THE BLOG
09/05/2014 09:51 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Progressives Losing Their Way, at Home and Abroad

This is the most recent statement by an American president about progressive values:

I'm here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we're greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic or Republican values. These aren't 1% or 99% values. They're American values, and we have to reclaim them.

While I don't consider the president a progressive but more of a centrist, his statement follows in the long tradition of Presidents Roosevelt. It has been clear for the past century what being a progressive means, yet this past year there have been significant attempts to redefine the meaning, for the sake of money on the one hand and hatred on the other.

I wrote two blog posts in July detailing the shift within the Democratic Party to excise economic justice from the progressive agenda. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has been far more brazen than Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, but they are both at the nexus of state party politics, which supports the 1 percent on economic matters, doing its best to water down any movement to help those who need it the most. Both state parties highlight their support for LGBT rights -- specifically marriage equality -- as evidence of their progressive bona fides. Support for LGBT rights is a progressive ideal, though it took some time to make it so, but it cannot be used to cover the sell-out to moneyed interests when it comes to an economic agenda.

Everyone in Maryland and New York, let alone the rest of the country, is not getting a fair shot, and people are not playing by the same rules. In a Labor Day op-ed the Washington Post's economics columnist, Robert Samuelson (not he of the famed economics textbook), opined that "workers are at the mercy of the market." That's not newsworthy, but he parenthetically added, "Note that unions aren't a plausible alternative to markets because they represent only 7 percent of private workers. The minimum wage suffers from a similar scale problem." So after 35 years of Republican destruction of workers' rights and unionization, Mr. Samuelson and his tea party friends are recognizing that "workers are at the mercy of the market."

I've written before about Professor Thomas Piketty and his conclusion that an equitable economy requires strong government action, not laissez-faire, and certainly not the gutting of the few safeguards the middle and lower classes have. Unfortunately, today we live in a world where increasing the number of casinos and lowering the estate tax are considered sound Democratic policies because the neighboring states are doing so and every other state must compete on their terms. With respect to Gov. O'Malley and the gaming industry:

"Anybody who's a progressive, who considers themselves an intellectual, they don't like the issue either," [Maryland Senate President Mike] Miller said. At the same time, he said, "If [O'Malley] hadn't gotten involved, it absolutely, positively would not have happened."

Now, I have no idea what the Senate president means by using the term "intellectual" in this instance, but he's completely correct that gaming is not a progressive issue. It was one of the reasons I repeatedly said during my recent Senate campaign that my opponent, Maryland State Sen. Richard Madaleno, one of gaming's leading proponents, was not a progressive. I'm grateful that others are beginning to talk about this.

My other concern about the damage being done to the progressive movement relates to a major foreign-policy issue of the summer, one about which I rarely write because it's not in my current editorial bailiwick. I know a great deal about the history of the Middle East, but because I focus on local politics, I stay out of the fray. This issue, however, threatens to explode the growing progressive movement in this country, and given the history of the American left, it is of urgent concern.

Immanuel Kant identified progress as being a movement away from barbarism toward civilization. John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira wrote a manifesto on progressivism last year that posited these four building blocks -- freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and cooperation -- as the base of a successful progressive agenda. Yet there are progressives in this country who today give full-throated support to a government whose charter (Article 7) includes explicit calls to destroy Israel and kill Jews.

While the degree of overt anti-Semitism is much less here than in Europe, there is no denying the fact that support for Hamas (as opposed to support for Palestinian self-determination, a two-state solution or any other kind of creative solution that could bring peace) is support for a government, elected by its people, that supports genocide.

This isn't a debate about the value of all life, or the loss of civilians during war. It's not about settlement building or the daily debasement of human dignity under occupation, for both the occupiers and occupied. There is plenty of blame to go around for the failure to make progress, but support for the Gaza government, like support for ISIS or al-Qaeda, is beyond the pale for progressives.

Progressives have been useful tools for left-wing totalitarians over the past hundred years, primarily with the respect to the Soviet Union and China. Many decent, rational and well-meaning individuals, including Jewish intellectuals, deliberately denied the reality of totalitarianism when it clashed with their ideological convictions. Today on the left we not only have the Jewish Voice for Peace and Siege Busters but Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Here's one particular Facebook rant by Pauline Park, noted New York trans activist:

Facebook Zionist encounter of the day: someone with whom I have 32 mutual friends objected to my calling the massacres in Gaza a 'genocide,' writing on my wall, "War crimes are bad enough without labeling them 'genocide' when they are not" ... regardless of the substantive question of whether Israel's campaign in Gaza constitutes genocide (and the evidence is overwhelming that it does), it strikes me as rather extraordinary for someone who claims to be anti-occupation to refuse to see that the IDF campaign in Gaza constitutes genocide. Now wouldn't you think that someone who is genuinely anti-occupation would at the very least feel a sense of solidarity with someone else who is also working to end the occupation, regardless of whether she agreed with that other individual or not on the particulars of the situation in Gaza...?

That Pauline has no clue as to what genocide actually is, or what apartheid actually means, is obvious, but it is just as clear that she understands that such terms are trigger words for many whom she claims she is trying to persuade. That she is willing to defend a terrorist government that, upon meeting her, would ask her to kneel to be beheaded because she is a trans woman is inexplicable. Is Israel a paradise for the LGBT community? No, not by a long shot. But it is getting better, and Israeli gay and trans people don't escape into the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinians do escape into Israel. What is going on in the Middle East -- and that includes the terror in Libya, Syria and Iraq, to say nothing about all the other rabidly sexist and homophobic regimes in the Muslim world -- is not comparable to several months of demonstration against the LGBT Center of New York. Talk of "homonationalism" and "pinkwashing" as tools to stifle dissent is not just absurd; it is insane.

As former New York Mayor Ed Koch once remarked to the grand marshal of the Ukrainian community during their annual parade in New York:

"I turned to the grand marshal," Mr. Koch said yesterday, "and I told him, 'If this was the old country, I wouldn't be walking. I'd be running down Fifth Avenue and you would be running after me.' "

For many, life in the Middle East, outside Israel, is brutal and short, which is why America is still a haven. In this country we have rather civilized debates about politics, even war and peace, though we don't have enough debate here, the home of the First Amendment, about Israel and the occupation. Israelis are far more voluble about the life-and-death issues they face daily than we are from a great distance. We need more debate, not less, but we also need to call out not just Israeli right-wing extremists but the lunatic fringe of the progressive movement as well, because they offer nothing of value -- not to the Gazans who have elected their government and brought this misery upon themselves after the Israeli (and earlier Egyptian) withdrawal from the territory, nor to progressives who are trying to build a better world based on freedom and opportunity for all. If you truly want to help the people of Gaza, then help them build a civil and equitable society, and stop blaming others for a reality in which you have no stake.