The use of resurrection of the word “progressive” has helped make this an intriguing election cycle. Contention over that word has roiled the political left as candidates and their supporters have jockeyed to prove their progressive bona fides. But the discussions around, and reaction to, the primaries thus far have given birth to some divergent ideas about what progressivism means. For that reason, I thought it worthwhile come up with an instrument—an MMPI, if you will—to help identify who might fit the term as I see it.
If you call yourself a progressive and you’re talking about unseating one of the most economically progressive members of the Senate because she didn’t endorse your candidate, you may not understand what progressive means.
If you call yourself progressive and you demean and/or dismiss the votes of hundreds of thousands of southern people of color and working class whites, you might want to check what progressive means.
If you call yourself progressive and your movement is dominated by white middle-class northerners while your biggest base of support is white voters in the whitest states, you might want to think again about what progressive is supposed to mean.
If you call yourself progressive and you and your compadres have to be coached on how to talk to a Black person, it’s time to take a look at that progressive credential you’re wearing.
If you call yourself progressive and you think everyone who doesn’t support your candidate is either bought, deluded, or uninformed, then progressive might not be the term for you.
If you call yourself progressive and many of the oppressed people you’re trying to “free” are giving you the side-eye, it might be time to think again about what you are.
If you call yourself a progressive and the only time you actually engage with people of color or working class folks is every four or eight or twelve or twenty years when your political messiah pops up, if the worlds in which you and your family live and work and play are nearly devoid of people of color, then you might need to download a new version of progressivism.
Now, it’s true that capitalism is a system that has crushed the lives of millions in this country. It’s true that those with money have outsized power and influence in our political and economic systems. It’s true that both parties have failed to adequately grapple with these and other issues, and, like Michelle Alexander, I would be thrilled at the appearance of one or more new viable political parties to challenge that failure.
But if you call yourself a progressive and you think the truth only belongs to you, then you’re not any kind of progressive I want to be around.
If you think the truth of this country resides in the monologue coming from you rather than a dialogue—a conversation—coming from many voices in many places, then I am decidedly uninterested in whatever progressivism means to you.
Because you know what’s great about this election? When it’s all over—whoever gets nominated and whoever wins—those who only call themselves progressives will take their ball and go home. They’re going to blame whatever lack of support they’ve experienced on someone else. But the real progressives, the people who intend to do something about change, they’ll be working.
Whoever wins the election, the real progressives will be agitating and agitating and agitating to push that president and that Congress and those governors and state legislatures and those mayors and city councils and district attorneys and school boards and fucking dog catchers to do what’s right.
And every time they get even a piece of a victory, they’re going to build on that and carry it forward. See, some of you would-be progressives might set down your economic analyses and read about Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez and Shirley Chisolm. It might help you to look at some Audre Lorde and Minnie Bruce Pratt and Gloria Anzaldua. You’ll find that no single white politician—male or female—has ever done for oppressed people what oppressed people didn’t agitate to make them do.
So the real progressive will engage and organize with Black and Latino and Asian-American and Native American people of all classes—and working class people or every race, and women of every race—everywhere they can find them, because the real progressives will be going to where those folks are and listening to them and what they need, not pontificating from their theoretical high ground.
They’ll know that if you can’t connect people’s own narratives, about who and where they are and what they want, to your narrative about where and how you’d like them to go with you, then you don’t deserve to win.
That’s what it means to be “grassroots.” Not to impose your vision from above but to build a vision in collaboration with a broad base of people. And here’s a hint: It’s not broad if it’s dominated by whites, and especially white men.
So if that’s not what your progressivism—and your idea of democracy—looks like, it might be time to either change your practice or find a new name for whatever it is that you’re doing.