A Necessary Conflict

In the wake of November’s elections, a chorus of voices is calling on President Obama to return to a “post-partisan” vision for governing.  But here is what’s needed: an honest clash of values and interests, a debate revealing to Americans who really gets helped and who gets hurt by progressive and conservative policies.

The reaction reflects an aversion to conflict in politics that dates to our nation’s founders, who sharply criticized “factions” and went to great lengths to paper over differences among the original colonies, such as omitting the word “slavery” from the Constitution while still protecting the infernal practice.

Of course, the tension could not be contained and only 70 years later erupted into civil war.  Yet, on one of its bloodiest battlefields, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address defiantly declared Americans to be one people with the immortal phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Once again, we face a decisive moment, a brewing conflict that will define our nation and what it means to be an American.

To some degree, the question has already been decided by the tides of immigration. Demography is destiny in a democracy and by 2050 the United States will be majority nonwhite, according to Census projections.

But we live in an imperfect democracy, growing ever more so.  Our system is poisonously imbalanced by the skyrocketing concentration of wealth and the opening floodgates to corporate contributions to political campaigns.  A lopsided conflict is being waged with the interests of the rich organized, well-funded, and winning.

But you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric of right-wing demagogues, such as Sarah Palin, calling for “real Americans” to “take this country back.”  The world is, indeed, a scary place with terrorism, war, and economic dislocation threatening our lives and livelihoods.  But the right-wing has defined the culprits as immigrants, Muslims, gays, and other marginalized groups.  In doing so, conservatives have enlisted many working and middle-class Americans in opposing their own interests.

Progressives need to fully enter this fray, and they need to do so with an ideology, one grounded in facts and values, telling a coherent, compelling story that explains our problems, describes solutions, and fosters solidarity among those sharing genuine interests.  Both progressives and conservatives are drawing from the same well of discontentment, confusion, and fear.  Progressives must direct these sentiments against those attacking programs and policies, from Social Security to public education, that help the vast majority of Americans, regardless of color, ethnicity, or other identity.

Progressives must also uphold rules of engagement that reflect and reinforce our nation’s greatest values.  These include respect for free speech and the rule of law.  Perhaps most importantly are a commitment to non-violence and respect for the humanity of others.  The right wing’s paranoid worldview, populated by enemies and “un-Americans,” undermines these fundamental principles, fraying the fabric of society and weakening democracy.

Finally, progressives must struggle with every resource they can command.  The most powerful are organizations – unions, political parties, community groups – that unite, engage, and mobilize.  However, the right wing is attacking these institutions, destroying the anti-poverty organization ACORN and assaulting public employee unions.  Insidiously, they are promoting non-partisan primaries which will weaken parties, empower wealthy self-financed candidates, and promote a homogenous political landscape that obscures conflict.

It’s time to loudly proclaim the right wing as advancing the interests of the few against the many, promoting second-class citizenship, and undermining the foundations of society.  Progressives can win the hearts and minds of the American people, but only if they fully engage in this necessary conflict.

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