Yet The New York Times keeps talking about the demise of progressivism and the American Left.
Maybe the real problem is that the Right is co-opting progressivism and adopting the Left’s positions.
If God, Guns, and Gays used to be the Republicans’ rallying points in the Culture War decades leading up to 2010, this year the new, tea-party-inflected Right features gun-toting feminists and gay-marriage-loving libertarians.
Whether or not the Democrats take a drubbing at the polls in November, you can’t really argue that the country is beating a straight path to the right.
In recent columns by David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Matt Bai, we hear a lot about “the agony of the liberals” (Douthat), who made a Faustian bargain when they elected Obama (Brooks) because they didn’t realize that the new American populism is not anti-corporate, it’s anti-government (Bai).
The pundits, reading from the same songbook, say the Democrats are going down because Americans are a lot more conservative than they realized. Old-fashioned ideas like global warming, the necessity of a social safety net, and regulation of oil companies are not where it’s at, you see.
But it is just not that simple. American politics are a tangle of contradictory impulses, some progressive, some regressive. Just go to a tea party rally and try to sort it all out.
Case in point: A recent speech in which Palin repeatedly used the F-word lit up the blogosphere, and received ample press coverage, including the cover story in Newsweek.
Is Sarah Palin’s feminism real?
Her supporters seem to think so.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, says no. You can’t be a feminist and oppose basic legal protections for women, Valenti argues. It’s not enough to come out for women’s suffrage 100 year after the fact. The Susan B. Anthony feminists, as Palin and her antiabortion allies call themselves, are opportunists in Valenti’s view, taking a ride on the legal and cultural transformations wrought by the women’s movement of the last few decades, while coming out against every advance for women since the advent of the bicycle and the demise of the hoop skirt.
Betsy Reed of the Nation goes further and shows how Palin and her “mama grizzly” sisters specifically oppose policies that make life livable for working mothers.
Like Phyllis Schlafly before her, Palin promotes a vision of true womanhood that works for her because she’s rich, privileged, and gets a pass on many of the tenets she espouses since she lives her life on the lecture circuit. But her vision leaves her less fortunate sisters to drown in the overwhelming demands of work and family in a society that has still not figured out how to allow women, like men, to reasonably manage both.
Still, as Abby Scher points out, Palin’s feminism is not meaningless, because it clearly means a lot to her base. It shows how conservative women’s image of themselves has evolved, and how ideas like working motherhood, fathers who help at home, and a Title IX image of female strength has completely transformed the culture.
Feminism has changed the thinking not just of women who identify with the women’s movement, but even conservative Christians. That is really saying something about the power of the feminist message.
In the last few years, we have also moved from the dark warnings about “the Gay Agenda” to a culture in which homosexuality is widely accepted as normal. A whole generation is growing up in a world full of people who are openly gay. And even people who grew up in a more closeted and homophobic era have been profoundly changed by gay liberation. Take a look at the pro-gay-marriage argument made by one of conservatism’s brightest legal minds in Perry v. Schwarzenegger—the closely watched court case on California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8.
So compelling was the plaintiffs’ testimony in the Prop 8 trial, the lawyers for the state did everything they could to prevent a public airing of the case, and succeeded in keeping cameras out of the courtroom. They knew they were on the wrong side of public sentiment in presenting their case against equal rights for gay people, especially since they were relying on the expert opinion of anti-gay activist George Rekers, who was caught in the hypocrisy and sex scandal of the year, allegedly consorting with a young man from an escort service called “RentBoy.com.”
But the sleaziness of the anti-gay-marriage side wasn’t the most compelling thing about the trial.
What was most moving was the closing argument of Ted Olson, George W. Bush’s Solicitor General and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Olson’s compassion for the plaintiffs in the suit came through poignantly in his closing:
“I think it's really important, given what the Supreme Court has said about marriage and what the proponents said about marriage, to hear what the plaintiffs have said about marriage and what it means to them, in their own words. . . . The plaintiffs have said that marriage means to them freedom, pride. These are their words. Dignity. Belonging. Respect. Equality. Permanence. Acceptance. Security. Honor. Dedication. And a public commitment to the world.
“ One of the plaintiffs said, ‘It's the most important decision you make as an adult.’ Who could disagree with that? . . .
“If we had the time, Your Honor, I could not present a more compelling closing argument than simply replaying the testimony in its entirety than the four plaintiffs and Helen Zia. They have described from their hearts what marriage means to them, what it does to them and says about them to be denied that right. If we did nothing else in this trial, that would be enough.”
How far have women and gay people come in a world that once casually discriminated against us, laughed at the very idea of our equal human rights?
Whatever happens to the Democrats in November, progressives should not feel that all is lost.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her piece “School Testing Gets Absurd.”
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter