pick the wrong side, the folks who dominate the various information fields will be sure to equate you with whatever wickedness can be found or insinuated anywhere within its ranks.

And so the news story is how some business figure, perhaps out of state, gave money to a particular cause, but never how government labor unions are pushing community politics or left-wing organizers are importing activists to attend meetings or go door to door.  Turning to my Tiverton example, it’s a major news story when a political activist claims to be offended at a candidate’s Tweet, but it isn’t news at all that the activist is, in fact, an activist.  She’s just the natural representative of outrage that is presumed to exist in the broader public.

If the news media were really interested in objective reportage of powerful people, journalists might investigate why it seems to be that the leaders of the state’s larger teachers’ union are always at the forefront of far-left causes with no plausible connection to their members’ unique needs. Or instead of simply reporting in an easily missed story that the governor has filled an analyst position in his administration with Kate Brock, whose prior paid employment was at the nexus of the unions and the far left, the journalists might investigate what, exactly, she’ll be “analyzing” for the government.  (Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger hasn’t responded to multiple inquiries from me, on this point.)

Of course, a positive first step would be for the Providence Journal to begin disclosing that its reporters are members of the AFL-CIO when it reports on that particular special interest group.

So, to summarize, the position of the Rhode Island left, including many in the commentary media, is that Republicans should moderate their views to be more attractive to liberals.  When moderation fails to attract the enthusiasm of the Republican base, the base is at fault for not sticking with the team.  Whether the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” gloss represents the base’s worldview is not supposed to matter, I guess, because conservatives are defined to be evil and somehow self-interested in the sense of wanting to manipulate the world for their own benefit.

But again: We’re talking about people, not caricatures that fit neatly into the progressive coloring book.  Those individuals — those people — who might support Republican fiscal policy, mainly limiting government’s intrusion on their economic activities, are (not surprisingly) more interested in their economic activities than bringing the party or the state back from the dead.  That is, they’re self-interested in the sense of wanting to do things for themselves, not in the sense of wanting to manipulate government, with its power to tax, regulate, arrest, and kill, for their own benefit.  That’s actually the progressive approach.

I can understand why there’s a gap in progressives’ understanding of conservatives’ motives.  Everybody wants to manipulate the government for their own benefit. If you want the government to leave you alone, that must mean that the system is already manipulated for your benefit! We’re on to you, stooge of the one percent!

As its more intelligent advocates surely intend, what the Left leaves us with is a storyline in which people who want to be left alone to be more productive, and to foster a healthy society through social and cultural means, are inherently the oppressors whom the government must fight for the sake of the oppressed, and that means filtering an ever-increasing amount of power and resources through individuals and organizations working with the full resources of the state.

Rhode Island is among the nation’s leading illustrations of that storyline’s consequences, when any opposing players who’ve been able to do so have left the field because there’s nothing to gain by the game and the dominant team excuses its own viciousness through a fantasy that it is the righteous underdog, playing political touch-football with whips.

  • Dan

    Howard's reasoning falls victim to numerous progressive trappings: democracy as panacea, the ends justify the means, all of life is political, and so on.

    If RI Republicans aren't getting enough votes to win, then, ipso facto, the Republican Party should change it's strategies to garner more votes in Howard's view. Nevermind that the Party actually stands for things and isn't just a utilitarian means to seizing control for those who participate in it.

    If RI unions and liberal activists are targeting conservative-owned businesses to bully them into submission, Howard's solution is simple: fight back, start targeting liberal-owned businesses. Find that morally reprehensible? Well then you don't care enough to take back your neighborhood and you deserve everything Tony Soprano hands down to you.

    I left Rhode Island in 2010 because of the political atmosphere and lack of opportunities. This means there is something "wrong" with me or I'm a "quitter" according to progressives like Howard. Nevermind that my life has markedly improved since leaving and the opportunities are so much greater for me now. So the relevant question seems to be, what's wrong with Rhode Island?

  • Tommy Cranston

    Sammy Howard is a college dropout living in the East Side on his daddy's money. He is to be taken as seriously on economic issues as your typical deranged Kennedy Plaza addict on SS

    Sammy Howard is a college dropout living in the East Side on daddy's money.
    He is to be taken as seriously on economic issues as your average addicted deranged Kennedy Plaza addict collecting SSI and food stamps.

  • Warrington Faust

    Once again, I think we are over intellectualizing. RI's history is this. Until recently, the population was primarily Irish and Italian. They arrived here and moved to the manufacturing cities where there was work. They then came under the influence of "ward heelers" and the Democratic party became their standard bearer, "The party of the poor". The larger cities, Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, became strongholds. Following WWII, they moved to Warwick, Cranston. etc. Like religion, most people are born into their "Party", it is extremely difficult to switch registrations. Everyone you know is a Democrat. This doesn't mean that they won't vote Republican, but switching party registration is difficult, like switching religions.

