As the old year comes to a close and a new one begins, it is natural to reflect. And, to progressives, last year was marked by various victories and defeats. For all the expansions in health care coverage, same-sex marriage rights, decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, and positive job numbers, there were setbacks in racial relations, police brutality, income inequality, and even Congressional representation. But, it is important to note that none of these are actually wins or losses. They are merely steps forward or back in a fight that is far from over. It is easy to forget this, as many of these steps backward certainly felt like losses, and progressives–myself included–want so badly for the steps forward to be wins.
This reality was put into perspective by David Kaib in a piece titled, “Every inch won should lead us to demand more.” The entire post is well worth a read, but there were a few portions I found to be especially good reminders that each step forward is not an end of a fight, but rather a toehold for a new attack. His piece begins by pointing out that even our “victories” are not always what they seem. He uses the example of the proposed minimum wage increase. A push for $10.10/hour by President Obama and many Democrats is progress, but it falls far short of the $15 demanded by workers. Settling for the smaller wage is not a win, it is a concession, further diminished by the fact that loopholes and partisan politics mean few will actually see their wages rise to $10.10 any time soon. Victories are not made of half-measures. There are numerous examples of similar concessions dressed up as progressive victories. The Affordable Care Act has led to millions of people getting heath insurance, but to celebrate it as a win ignores that the real goal should have been universal Medicare-style coverage for all Americans. A step in the right direction does not mean that the fight has been won. And, to fawn over notable progressives is to be blind to the fact that they are still outnumbered in Congress by those on the fringes of the right.
The inclination to declare premature victory seems to me a common affliction, as evidenced by the responses to the election of Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio. Another example is the victory laps taken in response to a small number of members of Congress embracing ideas like Social Security expansion or postal banking. Celebrating steps along the way is essential, but too often it seems like the first steps are treated as evidence of a changed game.
And, he is correct. It is not enough for a few members of Congress to embrace progressive issues. They need to fight for them. They need to win over other members of their party. They need to propose legislation, and most importantly, they need to pass it. Now, the realities of being a minority party in Congress make the latter goal highly implausible, at least for now. But, that does not mean that it should be dismissed as a goal. Why admit defeat without fighting the fight? And, it is not just our representatives who must wage this battle. We must play our part by demanding it of them. We must support candidates who take a bold stand on truly progressive issues. A stalemate in Congress is no reason to propose anything less than everything we want. Even if Republicans oppose voting rights, or women’s health care, or gun control, or environmental regulation, we should not stop fighting for them.
For many progressives, the thought of being on the “right side” of an issue is enough. The thinking seems to be that patience will win out in the end, that sooner or later, everyone else will come around and see the light. After all, if what is right is evident to us, surely everyone else must see it eventually, right? And, fighting is so ugly and uncivilized. Instead, we gather our facts and our altruistic ideals and wait for the world to catch up, hoping that truth or science or simply compassion for other humans will do our fighting for us. And, that is why we have to settle for half-measures instead of full victories. We cannot win if we are not willing to fight.
People love the idea of winning without a fight. You see that in the hope of many Democrats that the Republicans will be so extreme that voters will reject them without Democrats having to take a stand on anything. You see it in their insistence that demographic changes will lead to the demise of the Republican Party, despite the fact that those demographics are malleable and a product of politics. You see it when people offer charts and stats alone as if bare facts ever convinced anyone of anything, or their efforts to argue in favor of (mildly) liberal ends from conservative starting points. You see it in the efforts to avoid taking stances that conservatives will oppose (as if they won’t move to oppose what ever previously reasonable position liberals take.) You see it in the simultaneous claim that the ACA is a great success and a frustration its opponents are still pushing back.
But, we cannot win without a fight. That is why we must not only be willing to fight, but eager. We must identify the things that are worth fighting for and then take a stand, boldly. Being right is simply not enough. Truth can be a weapon, but we must wield it. It gives us an advantage, but it will not defeat ignorance or folly if we do not use it. It can change hearts and minds, but only if it is unsheathed. And, that means charging into battle. We can make the change we want, but we have to earn it. Change will not happen unless we make it.
Kaib–and Frederick Douglass–agrees:
I love the idea of winning a fight. I love it because our opponents are wrong and deserve to be beaten. I love it because winning begets winning. I love it because, as Frederick Douglass taught us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
He emphasizes the word “fight,” and that is important. The fight–the struggle–is what matters. Our opponents are wrong, and they do deserve to be beaten. And, each step forward makes the next one more attainable.
Kaib then reminds us the value of having a “utopian demand.” We can aim for small victories, but aiming higher can yield greater rewards. It is not foolish to want more than what seems easily won. This type of grand ambition is required to truly make any kind of drastic change. Why settle for $10.10/hour if we deserve $15? Why settle for insurance for some when we should have insurance for everyone? Why settle at all?
There is no room for subtlety. Only bold stands will work. The refusal to settle for anything less than victory is the only way to move forward. Deep down, we know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded. We must march, we must shout, we must vote, and we must fight, because we must win.