Why Progressives & Moderates Need Each Other

Why Progressives & Moderates Need Each Other March 6, 2020

In our current political moment, there is a lot of talk about the division in the Democratic party about the “moderate” versus the “progressive” wing of the party. Moderates, according to the progressives, are folks who just want to keep the corrupt establishment working on behalf of themselves and are unwilling to enact real, transformative, change that is essential to make our government work for all of the people. Progressives, according to the moderates, are those who simply want to tear down the entire system that our nation has been working to build for two centuries, and who want the government to answer all of societies problems (most of them are financial) with the snap of the fingers without consideration of the effects such changes would have on every aspect of our society. Both have fair critiques of the other, and the truth is that there is substantial difference between the two groups within the Democratic party. But much of what has been said on social media and in partisan publications about the “other” is projection, demonization, and fearmongering at best.

As a Christian Pastor, I spend a lot of time thinking about the example of Jesus, who for me is more than a religious figure, but was and is a compelling social revolutionary. The socio-political movement that he started has been at work in the world for over 2,000 years and, when it’s been used in the way he intended, has been incredibly effective at transforming both individual lives and societies. Jesus was a political radical, a progressive one might say, who was unafraid to call out social injustice where he saw it in the sharpest language possible. When he saw economic exploitation, he engaged in direct action and acts of protest. When he saw the establishment seeking to perpetuate oppression, he stood arm in arm with the oppressed, risking his own life and calling out their own evil.

At the same time, Jesus understood something profound about human nature- that substantive change was a process and was most effective when people underwent a true transformation of heart and mind which he called metanoia, which is often translated as “repentance” but is better understood as the “expanding of the mind”. He spoke of his social revolution in terms that frustrated his followers because it failed to deliver his vision of a utopian society immediately- he said, “the kingdom of God is like a seed planted in a field, which in due time will grow into a large tree.” Time and time again, he used metaphors for the expansion of the Kingdom (which was just a word that meant, “the world as God intended it to be”) that implied that it would be a measured process of expansion and growth through the transformation first of individuals, who then would transform societies and the world.

Jesus understood something about how social change must happen- he instructed his followers to work to ensure that the poor had food, clothing, and shelter, and to sacrifice their own good for the common good of others. In other words, start engaging in doing tangible acts of justice right now, and at the same time, resist the evil of the empire and push for change both through direct action and through winning individuals over to his vision for the good of the world. And this is how Christians functioned for the first few centuries after Jesus was on earth. They began creating radical change on the grassroots level in their own communities, they engaged in “evangelizing” which was less about inviting people to a new religion, and more about inviting them to a new socio-political vision for the world, and they resisted and strongly opposed unjust rulers in their day.

In other words, the example of Jesus is one the married the so-called progressives demand for justice now and the so-called moderates desire to make change through a measured process. And I believe that this model is essential for us in this moment of American history, not only if we’re going to win the election, but if we’re actually going to be effective agents of change in the next administration. The truth is that we need each other- progressives and moderates- if we’re going to transform this nation into the more just and equal country we hope for. We’re not each others enemies, and as long as we act as if we are, we significantly stifle our ability to bring about the change that we long for.

Progressives need moderates, because the truth is that if we don’t seek to convince people across this country that our answers will actually benefit them and the country as a whole, they’re not going to vote for us. Super Tuesday gave us a glimpse into the truth of this- Senator Sanders believed that he had built a broad and diverse coalition among people of color in the South, and yet badly lost the black vote to a so-called “moderate” Vice President Biden. Why? Most analysis shows that the progressive failed to convince voters that their vision was even possible and could ultimately beat President Trump. Because progressives have relied primarily on their righteous indignation and allowed group think to take over making them believe that “everyone” would simply see how right their way was, they have left behind what looks like a majority of the country.

Moderates, likewise, need progressives. The truth is that there are major aspects of our system that are broken, and there are far too many political and business leaders that are content to keep things as they are because it benefits them instead of everyone else. To simply write off the real anger and outrage of the progressive coalition (and even the anger of the far right) shows that moderates are truly out of touch with the lived reality of so many Americans- especially minorities. We got a glimpse of this in the Nevada Primary race, where Senator Sanders mobilized an overwhelming majority of Latinx voters across the state who have suffered under both Trump and Obama era policies regarding healthcare, immigration, and education. To tell these voters that we really need is a return to Obama era policies is not only offensive, but is in itself unjust. A promise of a return to the way things have been is unacceptable, and unless moderates wake up to the new for what Elizabeth Warren called “big structural change”, we will likewise isolate a majority of the country.

Both the progressive and moderate Democrat approach to transforming our country are necessary to create substantive and lasting change. Our experience and perspective may lead us to different dispositions in our political engagement, but the truth is we both by and large want the same things. We want a country that works better for everyone, especially minorities and the disadvatanged. We want a democracy free from political corruption and corporate greed. We want everyone to have access to adequate healthcare, a good education, and a chance to build a prosperous life without crushing debt. We all know that we must take drastic action to reverse climate change, and we all desire a robust approach to address the systemic racism that has been infused into the fabric of our national identity. We may disagree on how this should happen, but we do agree that these things should happen.
So then, what are we to do? The fact is we do have two candidates that starkly represent these two positions. Some of us support one and some of us support the other. And we’re likely going to be frustrated by one another as the fight between the two campaigns gets even more aggressive in the coming months. The truth is that I don’t have any answers. My hope is that whomever becomes the Democratic nominee will choose a Vice President and administration officials that represent the other side of the party- because again, we need both the “progressive” and “moderate” energies in order to create lasting change in this country. But my bigger hope is that we would reflect on and remember that when we’re feeling the most angst and frustration between now and November, that our Democratic “others” are by and large our siblings in the fight for a better future of our country. Both sides energies are essential. And generally we’re fighting for similar ends.

If we can remind ourselves of these things, then maybe our own fears will be quelled just a little bit more, and maybe we won’t sling so much mud at each other. Maybe our debates will become a little more civil, and the message that we send to the rest of the nation is not that our party is hopelessly divided by enemies within, but that change is possible and that there is a light at the end of this exhausting and terrifying tunnel after all. Maybe, just maybe. It seems well worth a try.


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