    This is seen when they "turn out the youth vote", they tend to vote the way their parents did. My father was a "Southern Democrat", I never knew him to switch parties. I also never knew him to vote for a Democrat while in New England.

  • Will

    I always enjoy reading your well-reasoned thoughts about Rhode Island and related issues, but I think you give Mr. Howard far too much credit in so far as there being an intellectual basis for his arguments. You're a good guy, so it's understandable. I don't know him at all, but I know his type. Whether he states it explicitly or not, despite anything he might say, he benefits to some degree from perpetuating the status quo. He's a relativist and probably a trained activist, too. Conservatives make for an easy target, even more so in Rhode Island, since they don't have any real capacity to fight back in like manner. They're fighting an enemy which by and large just doesn't exist in RI anymore… kind of like us declaring political war again the Whigs. Basically, he advocates a "by any means necessary" type of approach. If your core beliefs are getting in the way, just adopt new ones!

    The problem, to be succinct, is that they want us to play their game according to the rules which they themselves develop and maintain control over. As you stated, "there’s nothing to gain by the game." I would further add, especially when it is a rigged game. There's no moral obligation to participate when you're just being used a dummy or a foil, when you don't have any power to fight back, nor any realistic prospect of acquiring it in the near future. Almost every aspect of life in Rhode Island has been pervaded by this blight over many decades, be it educational, media, religion, you name it. While there doesn't appear to be anything to gain, other than a fleeting sense of personal accomplishment, there does seem to be a lot to lose. In other words, the risk is not worth the potential reward.

    I was involved in Rhode Island Republican politics in more capacities than I care to recall for about a dozen years, mainly having to do with trying to get people elected to office. I also spent about ten years on the RIGOP State Central Committee. I'm not sure then the switch turned "on" exactly, but over a relatively short period of time coinciding with the past two elections, I sort of had a "what's the point" epiphany, and realized that I wasn't getting any younger. A little over 7 months ago, I realized that there were 49 other states in the USA, and I chose a new one. While it was not exactly like my great-grandfather leaving Italy to seek a new life in America, for me it was a substantial change; probably among the most difficult I've ever made. For right now, I'm living in Virginia, and I've enjoyed it. Much to my surprise, there's a whole lot of ex-Northerners living there (they actually have a lot of Patriots fans, too!). While I miss the familiarity of life in Rhode Island, and proximity to most of my family and friends, it's far less stressful on any number of levels. While I've visited RI from time to time (as I happen to be doing right now), much to my surprise, I've actually enjoyed discovering life outside of the warped Rhode Island paradigm.

    As for conservative Rhode Islanders, I think they fall into three basic categories: Those who [still] believe that they can make a positive difference (whether this is delusional, I truly don't know); those who want to leave, but for whatever reason cannot (financial, occupational, or family reasons); and those who simply do not mind fighting a losing fight year after year, but fight it out of a sense of obligation because "it's the right thing to do." Unless we change the mindset of the people who populate Rhode Island, or the state suddenly receives an influx of smart, industrious people from elsewhere, I literally do not see any way that it will change within any of our lifetimes. Considering that attaining a college degree in RI is currently the equivalent of receiving an exit visa in a Third World country, I don't exactly see that happening anytime soon.

    PS As you may know, the Virginia GOP had it's state convention last week. Fun experience; definitely no RI equivalent to speak of. Among the thousands of people I saw there was a former Chair of the RIGOP, the former Secretary of the RIGOP, and a former Chair of the RI College Republicans… all of whom now live in VA.

  • Dan

    Will – Welcome to Virginia. I think the thing I enjoy most is the drastically different nature of local news. Reading an RI paper first thing in the morning, it’s all depressing: vicious labor battles, political power plays, corruption, bad economy, and so on. Here, I read the news and it’s about local events, politicians who are real people, government trying to do the right thing out in the open. It’s like a cloud of negativity has lifted and there is hope again – you can’t put a price on that as far as I’m concerned.

    We should start an RI expatriot annual barbecue down here.

  • Will

    Dan, I couldn't agree more. I read the RI websites almost every day, mainly to reaffirm the decision that I already made, but mainly out of some "hope" beyond hope that RI will change for the better, and somehow that the media will cover it. Ha, ha, ha! As for the media in VA, there are plenty of choices and perspectives, and they actually hold the state and local governments accountable in the way the media may have once done in RI.

