The best people to talk about politics with are comics. They're humble folk because they make a living wowing herds of fat, drunk tourists with jokes that cross all social, racial, and gender boundaries. Ergo, they don't try to throw big words around like so many Ph.D.-carriers, which really is the Homo sapien equivalent of monkeys hurling their own feces around their containment cages.
Comics speak simply and pepper their sentences with verbal ticks like "fuck." They're the first people to launch outrageous political theories without the talking head inclination of prefacing their ideologies with "According to Newsweek..." or "Abraham Lincoln once said..." Their opinions are their own, and so comics have this weird habit of saying exactly what they mean and not caring if you don't agree with them. They don't quote polls or bloggers, nor philosophers or poets. In fact, if you quoted poetry to a comic, they'd call you an asshole, or worse.
So I wasn't slightly surprised when it was a comic (I'll call him Bob) that made me reexamine the parameters of "Progressivism." Bob hadn't had a good show. "I really ate my balls," he muttered morosely. I assured him he certainly had not because such an act would surely have inspired a more enthusiastic reaction than the one he received.
Super Tuesday was days away, and so the conversation turned (as it so often does) to politics. Bob revealed that his uncle ran the campaign of one of the Republican presidential candidates. My heart seized in my chest. Running into the family member of a Republican crony in my New York City arts' circle was like spotting an endangered condor whilst hiking through a dense strip of forest. I wanted to throw a burlap sack over him and seal his body in a large preservative jar.
I tried to play it cool. Could I be sitting next to the rarest of all creatures...a Republican artist? With my voice only warbling slightly, I asked Bob what party he belonged to. Bob made a face like I stuck a huge wedge of moldy cheese under his nose.
"I agree with some conservative stuff, but I'm really a Democrat, though I hate where the party's going. They seem like Republicans now. I guess I'm like a Libertarian."
Bob seemed to defy the very laws of nature. It was like seeing a man remove his genitalia and replace it with a vagina. I wanted to scream, "YOU CAN'T DO THAT!!" A Democrat can't flirt with conservatism, and then in the same breath, claim to be a lawless Libertarian. What sort of Bizarro World crap was that?
Bob must have seen me turn purple because he spoke slowly and gently, "I just don't trust Democrats anymore."
I couldn't blame him. Eight years of Clintonism had sold the Democrat party down the river. No presidential candidate even dreamt of pushing the party left anymore out of fear of being called pinko pussies by the Neo-Conservative warmongers.
"What about Progressives?" I croaked. Bob made the cheese face again.
"Aren't those just unemployed liberals?"
Once, I had hoped for so much more from Progressives. Liberals had finally seemed to pull their shit together, put down their bongs, and formed what Matt Bai called "an argument." Where Karl Rove and the nefarious geniuses of the right mastered the smear campaign, the Progressives broke new ground with the grassroots internet campaign. MoveOn.org charged Washington like a Dick Cheney night terror and began winning local elections with their candidates. It seemed like, finally, the pendulum would swing left.
Except, in trying to gain more supporters and ever expand their email list, MoveOn began to fall victim to the old liberal vulnerability. They became the champion of too many causes. They lost their fierce focus. They almost completely abandoned the aggressive call for impeachment and immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
MoveOn never wasted a second considering backing Dennis Kucinich. Instead, their first endorsement went to Obama, certainly a more winnable candidate, but yet another example of the old Clinton cure of "triangulation." Sure, he's not as left as we'd like, but he's better than Hillary...right?
In talking to liberals, I often hear, "I'm not a Democrat. I'm a Progressive." In this statement, they say "Democrat" with a tired groan, as though the Democratic party was some silly, passé idea like the Hindenburg or those antique bikes with the huge front wheels. Meanwhile, they say "Progressive," with an air of invigoration like people moan "that was soooo good" after a delicious meal.
In the 2008 campaign season, the words "hope" and "change" cling to Progressivism's back like cheery little parasites. Progressivism, we were all promised, was the cure to eight years of seriously bad shit. Surely, I thought, this Progressive business will push the brainwashed Democrats in D.C. left. This will bring them home.
Unfortunately, centrist Democrats have sucked Progressives into their machine. In fact, Tom Matzzie, who used to be the Washington director of MoveOn, frequently attended lavish parties thrown by political moguls. There's a reason independent journalists don't accept invitations to these kind of schmoozefests. Once you take something from the political elite, they expect favors in turn.
Matzzie argued he was building bridges, but what he in fact did was help to sell out the Progressive movement of MoveOn. Instead of fearing the online revolution, the Democrats adopted MoveOn as their own personal voter Rolodex. Come campaign season, the Obama camp nodded at MoveOn, and MoveOn stepped into line.
While using the brilliant mode of small contributions en masse to get local "Progressive" candidates elected, MoveOn backed a presidential candidate, who is centrist on most of the big issues.
The media has been drooling about the Obama-Clinton pleasantry orgy, dutifully documenting how the two have very little to disagree about other than Hillary voted to go to war, while Barack only chose to vote for its continuation.
If someone is getting stabbed, and the initial attacker puts down the knife and walks away, and another person appears, picks up the knife, and resumes stabbing, do you think the victim can tell the difference between the two attackers? Ladies and Gentlemen: I bring you Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in metaphor. Iraqis can't really tell which fucker had the knife first.
But apparently MoveOn sees a really big difference because Barack is the Progressive movement's guy. However, MoveOn shouldn't have to shoulder the entire blame for this new left movement getting sucked into the center-right.
MoveOn is only the most recent, and largest, "It's the best we can do" domino to fall. Still, I understood why Bob, the comic, wrinkled his nose at the idea of Progressivism. Weren't they supposed to be the champions of the left? Weren't they the outraged hordes crying for impeachment and a full, timely pull-out of Iraq?
Maybe it was my fault for assuming all Progressives wanted the same things. Maybe it was time to stop thinking in labels, like Bob suggested. Maybe Progressivism wasn't inherently good because it was a new solution to the Democratic and Republican stalemates. No ideology is a permanent solution, not even the spunky lads and ladies of MoveOn.
There always must be a skeptical, independent presence pushing the Progressives left. Just as independent journalists were so badly needed in the lead up to, and throughout, the Iraq invasion, so now we need independents in politics to act as watchdogs for Progressives so they're not further sucked into the centrist Democratic party.
A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from a Conservative, liberal, Democrat, Republican, Progressive, or even a comic, one rainy Friday night in a dive comedy club. The point is we must always be independent of labels. We must always actively critique movements like Progressivism especially when they assume the role of representing liberal ideologies.
Money and prestige can pervert even the most stalwart revolutionary, and is up to independents to continue the fight to preserve vehicles of change so Progressivism doesn't begin to stink like rotting cheese.