It was three years ago, when I first came to work in a New York foundation, that I learned that the pig people don’t talk to the chicken people. “You guys are working on the same problems, with the same root causes,” I said. “So why don’t you work together?” The challenges they were tackling seemed similar: factory farming, mountains of waste, the domination of little guys by the big guys. But that’s not how they acted. I soon learned that the pig people and the chicken people don’t talk to the cow people either, and the cow people have never talked with the people worried about over-grazing, or breast cancer or the war in Iraq.
And so it goes in progressive America today. We are oriented towards problems, issues and complaints. Our politics are defined by fragmentation rather than unity. To the extent that we think beyond what and who we are not, we tend to focus on the things that separate us: issues, identities, demographics and geography. We then organize ourselves into ever-narrower fragments with rigid categorical boundaries.
Why? I’ll venture to name a few reasons:
- The mistaken belief that things get more manageable the more narrowly we focus on them.
- The mistaken belief that people act in their rational self-interest (as we define it) if given appropriate facts.
- Hostility to new ideas.
- Failure to question basic assumptions and orthodoxies.
- Fear of imagining plausible alternatives.
- We have forgotten who we are.
We have a pretty great story to tell. The country was founded by progressives and it is progressives who have struggled to make it better. They fought to abolish slavery, enfranchise women and end child labor. The progressive impulse brought down the original robber barons, and reined in corporate greed. Progressives came up with an authentic response to the Great Depression and coaxed the country to confront the dangers of institutionalized racism. Even now, in our weakened state, we are the ones pressing for an economy that works for everyone; a democracy that honors equality and respects human rights; a foreign policy that values global interdependence over unilateralism and peace over war; and for vital communities and the right relationship to the earth that sustains us.
But somehow we’ve lost the narrative thread that ties it all together. We have to learn to tell a better story. We have to be bold and inspiring, to shift our orientation from problems to solutions. We have to understand that the values environment in which we are operating is increasingly hostile to the progressive project. And we have to learn how to navigate in that environment as we seek to transform it over time.
We need a politics in which the current parties’ agendas become irrelevant and both Democrats and Republicans are forced to govern as progressives, in the same way that both parties are now forced to govern as conservatives. Electoral politics are ultimately an expression of underlying cultural dynamics. Long-term cultural transformation, therefore, must be the first priority, with electoral politics as one vehicle we can use to achieve that goal.
This is all achievable, but we don’t have much time. Scientists roll out one horrifying scenario after another about the imminent collapse of natural systems. And we can’t wish away the fact that a growing number of lunatics have weapons of mass destruction.
What’s really amazing is that current political discourse – and the media that promote it – carries on as if these facts don’t matter. The world could end and we’d still be talking about which politician is more God-fearing, whether Michael Jackson is a pederast, or what GM’s share price is on the Dow Jones.
And there’s the opening. We have the chance to be relevant because no one else is being relevant.
When we stop worrying about a lot of seemingly separate problems, we begin to realize that there are people out there who are thinking seamlessly and brilliantly, taking action to transform corporations, coming up with whole new ways of conceptualizing problems and imagining solutions.
Civil rights leaders in California, for example, are proposing public investment in a clean energy economy as a solution to the mass imprisonment of young African-American and Latino men and other deeply rooted problems affecting our inner cities. A small but growing number of corporate leaders are coming to understand that the whole system must be turned away from its blind and mechanical drive for profit. And we are building a critical mass of progressives who are re-orienting their work, appealing to shared values, speaking to aspiration and offering solutions instead of problems.
Something nascent and powerful is happening out there. We need to keep watching, trusting our intuition and nurturing it as it opens.