A Call for Progressive Values: Evolved, Unapologetic and Urgent

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON, New York Times, January 21, 2013

WASHINGTON — He did not utter the words, but President Obama suffused his second Inaugural Address with the spirit of a favorite phrase: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”

This was a president unbound from much of what defined him upon taking office four years ago, a man clearly cognizant of time already running down on his opportunity to make his imprint on the country and on history.

Gone were the vision of a new kind of high-minded politics, the constraint of a future re-election campaign and the weight of unrealistic expectations. In their place was an unapologetic argument that modern liberalism was perfectly consistent with the spirit of the founders and a notice that, with no immediate crisis facing the nation, Mr. Obama intended to use the full powers of his office for progressive values.

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

After spending much of his first term “evolving” on the question of same-sex marriage and doing too little in the eyes of many African-Americans to address poverty and civil rights, he invoked “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” and cited responsibility for the poor, sick and displaced.

He acknowledged the budget deficit but emphasized protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He mentioned jobs but highlighted global warming. He lauded the bravery and strength of the United States armed forces, but started his foreign policy remarks by asserting that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Mr. Obama came to office four years ago all but consumed by what he inherited: two wars and an economy in free fall. He then confronted an exhausting series of crises and political problems at home and abroad: budget showdowns, a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Middle East turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Through it all, he chose to wage additional battles of choice, most notably his successful push to overhaul the health insurance system. But not until this point, with the economy gradually mending, one war over and another winding down, with Osama bin Laden dead and the Democratic Party drawing strength from the nation’s changing demographics, has he had the opportunity to master his own presidency.

The policy details of what that effort entails will emerge over the next month through his State of the Union address and his budget, and many or most of them will encounter strong opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Monday’s address to the nation and its political class was intended to set out the value system that informs the policy.

Mr. Obama has always had a dialectical quality: pragmatism versus ideology, bold versus cautious, hawk versus dove, post-racial versus man of color. Those tensions no doubt remain.

But since Election Day, he has seemed to be choosing between them more than in the past. His decision after the Newtown massacre to embark on a full-scale effort to crack down on gun violence showed him to be less shackled to political wisdom about what is possible or electorally wise. His willingness to stare down Republicans over raising the debt limit — and winning — showed that he is less likely nowadays to start a negotiation by moving to the center and trying to find common ground.

To some Republicans, it is what they warned of all along: a president who ran as a centrist proving to be an unreconstructed liberal. It was no doubt hard for some of them to accept a scolding for treating “name calling as reasoned debate” — a phrase in his Monday address — from a man who won re-election by excoriating Mitt Romney as a job-killing plutocrat.

“I think all Americans would hope that President Obama, now that he’s not facing re-election, would actually sit down and honestly work with Republicans who are very sincere in our desire to fix these problems,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.

But, Mr. Johnson added, that was not the sentiment he detected from Mr. Obama on Monday. “You’ve got to sit down in good faith,” he said. “But I just don’t see that with this president.”

Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, said, “I’m surprised we’ve so abruptly noticed after this election we’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future.”

Mr. Obama’s address nodded to ideological inclusiveness but did not repeat his view from four years ago that it was time to end the “recriminations and worn-out dogmas” that characterized Washington battles. It recognized the power of individual liberty but argued that only through collective action could the nation remain prosperous and secure.

But most of all, it sought to elevate to a more prominent place in the political debate the question of how best the nation should address the “little girl born into the bleakest poverty,” the parents of a child with a disability, the gay men and women seeking to marry, voters facing hurdles because of their race and immigrants seeking a toehold in a land of opportunity.

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” Mr. Obama said.

In many ways it was an address, given on a day that commemorates King, that reflected not just the civil rights leader’s “fierce urgency of now” but the lines that immediately followed it in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall 50 years ago.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”


Promoting Progressive Values

From Commonweal Institute

Why Values Matter

We all have values, but we don’t all talk about them. Progressives, in particular, are often more inclined to talk about policy and programs than their personal stories and the values that motivate them. We’re missing opportunities to connect with others if we do not express our values.

