Home / General / There Is A Progressive Agenda, And It’s Pressing

There Is A Progressive Agenda, And It’s Pressing


As a follow up to my initial response to the question of whether the progressive agenda is exhausted, I have a longer piece up about the major issues progressives are fighting for at various levels.

In addition to the problems that are widely recognized about unsolved, I argue that we shouldn’t be complacent about same-sex marriage:

Last Wednesday’s Supreme Court opinions striking down DOMA and denying the standing of California’s ban same-sex marriage ban are a reason to celebrate. But, the decisions are cause for a nice mid-priced New York Riesling more than a bottle of Dom Pérignon. We shouldn’t forget that, as of now, most Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is illegal. The strong trend in public opinion favoring same-sex marriage is important, but it doesn’t mean that a national right to same-sex marriage is at all inevitable. Many transformations that seem inevitable turn out to be anything but. Chief Justice Warren Burger thought that the Supreme Court had permanently ended the American death penalty by striking down existing statues in 1972; by 1976, a majority of states had them again, with Supreme Court approval. American politics favors inertia—not only can many states can hold out against trends in national opinion, but public opinion majorities don’t guarantee legislative results. The Republican fundraisers who pressured marginal Republican legislators to pass same-sex marriage legislation in New York aren’t going to be similarly pressuring lawmakers in Utah and Alabama anytime soon. The Supreme Court might create a national right to same-sex marriage, but it might not (and has already passed on one opportunity to do so.) Until it does, we should be clear that extending same-sex marriage rights is going to be a long struggle that will experience a lot of setbacks. Liberals who live in more progressive jurisdictions shouldn’t be complacent about the greater number of Americans whose rights go unrecognized. To paraphrase the sportswriter Bill James, if a national right to same-sex marriage comes, it will be not as day follows night but as a marriage follows a wedding. A lot of work is ahead, and nothing is inevitable.

I suppose I should also note that I intentionally avoided drawing distinctions between “liberal” and “left” agendas, largely because in my experience this leads to exceedingly unproductive and unilluminating leftier-than-thou and/or more-respectable-than-thou ideological positioning contests.

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  • oldster

    “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy — but that could change.”

    Among the many moronic things that Dan Quayle said, this was one of the wiser ones.

  • Jesse Levine

    Let me repeat my historical note for context:

    An historical note. We just found my campaign card from the 1968 election when I ran for the New York State Senate from southern Queens on the Liberal Party line.

    My platform:

    Full employment economy
    Quality Integrated Education
    Comprehensive medical care for all
    Increased aid for public schools
    Massive support for low and middle income housing
    Large scale programs to eliminate water and air pollution

    plus some local issues

  • I may write a full post on this later, but gay marriage is different because it was the one and I think only issue that not only could all progressives agree on but which all felt a clear and distinct passion and outrage over. Even abortion rights doesn’t get the same impassioned and all-encompassing attention. Right now my twitter feed still has more tweets about Snowden than what is happening right now in Texas and Ohio and North Carolina.

    Somehow gay marriage unites progressives in a way nothing else does in 2013.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, there’s something to that. My guess is that this is part of what Friedman/Lithwick were responding to.

      • Gay marriage only “united” people on the left for the same reason it “united” people on the right–because it was a freebie. If you were affected by it (you were gay, you had gay friends or relatives) you supported it. If you weren’t gay and didn’t care, you still supported it because it cost you literally nothing and it made you feel good. On the right side of the aisle opposition to gayness generally, and gay marriage specifically, were simply tribal markers which, again, cost people nothing to support. Supporting stricter divorce laws, which the pro-family nuts really wanted–do not unite the right wing factions the way anti gay stuff does because someone’s ox is going to get gored with that.

        Abortion rights and women’s health rights don’t have the same valence because there is no wealthy white male money behind guaranteeing women icky health care rights. I’m sorry to be so blunt about it but Abortion rights are never going to be the doe eyed baby fauna cuteness of the actvivist world.

