Let me begin by positing a radical thesis: the act of supporting a Democratic candidate, even one who occasionally disappoints, or the act of questioning an element of progressive orthodoxy (a fascinating concept) does not make a person a corporate tool or party shill. In fact, today, choosing to support the Democratic Party is the best way to protect our tenuous hold on many of the progressive values and policies we hold dear.
Personally, my political consciousness was developed through reading people like Michael Harrington, Norman Thomas, and Eugene Debs. Intelligent Discontent, the former name for this site, comes, of course, from one of Debs’s speeches. The world these three and others passionately advocated for—a world with improved economic, social, and environmental justice—shaped my worldview about politics and human obligation. I still turn to them for inspiration in a time when many of the policies they fought for are under sustained attack.
In short, I am deeply committed to economic justice and believe that we should stop pathologizing poverty and start solving it. I believe in civil rights for all humans, regardless of sexual orientation, sex, or place of birth. I believe that we should live in a country that should use diplomacy rather than violence to solve international crises. I believe that we need to make serious personal and policy changes to better protect our environment.
And the Democratic Party often lets me down on these beliefs.
Why then do I support Democrats who occasionally disappoint, even on critically important issues? Why do I generally support a party that is often far to the right of my own positions? Because in today’s political climate, on many important national and local questions, they represent the last bulwark to protect rights gained and advances made in the past 100 years. Because real human beings will suffer greatly if we further empower a Republican Party so divorced from rationality and human ethics that it would destroy programs which provide economic and health security for our elderly, legally define our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as second class citizens, and accelerate the damage being done to our environment.
We progressives often talk about the importance of confronting privilege. Many of us on the left have the privilege of taking all or nothing positions on political questions because we will survive the fallout: our jobs, our rights, and our positions will be secure no matter which party takes power. In fact, perversely, some of us will even see our prestige and status increased the worse our government behaves.
I’m not so certain that the truly voiceless, the powerless, and the poor have that privilege. While I may have a position privileged enough to endure Republican rule, I believe that the truly powerless are much better served by a Democratic Party who will, co-opted as they may be, fight for them and the programs which offer them a decent standard of living.
Just ask poor students who rely on free and reduced lunch how important the Democratic Party is. Or young people who need loans to attend college. Or women who need access to basic healthcare services. Or the elderly who need to see a doctor.
Does the Democratic Party move too slowly and too cautiously in the defense of progressive values? Does it even occasionally move against those goals? Certainly—and it’s frustrating when they do it. Should progressives fight tooth and nail to drive the party back to its roots of protecting the worker, the Constitution, and a sense of economic justice? Absolutely.
But that progressives are seriously discussing working against, or even voting against Democrats, at a time when basic economic rights and the future of the country are at stake, absolutely baffles me.
Ideological purity may feel great to some, but it won’t feed a child who needs better nutrition to learn.
After a long and circuitous political road (one perhaps as long as this post), I’ve come to realize that I am proud to be a Democrat. I’m proud of a Party that saved the United States during the Depression, which gave economic security to the elderly and poor, which made the dream of civil rights for all much closer to being realized, and which not only put the environment on the table for discussion, but took concrete steps to protect it.
Given the realities of our political system, my choice is pretty clear: to simultaneously support the party that best protects progressive values while working to improve it. For some, unencumbered by political reality or real concern about programs that matter daily to millions of people, making that choice might be the choice of a “sellout,” but the truth is, I’m proud to make that choice–no matter what labels some might choose to hurl in my direction.
Originally posted in July 2011.