To a great degree, people decide whom to trust, whom to believe, based on feelings of similarity or kinship – and also on values. Superficial similarities, such as age, sex, clothing, language, are often taken to imply a greater likelihood of similar world view and values.

Polls show that a great many Americans are tired of cultural division and animosity. They seek to move back toward more tolerance and mutual understanding—a greater sense of our common values as Americans–as our country seeks to deal with its present challenges and those of the future.

Values matter to us as individuals as we seek to restore a sense of shared interests, values, and commitment in our society. Each of us can be a part of that healing process. To do that, it is not enough to talk about programs or policies – we need to talk about how we see ourselves as Americans, what are hopes are for the future, and what we have in common with those we’re speaking with.

Progressive Values

Defining the values that underlie and unite the Left has become an urgent question in the past few years. We have come to recognize that, to a great degree, our political choices emerge from our sense of cultural identity and our emotional responses to stories and images, not from ‘rational’ cost-benefit analyses.

Modern Progressive Values: Realizing America’s Potential [1], an analysis of contemporary progressive thought by Institute Fellow Kyle Gillette, was written with the intention of enabling progressives to come together around a common values platform. Dr. Gillette’s report consolidates the work of many other groups and individuals, who have used a variety of methodologies during the past decade to create lists of values. These lists had many similarities, but differences, too. Gillette analyzed their work to identify a set of six core value clusters (three pairs) that define modern progressive thought. 

While each of these six terms might also be used by conservatives, progressives define them differently. Several tendencies, or ‘moral intuitions’, mark these values as different for progressives than for conservatives. These include empathy and responsibility, a proclivity for non-hierarchical patterns, pragmatic attention to real-world problems, acceptance of diversity, and recognition of interdependence.   

These attitudes distinguish the six core values in ways that are uniquely progressive and ground them in human emotion and behavior. Like all values, they are experienced and expressed through emotions, images, narratives, and action.

Freedom / Security

These two core values describe what progressives value for individuals, including what the state allows its citizens to do (speak, marry, travel, etc) and what it protects its citizens from (violence, exploitation, illness, and so on).

Freedom. When progressives say they value Freedom, they mean that they value the Freedom for individuals to do what they wish and to pursue desirable opportunities. Because they respect individual autonomy in matters of political views, religion, and sexuality, progressives believe that the government should give individuals Freedom of choice and speech and allow people to determine the course of their own lives. Freedom extends also to the collective self-determination upon which representative democracy is founded. The differences between what progressives and conservatives mean by “Freedom” have to do with the role of empathy and responsibility, and the definition of who counts as an individual. Progressives value the Freedom to succeed and determine one’s own life, but also Freedom from systems that, left unchecked, create unjust imbalances in economic status.

Security. When progressives say they value Security, they mean that they value Freedom from illness, hunger, violence, war, chance disasters, poverty, exploitation and ignorance. While progressives respect the power of the “free market”, they consider protection from capitalism’s excesses and exploitations crucial to being “free”, since progressives believe that one of the essential roles of government is to provide security against the harm and the vicissitudes of fate. Since such protection is not free, they support taxation for the purpose of providing Security against fate, even if taxation lessens individuals’ right to do what they choose with their money. Security also extends to threats from non-human actors such as natural disasters, illness, and the like. This is why the left regularly promotes policies that benefit emergency response infrastructure, public health, universal healthcare, and social security.

Community / The Commons

This pair of values refers to how citizens relate to one another as groups, and how those groups relate to the resources we all share.

Community. For progressives, to value Community means to value people, human bons, social structures, and healthy families. Progressives particularly value communities characterized by creativity, equality, diversity, and a strong sense of mutual interdependence. It is this “mutuality” more than any other concept that differentiates progressive Community from conservative Community.