        • LeeEsq

          Nobody figuered out how to profit from women’s healthcare yet? Our businesspeople are slacking.

          • I think in the case of abortion the “wrong” people are profiting–women, their families, non profit health care providers.

    • JoyfulA

      My Twitter feed is full of North Carolina legislature perfidy, plus Ohio (all those old white men at the signing ceremony) and Texas (can Wendy win again?). My husband’s Twitter feed is full of Snowden and Greenwald and the right not to be spied on.

      What’s on your Twitter feed depends on whom you follow.

      • JL

        My Twitter feed is full of both – often both from the same people – which probably follows from my following a lot of anti-authoritarians, feminists, and anti-authoritarian feminists.

    • Dave

      Like aimai says, the only people whose ox is gored by gay marriage are right-wing assholes. It has literally NO socio-economic downsides. But it also has literally NO socio-economic upsides [allowing for a marginal increase in the business of bridal boutiques].

      In a time of economic catastrophe, it would not be hard to make a case for it being a waste of everyone’s energies, nice though it is/would be to have it.

  • Hogan

    I suppose I should also note that I intentionally avoided drawing distinctions between “liberal” and “left” agendas, largely because in my experience this leads to exceedingly unproductive and unilluminating leftier-than-thou and/or more-respectable-than-thou ideological positioning contests.

    Those hippies aren’t going to punch themselves, Scott.

    • witless chum

      If the comments threads here are any indication, this is categorically not true.

  • And yet I have seen no signs of complacency. Immense relief that this particular battle is over? Oh yes. Elation? You betcha. People dusting their hands and saying “Oh well, that’s done”? Nope. Maybe I just don’t hang with the right crowd. Lots of warnings not to be complacent? I have now filed it under patellar reflex even though I don’t see the point or see it as being constructive. Perhaps my mistake is assuming it is meant to be constructive.

    What I have seen that is constructive (and a sign that concerns about complacency may be premature) is people trying to figure out the larger impact of these two rulings (which is necessary for creating strategy for the Next Step). However, that requires Experts to squabble about it for a bit.

  • PeakVT

    I don’t think the liberal/left/progressive/whatever agenda is exhausted, but what remains is diffuse and requires many complex, incremental adjustments. That makes it hard to motivate people who aren’t naturally inclined to be constantly engaged in politics. Those people will be motivated if things get really bad (whatever that might be), but we really don’t want things to get bad before they get better.

    • True. there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and not enough people willing to do it. Too often people fall into the mindset of voting and praying for the best – and even then, mostly voting at the national level. That’s one of the things that bothers me about the fixation on structural problems and third party candidates – it encourages complacency. We could have won if only XYZ were different. Well, yeah, but they’re not.

      Recent victories with gay rights, marijuana, healthcare, immigration etc. have shown how even a relatively small group of people can effect change.

      • LeeEsq

        I think that what liberals need is a general liberal organization that can be used to mobilize support on all liberal issues rather than a specific one like reprodcutive rights or the environment.

        • Well, there are groups with some infrastructure in place that have tried/are trying. If everyone joined the DFA or OFA and used those as vehicles for change we would probably see a lot more happening. But the problem doesn’t seem to be the lack of organizations, but rather the lack of people interested in being part of them. It doesn’t help that the left blogosphere largely seems to view politics as a spectator sport.

  • I think progressives/leftists and liberals need to remember that white people are not in charge of these terms, or this agenda, for much longer. The numbers are against “us” (to the extent that anyone reading this falls into this category). Younger people (and that means people younger than me, in this self referential world) and people of another color and ethnicity than mine are going to have to take up the banner of reform–if they want to. I don’t really know what issues are going to be their issues. The Democratic party has only in the last few election cycles bothered to try even to link up with these groups and to the extent that labor issues and poverty issues will and should be paramount I am not seeing the Democratic party extending to the rising age cohort the help it will need in organizing itself and getting what it needs from the political system. The dems have been pushed by the DREAMers, for example, not the other way around.