    As for VA, the culture is just inviting… people say "sir" and hold open doors. Politeness! While it's not perfect, the government in VA generally works as it should, isn't a corrupt cesspool of filth, it's a business friendly place, the cost of living is quite reasonable, there's plenty of educational choices, and there isn't a pothole on every corner to remind you that you pay taxes… and even they, they're at fairly reasonable levels. For me, the most annoying thing to get used to about VA is the toll roads, but even then, you're talking 70 cent or 25 cent tolls, not $4.00 or something. Part of what I think benefits VA is that it is competitive politically. The politicians don't take the support of their citizens for granted.

    Where in VA are you? Several of the friends I've made through the VAGOP are from Massachusetts and Connecticut, amongst other familiar places. Funny thing is, Northern Virginia is well known for "carpetbaggers." However, there are actually many in Richmond, too, which is in central VA. That being said, it's still Southern culturally, and there are people who live in and around Richmond who can literally trace their families back to the Civil War (Gee, why haven't they left? Right, it's still a nice place to live!).

  • Warrington Faust

    Y'all come back, hear?

    Will, Richmond, "central"? You have spent too much of your life near the coast. Most of my relatives, with civil war ancestors, have moved out of Richmond. The reason? "Crime". They are largely "medical" so they haven't moved all that far. Virginia has an interesting method of creating cities and having counties go "defunct". For instance, Nansemond County was totally absorbed by Suffolk City and went defunct. There are several "new cities" around Richmond. If you can find the time, I commend a trip on the Blue RIdge Parkway.

    I note there is a picture of Gen. Burnside posted below as a Rhode Island "hero". He was responsible for the Union slaughter at Fredericksburg and the Crater, after which he was fired. He did give us "side burns".

    • Warrington,

      There are a number of ways of reading that picture and its caption.

  • Dan

    Will – We just bought a townhouse in a nice, quiet neighborhood on the Arlington/Alexandria border of Falls Church. Living in Virginia, a right to work state, gave us the option of not joining the unions in our respective workplaces: $500 for me; $600 for her, annually. The $3300 we've saved since moving here 3 years ago went right into the downpayment. Cost of living is roughly the same as RI, but quality of life is so much higher here. We're enjoying the 5% sales tax as well. People are definitely friendlier and less cynical than in New England – particularly the police officers. The weather is so much more pleasant, and we save a lot of money on heating. I honestly haven't heard of any local politicians going to Federal prison since I've moved here – a nice change from RI/MA where it was an annual occurrence. Of course, if so inclined, you can still read all about all the political antics across the Potomac in "Mordor."

    We drive down to Richmond for fun every few months. The Civil War historical sites and museum in that area are wonderful if you enjoy local history. The Confederate White House has 60% of the original items and is like a trip back through time – very worthwhile; Hollywood Cemetary has a few different presidents and some famous generals buried there. Visit Carytown Cupcakes sometime and say hi for us.

  • Warrington Faust

    Justin: "Warrington,

    There are a number of ways of reading that picture and its caption. "

    That's true. After going bankrupt (probably owing to government corruption. Government corruption was then probably at its most severe, other than under the Grant administration. We have much improved. ) he was Governor and Senator from RI. The caption and picture do indicate he has turned his back on Rhode Island. Seems to me he left here to run a railroad in Ohio(?), also likely a result of government corruption.

    Sorry Justin, he is just not one of my favorites. Have a look at "Gods and Generals". Awful movie, but it seems to capture his character rather well.

  • Will

    Warrington… Richmond is not all that dissimilar to Providence: there are very historic and charming parts, a clearly defined downtown (at least there, they have a vibrant financial sector), and yes, there are parts you wouldn't want to drive through at 2AM on a Saturday night, unless you need drugs and/or a prostitute. Having some common sense, I avoid the latter. As for the Richmond city government itself, it could probably be better. However, by RI standards, even the way it is run is a considerable improvement, probably akin to a place like Cranston or Warwick. Room for improvement, but generally okay. Don't paint with too broad a brush.
    By the way, your crime data might be a bit out of date in so far as Richmond is concerned. They did have a problem sometime back, but it's been by and large substantially mitigated.The police force is fairly robust and responsive, too. What crime there is there is also not randomly distributed. I'm still getting used to the geography and still use a GPS anytime I leave the city. However, VA does have an interesting county system, which tends to avoid duplication of bureaucracy, by having most major cities be "independent" of their surrounding counties. So local government, although largely county based, is still a big factor, just like in RI. To me, Richmond is central VA (though geographically more east-central)… and yes, I've spent most of my life on the East Coast. I'm getting used to it.