Progressives believe that individuals must be responsible, but not only for themselves. Society is responsible for every individual and every individual is responsible for society. Moreover, every individual is responsible for every other individual – it is not merely a bureaucratic or autocratic but more basically a human principle. While conservatives often depict this strong progressive notion of interdependence as a form of socialism, the key human feature derives from empathy and responsibility. Progressives, in contrast to conservatives, value communities in which rules are questioned — where the material demands of the present trump following traditional rules for the mere sake of tradition. The progressive worldview is distinct from both liberalism and conservatism in the sense that it attends more directly to concrete needs than to abstract concepts.

The Commons. The Commons are what we share, what no one can claim as private property and what all of us need to live healthy, happy lives. We need The Commons as individuals and our communities need to use The Commons effectively in order to function and thrive. The Commons include the environment, transportation and power infrastructure, healthcare system, electronic commons, education, language, and cultural heritage. Our government, created by and responsible to the citizenry, is also part of The Commons. What differentiates the progressive value of The Commons is our proclivity to share – to recognize, for example, that not only our families, cities, or countries need access, but that all people do. Progressives recognize that all humans have The Commons in common. To the degree that some individuals exploit the environment more than others, or devote less labor to its preservation, they violate the moral imperative that results from the progressive value of The Commons. Another difference from the conservative view regarding The Commons lies in the size of the Community and the longevity of its benefits. Progressive policies place a much greater emphasis on providing a livable world for future generations.

Truth / Justice

This pair of values pertains to the formal structures of language and law, and is rooted in progressives’ commitment to reason, transparency, and fairness.

Truth. Truth includes not only facts but also more generally a stance of honesty and integrity, transparency in government, and a strong commitment to reason. The progressive version of Truth places a distinct emphasis on telling citizens what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.

The progressive value of Freedom, though genuine and complete unto itself, both depends upon and supports the value of Truth. Freedoms of speech and the press are only free when what is said or written is true; lies fall under libel and slander laws. Rather than interpreting data according to preconceived ideological positions, even if said positions might support other progressive values, this value of Truth dictates a strong progressive desire for objective and rational analysis. Reason and accuracy, far from being only ideological concepts, are vital to progressivism’s pragmatic character.

Justice. Progressives believe that everyone should play fair, and that the terms of fairness derive neither from birthright nor from mere convention or tradition. The terms of fairness derive rather from a rational sense of Justice that lies beyond power, beyond privilege, and even beyond the traditions established by legal precedent. Progressives gauge the Justice of a law based not merely on its effectiveness at advancing progressive causes or its acceptability within existing legal frameworks, but also and more importantly on the degree to which it makes rational sense, to which it is fair. Justice is akin to Truth’s formal consistency but operates in the realm of the world as it is legislated and lived.

Progressive Values Are American Values

Progressive values are fundamental American values. As the Center for American Progress says [2], “[M]any Americans are positively predisposed toward progressivism as an ideology but… many people remain unaware of its proud past and vision for the future. Progressive reformers at the turn of the 20th century led the charge to create decent working conditions; challenge corporate abuse and special privileges for the wealthy; ensure full equality under law; pass social benefits for the poor, elderly, and unemployed; promote humanitarianism and cooperative security; and implement public interest regulations to protect our natural resources, ensure safe food and medicines, and pave the way for a more humane and efficient economy. These reforms set the stage for broad-based economic growth and increased political equality throughout the 20th century.”

Act on Your Values

Figure out what your values are. If you start with what you care about, ask yourself WHY you care about that. What do you want to have happen in our society? What are you afraid will happen if your values are not acted upon?

Tell stories about how you got your values. Example: “My mom taught me the Golden Rule. That gave me the idea that everyone in our society is basically the same underneath – we all deserve fairness and respect.” When you’re aware of your personal stories, you can bring them into conversations with others. This may lead those people, in turn, to think about their own values and where they got them from.

Be influential [3]. Find ways to join public conversations through which you can spread your progressive values.

Read the full report Modern Progressive Values: Realizing America’s Potential

An Open Letter to America

I’ve been involved in civic life for many years and thought I was quite well informed about American politics and culture. The events following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, including preemptive war, a financial crash and unconscionable inequality, shattered my assumptions.