    This is going to hold true for everything, especially women’s and children’s health issues which are dear to my heart (personally) and PTSD, single male health issues, and aging issues/Social Security/Disability. If younger people, minority people, the rising generation of political activists see the need to fight for these issues they will. As for older activists? Its lead, follow, or get out of the way.

    • Another Halocene Human

      Oh, fuck the Democratic Party. Real change is coming from progressive activists and progressives talking to each other online to promote and fund candidates. The Dem Party and the state parties are going to have to die in slow motion and let a better Dem Party take its place.

      At least what everyone can recognize now is that only an amateur tries to push for a third party in a two party system rather than go for the greatest risk/reward ratio and just try to win a primary and use tactics to essentially force all candidates to genuflect to you. Well, an amateur or a libertarian. And the latter are not on our side.

      • Sure, fuck the democratic party. Progressive/left action has always bypassed it. But you still need either mass protest and/or votes to bring in the legislators of your choice who will push your programs. Look what is happenign right now in Texas, Wisc. and Ohio (among others). If you can’t control the legislature it doesn’t matter how activist your activists are, how many sing alongs in front of the lege, how many protests. The only thing that matters is if you can call up your legislator and tell him he’s fired if he doesn’t do what you want.

        The question is: what will the next generation of activists be willing to fight for at the ballot box. My progressive agenda doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not complacent about it, and I’m not exhausted. I guess what I’m saying is that blanket terms like “the progressive agenda” don’t make much sense. Individuals and groups have agendas, or they are apolitical and victimized by other people’s agendas. The question isn’t whether one group or another is going to lay back and stop being politicized, but whether new groups are going to be politicized and what they are going to choose to throw their energies into.

  • Another Halocene Human

    Oh yeah, the Progressive movement has come in and done what it was created for. Time to pack up and go home.

    All you have to do is ignore WAGES WAGES WAGES WAGES
    Oh yeah and a few li’l ole things like clean air, clean water, Tribal sovereignty, bodily autonomy, ENDA, health care, rape culture, street violence, stop’n’frisk, mandatory sentencing, marijuana legalization, regressive taxation, money in politics, workplace safety, and WAGES WAGES WAGES WAGES

    • Hogan

      Hammer: Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that!

      Bellhops: No.

      Hammer: No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!

  • Chris Mealy

    The great thing about gay marriage, even when it was unpopular, was that it was a problem with an obvious and easy solution. There’s no obvious solution to full employment, and there’s no easy solution to climate change.

    • Bill Murray

      There are obvious solutions to full employment, but they are currently unimplementable.

      • JKTHs


      • Manju

        There are 3 Textbook (ie, Keynesian) solutions to full employment:

        1. A Monetary Stimulus (not terribly effective at the zero lower bound)
        2. A Fiscal Stimulus (only justified at the zero lower bound)
        3. Do Nothing (works for the long run)

        So 2 out of 3 are implementable. Problem is, Meatloaf was wrong.

      • Chris Mealy

        Even textbook Keynesians (like me) don’t think Keynes had all the answers.

      • UserGoogol

        That’s the problem: there are lots of reasonable solutions. The comparably “obvious” one would be a direct make-work program, but there’s plenty of other alternatives which many people think might be able to accomplish the goal more effectively, even setting aside that they’re also more politically viable. Infrastructure spending, or welfare spending, or wage subsidies, or radical monetary policy, or whatever. So it’s hard to decide where a left-liberal ought to be focusing their attention.

        With gay marriage, there’s one obvious solution (just let people marry members of the same sex as they) and any alternatives are pretty obvious compromises (civil unions).

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  • I think the correct critique of the progressive agenda is that there isn’t a comprehensive “as-maximal-as-will-pass” fully-worked-out policy agenda at the state level being pushed in all states that Democrats control in the same way that ALEC pushes a right-wing agenda on all issues in all states in which Republicans are in the majority.

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