Of course, the foregoing profile, though I believe it to be fair, is admittedly one-sided. Few of even the most ardent progressives will deny that, as a psychological type, conservatives represent more than, at the high end of the socio-economic spectrum, a reflexive defense of wealth and power; and, at the low end, a reflexive defense of guns, religion, and a literalist reading of the Constitution. Most progressives will agree that conservatives also have a positive side that contributes invaluably to a functional and vigorous society.
Conservatives are, for one thing, the natural generators of wealth -- our entrepreneurs, business executives, and bankers. They are, in many cases, our policemen, firefighters, and nurses. In their devotion to "family values," they can continue to remind us of the important roles of tradition, nature, art, family, friendships, and work in supporting our lives with beauty and stable points of reference. And, on the political front, they can play a useful role in the legislative process by making sure that visionary initiatives for change are not excessive in scope or pace, and actually lend themselves to practical implementation in the real world.
At the same time, however, progressives believe it is only right that all conservatives be expected to stretch their sense of connectedness and obligation beyond their personal claims and attachments, to the greater community--even the global community. They need to "walk a mile in the other guy's moccasins" and recognize that, just as their own privileges and freedoms would not be possible without the labor, consent, and support of the broader community, so they are morally obliged to reach out to the needs of that community -- many of whose members remain, or find themselves increasingly, economically insecure and socially powerless. Fortunately, the small overlap of shared psychology between conservatives and progressives creates a narrow window through which such a moral appeal might be conveyed.
The Role Progressives Can Play.
As suggested earlier, prototypical liberals, or progressives, in contrast to conservatives, seem to derive their sense of self from a moral wellspring within themselves that connects them fundamentally to other human beings and all of the natural creation. Martin Luther King is, I think, an excellent historical example. He was born to be a prophet and speaker of inspirational words. He was also endowed with the passion to carry that talent into the world as leader of a movement dedicated to the ends of human dignity and social justice. In the pursuit of that vision, as we know, he ran into roadblocks imposed both by those who considered him not a liberator, but a threat to their way of life, and at first, also, by a timid national leadership that failed to give him needed support. In the end, however, King succeeded in securing new federal legislation that ended racial discrimination as a legal barrier both to voting and to open access to schools, public accommodations, and employment.
In our own time, just as Martin Luther King in his day came up against the institutional resistance of George Wallace, Bull Connor, and an ambivalent Kennedy White House, American progressives will not find it easy to shake conservatives loose from their molded beliefs and interests. What I think progressives in America can do now, however, is to make conservatives at least a bit uneasy about their self-interested concerns in a time of widespread and growing social unrest. They can do so by invoking the moral power of their commitment to participatory democracy, economic fairness, corporate responsibility, care of the environment, and global community.
No doubt the cards in America are stacked against progressive values. In a society that is culturally right of center, broadly anti-intellectual, and politically unsophisticated, the Far Right seeks and easily achieves power through the simple means of divisive appeals to popular fears and resentments. Meanwhile, those on the left are written off because their progressive approach to the issues is considered either soft-headed or "socialistic," and therefore un-American.
Despite these obstacles, however, I think we must ask: Will there ever be a better time than now, when conditions at home cry out for a sense of American community and our national security is tied more closely than ever to a willingness to respect and support the aspirations of other nations, to give progressive values a full-court press? Isn't it in fact past time to make the broad middle of American political opinion aware of the country's need to structure more democratic federal elections; to shrink the increasingly obscene gap between our richest and poorest citizens; to invest in the public sphere of education, physical infrastructure, and technological research; to encourage more socially responsible corporate behavior; to care for our natural environment; and to foster a more caring, cooperative, and peaceful world?
As I see it, the infusion of progressive values in out political debate is critical to America's future. The country is currently afflicted by a syndrome of joblessness and social alienation that can be linked directly to a long period of conservative governance focused on economic power and world domination. In my own view, it is only progressives, inspired by the creative wellspring at their moral center, who have the necessary vision to conceive and drive transformative social change in the interest of the common good. That can never be the work of conservatives, who by their nature serve to defend existing interests and beliefs.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that a proper conservative role in government is also indispensable. That role is not, however, as it has been so markedly in the past two years, simply to block progressive initiatives. It is, instead, to refine them, if needed, to more closely meet the practical requirements of effective implementation. This is a task for which the conservative mindset is far better suited than its inspirationally-based progressive counterpart. In legislating, as in all acts of creation, the vision must come first, but then the forms by which it can be best and most fully realized. It is only by combining the creative powers of progressives and conservatives that transformative change for the common good can be made workable in the real world.
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