In twelve years the United States of America has gone from a country that was seemingly thriving to one in freefall. The change is astonishing, terrifying and of a magnitude that is overwhelming to the point of debilitating. I became determined to find out how this happened.

The search has been all-consuming and absolutely fascinating. The story that emerged was way beyond any history books I had read and more incredible than any work of fiction. The national consensus deteriorated into a culture war that has much more to do with how we think and what we believe than actual issues or events.

This debacle didn’t just happen. It was made to happen by a Republican Party that ran from its principled past to extremism and an inept Democratic Party unable to communicate and defend authentic America values. Both were drowned in political money, controlled by lobbyists, enabled by a mostly complacent citizenry and glossed over by the mainstream media The meaning of democracy in America was submerged.

Our country is at a major tipping point. We have the resources we need to create a better future for all. Horribly, we also have power brokers doing whatever is needed to maintain the control needed to serve their egos, ideology and greed. These relatively few people are messing with our future and that makes me extremely angry.

Critical issues include imbalance of income and opportunity where innocent people are suffering and the big winners seem oblivious to their pain. And the subversive manipulation of people’s emotions for political and financial gain. And perpetual war for corporate profit. And the absence of empathy for others, particularly those who look different. And ignoring climate change. And the massive national debt we’re dumping on future generations. And more.

How did we in two centuries develop the most powerful country in the history of the world and then drag it down to third-world status in a decade? Even more heartbreaking is the damage done to the soul of America, the first country ever founded on idealism. We were great because we were good (mostly). Many of us believed we were progressing from old injustices toward a more fully shared realization of the American dream.

Dumbing down and willful ignorance are high on the list of root causes right along with distraction, deceit and lies.

Democracy is the best form of government ever invented and could be excellent if more people took it seriously and if elected representatives didn’t betray the public trust. Capitalism could work well as a financial system if greed didn’t run rampant. Democracy is based on having an educated citizenry but we let public education disintegrate. “Of the people, by the people and for the people” means ALL the people.

Religion, money, sex, politics – some years back these topics were not to be discussed in polite company. Now they are driving our national dialogue and policy making. Teaching of civics and the humanities declined severely. That left a void in the public consciousness into which nonsense, parading as common sense and morality, was dumped.

Exploiting religion in pursuit of power is perhaps the most deadly sin. The United States of America was founded on the principle of religious freedom – freedom of and freedom from religion, not as a “Christian” nation. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about right wing religious leaders wanting to control the government. So did Barry Goldwater.

That ultra-conservative fringe never gave up but it seems too many others did. Right wing religious leaders and their unholy alliance including big money and political operatives now control the Republican Party and could be only one election away from seizing the control of government they have so long coveted.

We need to talk. And act.

I immersed myself in self-education and assembled data points that have been compiled into a framework to help me see how the disparate parts form a big picture. Everything is interconnected. I have borrowed from countless wise and generous patriots who served democracy by sharing their knowledge, especially through the public internet. Some of this information and opinion is posted on my website www.ProgressiveValues.org along with the framework for dialogue and action. It’s a work-in-progress. I’m continually expanding my knowledge and imagination based on newly found information and opinions. There’s always more to the story.

I urge Americans to learn from this material, seek out other perspectives and participate in a mammoth public dialogue and citizen uprising.

Our democracy depends on educated, activated citizens. I fear it’s not an overstatement to say our civilization depends on all of us actively caring for planet earth, the human family and our country by reversing this tragic downward trajectory and once again making progress toward fulfilling the promise of America.

America’s story is being told through many voices sharing their wisdom on the internet – a virtual dialogue. Thank you to all.  If you want your information changed or removed, just send me an e-mail.  This project is especially directed to people who want to become more involved and need a quick civics lesson focusing on worldview and values.

With audacious faith, Phyllis Stenerson

“We must move forward with audacious faith. The arc of the universe of long but it bends toward justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

updated 2/20/13