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Who You Calling Progressive?


There’s been a lot of talk on the web thanks to Doc Searls’ kind words and pointers about the piece below. So let me make a few clarifications. These are questions that have come up before.
Progressive libertarians are not a political party. They are a political movement that’s already well underway and it is very much an open question which political party will get their energy, money, and thinking. It’s easiest to see here in California where we have a governor who embraces the idea of bipartisan co-operation. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t much of a partisan player; he’d rather schmooze the opposition to death or play movie star and stomp ‘em. And while, yes, he’s called the Democrats “losers” – which is, by the way, technically accurate – he has a number of ‘em in his administration. Other politicians who think like he does include Silicon Valley’s Steve Westly , a Democrat, who supported the unsuccessful open primary measure; Steve Poizner, the Republican who ran for the assembly in the valley, and Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, whose relationship with the San Francisco’s business community is strained but not broken.

I call these guys libertarians – and Ed Cone is right to say I shouldn’t capitalize the “L” since that implies membership in a political party – because that’s how many of them identify themselves. Dissatisfaction with Democrats and Republicans is at the heart of this new moderate movement. They dislike Republicans because of the party’s emphasis on social issues, everything from it’s anti-drug laws to its stance on abortion. But they don’t like Democrats’ tax structures, their relationships to the unions or the reliance on government programs. Progress libertarians like the small, the entrepreneurial, the “what it takes” approach because that’s what’s worked for them. After all, Newsom, Westly, Schwarzenegger, and Poizner are all self-made. They’re anti-corporate in that sense but they are not anti-business and they – like many, many people on the web – see themselves as businesses first, politicians second.
These are not your 21st Century Progressives, however. Somehow, “progressive” has become a stupid euphemism that Liberals use to, bizarrely, keep from saying they’re Liberal. No, I am talking about turn of the 20th Century. For more on this, read Richard Hofstadter “The Age of Reform,” a book that explains a great deal about the underpinning of one of the country’s greatest and longest lasting social reform movements. Hofstadter makes three observations that I think are true of Progressive libertarians. One, they are hell-bent on reform. They want change because they believe it is necessary to bring society forward; they see things are broke, they want them fixed. This can be – and in some circles surely is – change for its own sake. Hofstadter also outlines the good-natured aspects of Progressive reforms; you’ve never met a nicer bunch of folks. And he says something else that’s very important: Progressives joined the movement because they had experienced – in their lifetimes – tremendous changes in economic and social fortune. Sound familiar? In a nutshell, they want to fix things because they can.
The movement isn’t without its faults. Progressive libertarians don’t think big in the political sense because, fundamentally, they have contempt for politics. They see a problem – education is big here in California – they come up with a solution. They move on. They emphasize the ROI – return on investment – but in many cases the work that government does has little, if any, return. They haven’t really come up with a solution for the increasing economic disparity in this country. Their attitudes toward the poor, the ill, the disenfranchised are often dismissive, sometimes cruel. In short, no, these are not classic Liberals although many are loathe to say so. And yes, the could well be Rockefeller Republicans but most of ‘em don’t know what that means. They are what’s new in politics, however. And they’re growing before our very eyes.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:37 AM | Permalink

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