11/10/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

The Left Has a Radical Agenda and Democrats Should Embrace It

Democrats are adrift again. Liberal and progressive commentators have been saying we're winning the culture war for years now, and yet even when Democrats manage to win elections (which is rare enough these days) it doesn't translate into political victory. While American society seems to be trending left in some significant ways, our political system, increasingly driven by a dark-moneyed elite, is trending right.

With outcomes on ballot initiatives this year favoring progressive solutions on issues from background checks to the minimum wage, Democrats should be winning. Instead they're snatching defeat from the jaws of victory again, and contemplating moving further to the right. No doubt political defeat in the midterms will bolster party strategists who interpret election results as a repudiation of the Audacity of Hope in favor of the Tenacity of Nope, at least for likely voters. Will progressives be among these voters in 2016? The verdict's out. Election results were "depressing and bewildering and icky and infuriating" as one blogger put the liberal consensus. "It makes me want to just crawl under my covers until the reign of terror is over." (Which is, of course, precisely how reigns of terror work.)

If Democrats have all but abandoned the liberal agenda, progressivism didn't just become a form of liberal inactivism in 2014. It's been drifting there for a political generation at least. Complacency precedes apathy in historian Alexander Tytler's famous Cycle of Democracy, and setbacks like the midterms threaten to abandon to apathy causes progressives have clearly grown complacent about. Convinced that history is an arc instead of an architecture, progressives are baffled at the collapse of agendas built on what seemed to be self-evident assumptions. We're aghast at having our efforts toward human dignity chipped away in the lower courts until little remains of key accomplishments like a woman's right to make her own decisions about reproductive health, or marginalized and underserved communities' ability to vote, things we'd come to take for granted, and thought everyone else had, too.

A popular refrain these days is "How is this still a thing?" What? You mean the thing that was a thing for millennia -- like, say, women as second-class citizens, or racism and slavery, or the outrageous concentration of wealth, or income inequality? Didn't we already "fix" all that? OMG, how is that still a thing? Well, if it helps to put a couple of these "things" in perspective: it hasn't even been a hundred years since women got the vote in the US, and they are still sadly underrepresented in elected office. And while the 15th Amendment gave African Americans the vote in 1870, it was not until 1965's Voting Rights Act that that right was enforceable. (And the Supreme Court effectively gutted it one year short of its fiftieth anniversary.)

We too often assume that bad ideas deeply rooted in culture can be overturned with little more than a good counter-argument. Never mind pernicious, long-standing cultural attitudes about gender, race and sexuality, climate change denial alone should teach us that even good science can't triumph over bad policy without a sustained fight. Politics is not a fact-based business. The ideas enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and elaborated on and extended to all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 65 this year -- A living wage, equal pay for equal work, the right to unionize, medical care and social services, higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of merit -- are as right as the science on climate change. Knowing what's right is one thing. Doing what's right is where the radical comes in.

Conservatives certainly seem to agree that the liberal agenda is a radical one. So why do progressives go to such lengths to deny it? Partly it's because liberal agenda items like equal pay for equal work or voting protections seem like no-brainers to us. But most of what liberals and progressives see as self-evident are actually fairly recent, and given history, radical developments in social and political consciousness. And if equal pay and voting rights are any indication, we may have come a long way, baby, but we've got a long, long way to go. Equality, the most basic tenet of democracy, which we hold to be self-evident, is still, by all evidence, a radical notion.

"The American conservative... fills the vacuum where democratic purpose should be," Walter Lippmann wrote in Drift and Mastery, his pep talk for progressives that turns 100 this year. Progressives in Lippmann's time found their purpose in beating back the excesses of the Gilded Age with financial reforms, conservation measures, labor laws and the founding of civil rights groups like the NAACP. The New Gilded Age is seeing the systematic dismantling of all of these initiatives. But despite, or because of these setbacks, a new era of democratic purpose is coming. And it will be radical. Democrats would be wise to embrace it.