    Dan… I have quite a few friends in the Arlington/Alexandria area (including several ex-RIGOPers). I even accidentally drove through Falls Church about two months ago! Sleepy sort of place… kind of like Barrington. There is sort of a tendency for those people to point at a place like DC and laugh (it's especially obvious if you've visited National Harbor). As you pointed out, the government and related entities in VA basically run as they should, so one doesn't necessarily mind the cost, because there is more of a direct correlation between what you pay and what you get. You don't feel like it's being flushed. At least in so far as my own personal situation, I'm saving plenty vs. living in RI.

    PS I've been to Carytown Cupcakes, and most of the other eateries there. Quite the selection in Carytown and the Fan, but they could do a bit better in so far as Italian food is concerned!

  • Warrington Faust

    Will, although the crime rate may have improved, I am sure that when my relatives refer to "crime", it is code. And yes, if you live in "the fan" it is quite charming.

    They also have a very active and friendly rowing club there. Boat storage is not a problem.

    I've been offered an opportunity to move to the Shenandoah, I'm finding it a little hard to resist. BTW, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is this year. It will be quite a spectacle.

  • Dan

    I'll conclude by posting an illustrative example of what I described above. Today, I woke up and read the Virginia local news – I-66 is being expanded to accomodate more traffic. Okay, good to know.

    Just out of curiosity, I then checked to see the top headlines in Rhode Island, the state of my birth. What do I find?

    "Montalbano's nomination to Superior Court sails through Senate judiciary panel"
    "Federal trial of accused ringleader in Navy kickback scheme set to begin in Providence on Wednesday"
    "Chafee exploring costs of not paying back 38 Studios bonds"

    Corrupt politician being rewarded by the governor with judgeship; conviction of Providence contractors defrauding the Federal government, and RI weighing default on obligation from failed experiment in central economic planning.

    See, if I lived in Rhode Island, I'd be rather angry and disgusted about this all day. But since I've moved out of the state, I feel relief and thankfulness instead. What a world of difference.

  • Warrington Faust

    I think Dan is correct. I have wondered if the difference in politics is a reflection of the electorate. I have noticed that when friends return from a trip to the South they are surprised that the people seem so open and friendly. I assume that this is a reflection of their experiences here in New England. They comment on people talking to each other in supermarket lines. I moved here at too young an age to recall much of my extreme youth in Virginia and North Carolina, I do remember my father's comments on the "isolationist" attitudes of New Englanders. By this he meant the numerous ethnic clubs he saw. I think most of the "New Hibernian" and "Italo American" clubs have disappeared in the last 20 years. I have noticed a re-emergence of a German American club in Pawtucket.

  • Dan


    In Massachusetts, your academic pedigree defines you ("Where do you go to school"?).
    In Rhode Island, your political connections define you ("Who do you know?").
    In Virginia, your profession defines you ("Where do you work"?).

    While I find aspects of the employment-identity mindset distasteful, I also believe it is much, much healthier than the alternatives. The explicit emphasis here is on working and providing value. The state, through policy, and its residents, through culture, make it very clear that there is no free ride being offered and people here are expected to carry their own weight. That is how a healthy society is supposed to function.

  • Warrington Faust

    Dan, without doubt television has leveled America. I note that my younger relatives from the South have no accent. (Virginia had more vowel emphasis than accent). Recently I called our "hometown" in North Carolina (800 people, 5 names) to ask about gun licensing. I was surprised that the sheriff's department answered with an accent.

    As you noted, In Virginia and south it is possible to "live in the county". Meaning that you do not live in an incorporated area. Other people from North Carolina ask what county we are from.

    Back to politics, it should not be forgotten that the "Kingfish" was from the Deep South. I cannot say that there is no "corruption", it is a democracy. But most is at low levels. You may have noted that there are "county roads". These are roads maintained by the counties. (as opposed to "state roads", marked "SR") Who works on them, who gets contracts and where they are extended to can be very "political".

  • Warrington Faust

    Required Split-
    Since the South had next to no recent immigration and population was sparse, most people in a town/county were in some way related by marriage. Politically, there was a high degree of "keeping it in the family". All of this is changing. My relatives tell me that North Carolina is considering road signs in Spanish. This is chiefly the result of demand for labor by tobacco farmers. My own branch of the family left farming, and returned to Virginia, after the farm was burned over in the war. Not sure what the situation in Virginia was then, the Duke family left Virginia for North Carolina and formed American Tobacco (and Duke University). More distant relatives tell me that they are learning elemental Spanish.