liberalism and progressivism

I used to think of myself as a liberal and a progressive. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but these days, I would rather not be called either. My political views and principles haven’t changed—as far as I’m willing to admit to myself—but I often find myself put off by the things that are said and written by many self-professed liberals and progressives.

The issue is not political philosophy or ideology so much as practicality and perspective, although it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Perhaps part of the issue is presentation. Most of pieces I read tend to be editorial and opinion pieces. By definition and standard, their role is to state definitive positions and stimulate discussion. While there is nothing wrong and probably a lot that’s right about such an approach, where many op-ed pieces take positions, they don’t separate policy from politics. They offer well-intended prescriptions for issues confronting our society, culture, economy, and government, and other issues that I would agree with, both in principle and on their particular detail; at the risk of being greatly reductive, they pass my personal intuitive “you’re right!” threshold.

The issue, however, is that policy that may be ideally right doesn’t necessarily translate into policy that is realizable politically. This harsh contrast between political ideals and circumstance can be and is a source of dismay and consternation. A list of policy failures in the past several years, mostly attributed to President Obama, becomes a litany of liberal dissatisfaction. The candidate who promised “yes, we can!” has too often become the president of “no, we can’t.” False hope fuels frustration like little else.

But whose role and responsibility is it to maintain hope? If Obama is not the candidate we hoped he would be and not the President we want him to be, should that make him the sole source of policy, practical or otherwise? Of or for progress? Of inspiration?

When I was younger and took to calling myself progressive, my political perspective was informed by my learning and realizing that progressivism was not just an outlook or philosophy, but a movement. Progress historically has been achieved not necessarily through the formal policies or powerful figures, as significant as they can be, but as well from ordinary people taking extraordinary action, often light of, not despite of, the difficult conditions they faced.

They were not only right in their sense of policy and philosophy, they were able to translate their visions into realizable politics. tactics that were practical not because they were easily achieved, but because they inspired further action, keeping their eyes on the prize.

Obama’s inspirational speeches recaptured some of that, but if he has disappointed us by being something other than we thought he might be, so too have we disappointed ourselves. That sense of powerful political change, of collective sensibility, has also never realized and for this, we are all responsible. Inspired by words, we haven’t kept our faith.

Since assuming the presidency, Obama has faced a historic challenges beyond his and anyone’s expectations during his election campaign. While a part of me thinks he hasn’t handled most of them well, I also have no knowledge of the machinations that produced the results that most of us only learn about indirectly through reporting (by people who are not expert or unbiased in their assessments). For all we know, he might have given us the best possible results given the circumstances.

Progress is difficult.

Where are the other inspirational progressive voices? (Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams) If we believe in progress, shouldn’t we be looking for it in other places?

Part of the issue is exposure and availability.

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