Given the reaction I got to my Democratic Divide post from Huffington Post readers and in posts from smart bloggers like Chris Bowers, Steve Benen and Cliff Schecter, I have been inspired to do a series of posts on building progressive power, which will begin soon. However, I wanted to respond to a reader, and to many friends over the years, who have asked that I define what I meant by the term progressive. It's a thematic question that is at the heart of many of our political debates- over what primary candidates to support, what issues and tactical battles to prioritize, etc- and it's a phrase that our movement has not done a very good job, to our detriment, of defining.
I thought the best way to do this was to adopt some language from a letter I wrote to a nephew who is a very conservative Republican about what I believe and why, so apologies for the family history, but this will give you (a very personal) sense of what I believe the progressive narrative is:
I believe a country should do the best that it can to be like a good family. In the family I grew up in, we were taught to look out for each other, to take care of the ones who were sick and give a helping hand to those struggling to find their way. We were told to share our toys, and be gentle and kind with each other. We were told to keep an eye on the neighbor kids and help them if they were in trouble.
We were lucky that we grew up in families like that, way too many folks don't. I was a special beneficiary of it. A little bit of family history you may not know: when I was about 2 months old, I got a toy caught in my throat when I was in the crib. Luckily for me, your grandma walked by before it was too late, but it was in there long enough to cause some brain damage. (Aha, you say, now I know why he is a liberal Democrat! And it might be part of the reason.) As a result of the accident, I developed a mild form of cerebral palsy. It took me a long time to walk and I had braces on my legs for a few years. It meant that I was a terrible athlete, always the slowest and most uncoordinated in my classes in school. But my confidence didn't suffer, and I never felt sorry for myself because of the kind of family we had. Everybody in the family treated me with great kindness and patience and gave me the support I needed to flourish.
Another step that was central to my growing up was that before I can even remember, an African family, came to Lincoln so that the husband could study at Nebraska Wesleyan. When his wife suffered a miscarriage, your grandparents heard about it and about how deeply depressed they were. They reached out to them and became their family away from home. This was in the late '50s/early '60s, and they didn't think twice about taking foreigners, Africans, into their home. A few years later, another African family came as well. I was in middle elementary school by then, and I walked their younger kids to school. More than once, we were confronted by bullies yelling "nigger" and worse. My courage sometimes failed me, but I knew my job was to hold their hands and take their part and comfort them afterwards.
When I was 11, your grandparents took another stranger into our home, a foster child with mental and physical disabilities you now know as one of your uncles. I wasn't sure at first about dealing with his disabilities, and I didn't always do as well as I should have, but I knew my job was to play ball and hang out with him just the way my older siblings did with me. And I grew to love him as my brother, and my relationship with him has been one of the most fulfilling in my life.
Like any good family, our family took care of the weak and the slow and the disabled, instead of making fun of them. We welcomed the stranger and the immigrant. We loved the kids who were "different" just as much as we loved the kids without special needs. We were taught not to make fun of people who were different, but to take special care of them. That's what I want America to be. That's why I rejected a party whose leader in the 1980s (Reagan) made fun of "welfare queens" and whose leader in the 1990s (Gingrich) described Republicans as the party for "normal Americans." Normal Americans? I guess that wouldn't have included me with my cerebral palsy, or others in the family and neighborhood with disabilities. I preferred to be part of a party and movement that embraced those who were different, not as talented or lucky or rich or normal as other people.
I want an America that welcomes and looks out for the people who are different and who are weaker and who are hungry and who are sick and who are immigrants, just like my family did. I prefer the philosophy that we are all in this together rather than one that says you are on your own. That's why I am a progressive. I know both parties and movements have their faults, but I have always preferred to err on the side of compassion and gentleness than to risk the sins of unkindness and intolerance, sins which I feel your party and the conservative movement sometimes fall victim to.
So there you have it, how I explain progressivism and why I believe in it. I would love to get your responses: is the family narrative (my own family history aside) a good way to describe our movement? Is there a better way to tell our story and define ourselves? I would love to know what you think.
Mike Lux is the President of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and does consulting for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies, L.L.C.