Let Those With Ears Listen

If the voters of 2004 have delivered a message, it is not one that has been widely appreciated on the Left. On the pages of progressive publications, including this one, the majority who re-elected George Bush and enlarged the Republican majorities in the Senate and House have been called a number of unpleasant things with my unofficial count suggesting that "morons" was the most popular. That's a response only likely to lead to worse results the next time around.

If we still trust in voice of the citizenry, especially that of the "common" woman and man, we'd better open our ears instead of covering our egos. In perspective, voters in 2004 were telling us much the same thing that they have for the past quarter-century: most of them are not interested in New Deal liberalism anymore. It's a message Jurgen Habermas -- no moron -- has been hearing since at least the late '80s. Liberals have been on the defensive, he argues, trying to preserve the social welfare state from neoconservatives who would dismantle large portions of it. But shifts in the class makeup of the electorate and the decline of labor unions mean that progressives are fighting a "race against time," Habermas wrote.

Some upwardly-mobile citizens, having achieved a certain level of economic security through access to public education, higher wages won by collective bargaining and health benefits subsidized by the tax code, forget the debt they owe to liberals and vote with conservatives who promise "tax relief." Labor unions, the Left's key "civic organizations" in the '30s and '40s, have been in decline for a generation in the US and western Europe as these economies have shifted from a predominately manufacturing base to service industries that have proven much more difficult to organize.

But there are even more fundamental factors at work requiring a basic re-working of progressive methods and aims. The New Deal enacted a political, economic and social compromise that preserved capitalism but tempered its most pernicious effects by empowering government -- especially the federal government -- to provide a counterweight to corporate power through some regulation of economic activity, maintenance of a minimal social "safety net" and limited protection for efforts to organize workers for collective bargaining. While this program has been quite effective in North America and western Europe, it has relied upon a high level of confidence and support for government institutions among the citizenry -- and that confidence and support has been in decline for the past 40 years. The Harris Confidence Index has measured a drop in confidence in both the executive and legislative branches of the US federal government from the low 40s in the mid-'60s to the mid-teens by the end of the '90s. The crisis of 9/11 produced only a brief resurgence in these levels. This phenomenon is not limited to the US either. Throughout the advanced industrial world, respect for institutions and authority has been decreasing, seemingly as a symptom of the transition to a postmodern worldview. Those who nominate government as society's primary problem-solver have an increasingly difficult case to make.

This continuing drop in confidence in the state as the protector of human rights, welfare and dignity is not only the result of the increasingly skeptical, postmodern mind. The very vision of a better world formulated by progressives has lost its power and cogency. Influenced to some extent by Marx and his emphasis on work as the defining human characteristic, the Left's program of reform was directed primarily at the workplace and the employment relationship, but the emergence of at least the potential for the elimination of scarcity has reminded us that human beings do not live by bread alone. There is more to life than earning a living, and the progressive movement has done little to address these changed circumstances.

The old progressive movement is in its death throes. It accomplished much in the US from the '30s through the '70s, but it has been largely on the defensive for the last 25 years. Now, even its proudest achievements are threatened by an ascendant neoconservative movement. If we do no more than reiterate old visions and rehashed solutions, we will find ourselves designating an ever-larger portion of the electorate as "morons" as we watch our society devolve further and further toward crisis and even disintegration.

There is an alternative. We can pour out the old wine and decant new. But new wine will require new grapes. There are a myriad of possible sources for a vision that responds to circumstances radically changed since 1932 but that can still be called progressive. One is the Christian tradition that remembers Jesus who found human identity neither in Marx's capacity for work nor the Pharisees' call to "be holy as God is holy," but in the ancient prophetic exhortation to "be compassionate as God is compassionate." Made even more radical by his insistence that human beings were not only obligated to refrain from doing harm to one another but also to do good, Jesus' formulation extended beyond family, tribe and nation to social outcasts and even enemies. What could be more consonant with the core progressive concern for human welfare, dignity and community?

"Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:27-36.)

Let those who have ears listen. The voters are telling us of their confusion, their alienation, their fear -- and their lack of trust in the 70 year-old formulas we're offering them. If we can but hear and understand, this can be the moment in history when a newly revitalized progressive movement can help lead the nation toward an exciting new vision, toward a world filled with mercy and compassion.

Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and member of the bar in South Carolina and co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting the work of South Carolina progressives. Email See Jurgen Habermas, "The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies," in Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics [Beacon Press, 1989], Steven Waldman, ed.

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