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Why isn’t strong progressive sentiment translating into real change?

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Young people today are more politically sentient and socially progressive than any of their antecedent generations. The explosion of the use of social media as a political platform has allowed for the frictionless spread of information about pertinent social causes on an unprecedented scale. But, this new brand of progressivism is at risk of tripping over its own feet owing to a dangerous neglect of reason, moderation, and compromise. A progressive movement seeking change which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Keith Vaz or Barbara Reynolds is not going to achieve its aims. After all, progressive politics is fundamentally a commitment to social equity and unity. 

It is difficult to discuss the recent fate of social progressivism without noting approaches to addressing racial injustice. 

The tragedy of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Derek Chauvin in May last year precipitated widespread outrage and a consensus that more must be done to address racial injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement, started in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, was at the centre of this, and quickly gathered an impressive convoy of support. From May 22 to August 22, there were more than 10,600 BLM protest events in the United States alone. The movement carried considerable legitimacy, and yet, as of now, the layman would struggle to identify significant tangible change that has occurred since last summer. 

Progressive politics must ask itself why. 

One answer lies in its failure to compromise its aims into something digestible and realistic. A commitment to legal reform and a greater focus on unconscious bias (especially in law enforcement) soon gave way to a flourishing of far broader, more radical demands. These proposals eschewed pragmatism and dragged the movement to its extremes – polarising moderates and taking the movement further away from achieving change. Most notable were proposals to defund the police – a proposal that efficiently deterred many former supporters who, whilst wholly supportive of its powerful call to arms against racial injustice, were not willing to commit to a fundamental rewriting of the social contract. We have already started to see that the consequences of demands for a full-scale deconstruction of the police are not symmetrical with an advancement of stated aims. 

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered in May last year, the call to disband the city’s police department was particularly strong. Lisa Bender, the city council president, was one of the loudest voices. Fellow council member, Jeremiah Ellison tweeted, “we are going to dismantle the Minneapolis police department”. In June, the city council followed through with a further proposal to ask voters to approve replacing the police with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The proposal was blocked in August and scuttled in November after the city’s charter commission unanimously voted against it. In the end, Minneapolis’ police budget was trimmed by just 4.5%, a disappointing result. Here, it is certainly worth asking whether, had the initial demands been moderated, the outcome would have been more satisfactory. Moderation allows for productive discourse. Productive discourse allows for compromise, on both sides. I strongly suspect that, had the initial demand not been for a full dismantling of the police, and instead, a reallocation of resources (say, 10%), the progressive cause would have celebrated a more progressive result.

This is just one example of a progressive movement building a car of considerable moral weight, organising a convoy, then deciding to drive at 200mph, and crashing into a tree a mile from the starting point. One could go through a catalogue of progressive causes and find similar results – from Extinction Rebellion to #MeToo to – although perhaps a stretch – Corbyn’s Labour Party. 

Partly as a consequence of its failure to compromise its aims, progressive politics is also failing on a local level to build coalitions strong enough to achieve change, especially online. Issues that demand an acute sensitivity to nuance are approached with Manichean absolutism; complex political debates are constructed as moral binaries between good and evil. This routine of discourse assumes positions, and those representing those positions, to be entirely beyond reproach – which is entirely wrong, and self-defeating. There are, after all, shades of grey to everything; shades of grey that matter. 

This is especially true on social media, where this fundamentalism is most apparent. Social media is essentially a public platform for self-projection, for people to say to the world, where previously it was not possible to reach such a wide audience, ‘here I am, here’s what I do, here’s what I like and dislike, and here’s how I feel about the world’. The conflation of the first and the last is at the essence of why progressives are not winning allies online. Political disagreements about progressive causes on social media are seen as fundamental attacks on another’s identity makeup and value system. Progressives often view those who query them as entirely disagreeing with their whole makeup. This creates an inhospitable environment for cooperation. Consequently, a lot of progressive discourse online ends in irreconcilable arguments that further entrench both parties asunder.

Equally, progressives need to engage more cooperatively with those with whom they are not entirely aligned. They should understand that the inquiry by someone of their online political material is not necessarily a signal that they wholly disagree with the progressive cause, and they should not chastise them for falling “on the wrong side of history”. Social media is undeniably a powerful platform that, in the absence of traditional lobbyist caucuses, is the most obvious arena for progressives. But they need to learn to use it more effectively. 

Now, it is possible to say that the alienating aspects of progressive activism on social media is a function of the internet’s nature. The internet is a vast marketplace of information, and each deliverer of information is fighting every other deliverer for attention. If this were a normal marketplace, the most valuable, or best, pieces of information rise to the top and achieve the most exposure. However, the internet is a marketplace of soundbites and 140 characters. This is in addition to the fact that the profit motive of social media companies is to keep users online, rather than show them a fair spread of material. As such, the most noteworthy, and therefore most exposed, is often the most radical and/or aggressive. 

This, however, is not a significant enough qualification for social media activism to be irrevocably doomed. There has been some success online – notably: Everyone’s Invited, whose inclusive message has brought it deep and lasting attention and support. These methods need to be emulated. 

Great change is only ever achieved through compromise and moderation. It will not be easy, and results will never be perfect for everyone; that is the nature of politics. Progressives today should look to the New Deal and Great Society coalitions of their grandparents’ generation for instructive guidance. 

Most distressingly, weak progressive activism is playing directly into the hands of the cultural right. The over-toleration of extreme voices by progressives has allowed the cultural right to conflate the moderates with the radicals, delegitimizing the cause as a whole, and winning public support in doing so. BLM protests were overwhelmingly peaceful but the behaviour and overinfluence of an extreme few allowed Trump to justify guarding the Capitol with the heavily armed national guard last summer. 

Progressives face a crossroads. There is a groundswell of favourable public opinion that will only grow stronger as Gen Z and X get older and gain political leverage. The progressive cause is in danger of losing out on this support unless it learns to be less dogmatic, more sensitive to nuance, more compassionate, and more mature to compromise. The public strongly support campaigns against racism, climate change, and -isms (not at all intended to be disparaging) of all kinds, but they are sceptical of radicalism. They want leaders to lead and not outsource their opinion to pressure groups. The course of the brave progressive activist is to use their limited resources most effectively to advance their cause, and to make it clear that they are not going to be bullied into radicalism by fringe voices. 

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