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.
In contrast to conservatives, prototypical liberals, or progressives, seem to derive their sense of self from a moral wellspring within themselves. 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.
An interesting analysis of the effect of "progressive" values on institutional power can be found in Answer to Job, Carl Jung's speculative treatise on the nature of God. In the book, Jung represents Job, a creature of God and his all-suffering servant, as, in a signal way, greater than his creator. Job demonstrates over and over again a capacity for moral reflection, while God shows himself abysmally devoid of ethical discretion, exercising both good and evil without conscious thought and embarrassingly open to the misleading blandishments of his son Satan. In Jung's own creative turn on the story, God is made uneasy by his inferiority of consciousness, and intuits that Job's capacity for "right" is in fact a higher power than his own capacity for "might." In time, he plots a way by which he can make Job's moral powers a part of his own makeup, leading, in Jung's interpretation, to the incarnation of God's "logos" among humans.
Another example of conscience prevailing over power is offered in the 2010 feature film "Temple Grandin," which documents the life of a woman who is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and is best known for her now widely adopted mechanical systems for the humane handling and slaughter of beef cattle.
Temple was raised an autistic child, and throughout her life had a hard time fitting into conventional social environments. She had, however, a passionate love of animals, an uncanny insight into animal psychology, and a seemingly unearthly geometrical capacity to envision complex three-dimensional systems in space. In time, her childhood experiences at an aunt's cattle ranch and the encouragement of a science teacher at a private high school led her to design innovative chute and race systems that ease livestock handling at feed ranches, and a center-track restrainer system that dramatically reduces the anxiety of beef cattle led to slaughter in meat-packing plants.
Temple is herself at ease with the mechanized killing of animals for meat. "I'd rather be killed in a slaughterhouse than be torn to pieces by a lion in Africa," she famously said. "But," she added, "we can do it humanely. We owe [the animals] some respect." That passionate, but practical, humaneness, her creative brilliance, her personal courage, and a capacity for fierce advocacy enabled Temple to convince hard-nosed cattlemen to utilize her elaborate shuttle-system designs, despite their great initial resistance based on start-up costs, suspicions about Temple's competence, and a reluctance to replace old methods. Today, almost half the beef cattle slaughtered in North American meat-packing plants are handled in a center-track restrainer system designed by Temple Grandin.
In the same way this inspired woman prevailed in her visionary mission, I believe, progressives can wake a latent moral instinct in political conservatives. It will not be done, however, by occasional guest appearances on the Sunday news shows or in C-Span panel discussions; nor by the few liberal talk-show hosts, who, like their conservative counterparts, must push "hot buttons" to entertain; nor even by the often cogent political analysis and eloquent appeals to conscience found in the best progressive journals and websites. In my own opinion, an effective load of evocative moral power can only be generated by a very few figures of cultural authority.
We Need a Challenger To the President To Push a Progressive National Agenda.
In the U.S., the foremost authority figure would surely seem to be the president.
Unfortunately, it is also almost certainly true that no incumbent U.S. president, including President Obama, can himself effectively champion or drive transformative change in the political order of which he is head -- absent an emergency, such as Roosevelt confronted, that threatens the very structure of the state. As the noted political scientist Sheldon Wolin astutely points up in Democracy, Incorporated (Princeton University Press, 2008), the president is not a free moral agent but the chief executive of a corporate/state system that is designed to support its own interests, not the common good. The president's job is not to change the system as he finds it, but to maintain and strengthen it.
According to Wolin, and many other progressive thinkers, the system can in fact only be changed by the will of the people, whose support is required to allow it to do its work. For that to happen, it is not the politicians, but the conservative majority of the people --in all their pride of self, fear of the state, and hostility to social compacts -- who must be challenged by a progressive call to conscience and community.
As I've already suggested, that call, today, can initially be sounded most effectively by a primary challenger to President Obama who is fully committed to progressive moral values and can express them in a moving and evocative way. We can speculate how the progressive moral vision advanced by such a candidate might be defined. In terms of domestic policy, its natural focus could be expected to fix on building a more genuine democracy. Specific reform proposals might include:
- Public financing of federal elections to reduce the role of private money in determining federal election results.
- Job-producing government investments in education, technology research, and infrastructure rebuilding.