If You Aren’t Progressive, What Are You? (Hint: It’s Not Conservative)

If You Aren’t Progressive, What Are You? (Hint: It’s Not Conservative) August 10, 2018

New trend: political ads in which a GOP incumbent says that his opponent is “too progressive” for the area.

As if an “area” can have a singular identity. As if a town/region/state/county/district can now, in this America, include only people of singular belief and values. As if we aren’t wildly complicated creatures who come to our belief by way of life and relationship and hardship. As if it were all that simple.

They want it to be that simple.

The idea that an “area” is either progressive or conservative is a misnomer. There are people with progressive and conservative values in every place, and all people deserve representation. These “not one of us” and “not really from here” designations are bogus gaslighting tactics. And too often, they work.

When Sharice Davids–a Native American woman who is also a lesbian–won the democratic nomination for the Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, incumbent Kevin Yoder started in immediately. “She isn’t from here,” his ads now say. “She doesn’t understand our Kansas values.” But … she went to Leavenworth High School (in KANSAS) and then the local community college (before, you know, Cornell Law School). And did I mention she is Native American?? How much more FROM here can you be?

But casting doubt on someone’s origins–or rather, someone’s “sameness” in regards to some vaguely established norm–is the standard MO when you’ve literally got nothing else to throw (e.g., the birther movement).

Same thing happened in Kentucky, when Congressman Andy Barr went after opponent Amy McGrath. Similar tactic–he alluded to her being “too progressive for the area” and “out of touch with Kentucky values.” Then he brought out the big guns. He said she is also–wait for it–a feminist. He said this and waited for his supporters to recoil in horror. No! Not a feminist! Anything but a woman who wants equal pay and to not have her ass grabbed at work!! Stop the madness!

Her response was excellent though. It amounted to: I’m also a military fighter pilot bro, what else you got? (I’m paraphrasing. But that was my takeaway).

It’s not just the campaign field. In a recent spot-on Fox News broadcast, host Laura Ingram referenced the sweeping “demographics changes” that have been “foisted on Americans” by immigration … changes that “most Americans” don’t even want, she says. Except of course “progressives LOVE illegal immigration!” See what she did there? Managed to get in a dig at brown people AND progressives, all in one swipe! Yes, she has caught some flak for the overtly racist implications (which she swears weren’t about race, you guys, relax!), but it’s still out there.

The broader picture is: words like “liberal” and “feminist” have taken on loaded connotations in the current political climate. Everyone from Andy Barr to Kevin Yoder to Fox News now employs the word “progressive” as an expletive, like it’s the worst possible thing you can be.

What I want to know is this: if you’re NOT for progress, WTF are you for?

Because the opposite of “progressive” is not conservative: it is regressive. 

And that’s really where we are now. If you aren’t for moving forward, you are for moving back. There’s no standing still in this toxic, polarized climate we’ve created. We’re either for giving more rights, or we’re for taking them away. We’re either for more inclusion, or less. We’re for fixing broken healthcare and education systems–or we’re actively contributing to their demise.

The labels of “liberal” and “conservative” are both problematic, and each has been demonized by the other. Maybe we can’t change or reclaim the language itself, but we can refuse to let our political candidates use those words alone as a litmus test for belonging. What we’re really pushing back against here is the idea that “American” or “conservative” (or Kansan or Kentuckian or whatever) must somehow, fundamentally, mean “we are all the same.” That’s un-American and it’s nonsense.

Meanwhile, if you do consider yourself a “conservative” in the most literal sense–as in, supporting smaller government and less spending, etc.–then fine. You do you. But if you’re using “conservatism” as a label to cover all manner of sins: from racism and homophobia to nationalism and blatant misogyny, then skip us with that. You aren’t a true conservative, you are a victim of the worst kind of identity politicking. Reject the notion that “not from here” or “not like us” is somehow a crime or a sin against the integrity of American “values.”

Clearly, I don’t think my own views are necessarily “liberal” in the strictest sense of the world. I am for progress–for the advancement of human life and liberty. That means my values are equality, diversity, opportunity, the health and well-being of all… And I just keep coming back to my original question. If you aren’t for these things, then what, or whom, are you for?

There’s left and there’s right … and then there’s backwards. Let’s don’t let the labels confuse us.

This has gone so far beyond a two-party system. I’m all for moderation, for learning to meet in the middle again. Our democracy, and maybe human life itself, depends on it. But first, we have to change the quality of our discourse. We need to demand a more nuanced kind of engagement from our elected officials. When they start running attack ads based on the most over-simplified labels imaginable, we have to push back and say we expect a better conversation. Tell them you expect to see real engagement around actual issues. Don’t settle for less. And whatever you do, don’t be going backwards.

"Yes. But I guess he just wanted to beat that drum in his face."

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