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.