A Word to Progressives

There’s a story I’ve been telling recently I think bears repeating.

A year or two before my son started school, there was a buzz. Word on the playground was that a momentum was building. A group of neighborhood parents, priced out of NYC private schools and frustrated at the lackluster performance of the local public schools, were starting to mobilize. Fantastic, right? These parents started getting involved, going to town halls and attending district and zone meetings. They organized and advocated. They had binders full great ideas that would benefit not only their own kids, but everyone’s kids. Win/win.

In their passion to improve what was already there they neglected one important thing: the people who already called that school home. And those folks were understandably wary and resentful of a group of newcomers rushing in demanding change while liberally pointing out fault and failure.

I’m watching the same thing happen now with the progressive movement in the US. A fired-up grass-roots movement which wants to overhaul the Democratic Party for the betterment of all. Fantastic, right? But as I’m watching, I’m shaking my head. Because many are making the same mistake those neighborhood parents made: they’re not taking into account the people who actually make up the Democratic party.

The Democrats lost the last election. Bigly. They’ve lost countless seats and governorships in the last few election years. We can autopsy the whys until we’re covered in the gore of yesterday. We can place blame from here until Tuesday. None of that changes the fact that when you march into someone else’s school–or house, or political party–expecting to radically change the structure, you must take into account the needs, wants, and desires of the people who actually live there. Or, as the case may be, vote there.

Even if your ideas are great. Even if your ideas will help the people already there.

No one likes to be told they’re doing things wrong. No one likes to be told if only. Never mind if you’re right or not. Everyone’s well-versed in hindsight and its eagle-eyed vision. Would you march into someone else’s house and start shouting “You chose the wrong carpet! Your decor sucks! What were you thinking? Oh by the way, can I come stay with you for a while until I get my own place?”

If you expect them to say “Well sure, here are the keys!”, I want some of what you’re smoking.

What are they likely to do? The same thing any human being does when told they’re wrong, or stupid, or not good enough. They bristle. They resent the hell out of you. And they probably try to block every single attempt to change because hey, maybe the school/house/party is failing, but damn if it’s not our school and who are you to tell us how to do things? 

It makes my heart swell to see millions striving to make the world a more equitable place. But….you need to remember that there are millions of Democrats who’ve been living in their blue house for decades. Maybe it is falling down around them (and that point is arguable in and of itself). But remember, even if it is, it’s their damn house and they’ve been paying the mortgage on it for years. And despite what you may think, they’ve had a lot of good times in that house. There are some good memories there. They’re not going to let someone they don’t know come in and start tearing up the linoleum to see if there’s hardwood underneath, all the while berating them for every decorating choice they’ve made since 1960.

Most people don’t like change. It’s uncomfortable. Even when that change is going to benefit them. The reasons why so many old school Democrats are committed now to a resistance movement is that the change is threatening to go too far in one direction. But remember, for millions of Democrats–the people who have been living in that house, the ones who have been showing up and voting–change too far in the other direction is just as frightening. And they’ll fight it just as much.

Right now, Progressives need to rent some room in the Democrat’s house. Sure, you could declare it condemned. You could burn it and build something new. You could find another house on another street. But that all takes time, and by the time all is said and done, it could be too late.

Or…you could work with the people already living there. And, chances are, when you start looking around, you’re going to find a pretty decent bone structure to work with. In fact, the place may not be in as much disarray as you thought it was when you dragged your sleeping bag in looking for a place to squat.

Smart Progressives will approach coalition building with courtesy, caution, and yes, compromise. Maybe you reach an agreement to live together until your own house is ready. Great! After all, help with the bills is always welcomed. Until it’s ready it would be wise to remember that if you need a place to stay, it’s probably not the smartest move to go around  knocking holes in the walls and incessantly bringing up that time in 1992 when they let the pipes freeze. Or else you may just find your ass on the street. Noble intentions, passion, and good ideas go a long way, but when there’s a hurricane bearing down upon you, and there’s a big old blue house on the corner inviting you in, it would be dumb not to take shelter. Even if the roof is leaky and it stinks like mothballs. 

Eventually the new parents in my Brooklyn hood worked with the long-time neighborhood residents, wisely realizing that even if the school wasn’t winning any awards, it wasn’t really their school to criticize. The need for underlying change and improvement hadn’t gone away, but any forward motion had to take the old into account as well as the new.

Resistance is necessary. But the last thing a resistance movement needs is resistance within itself.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. jonolan says:

    Now take everything you just wrote and, I assume, have been thinking on this topic and apply it to larger context of the Left vs. Americans. You’ve been trying to do the same thing to them in the larger context, you and the more normative Dems.

    Worse, using your analogy / metaphor, you’ve been telling them that they didn’t deserve to have their house in the first place!


    1. Dina Honour says:

      Before I responded, I wanted to make sure I understood your argument correctly. When you say larger context are you referring to a larger liberal vs. conservative context? Also, when you refer to “them”, I’m not sure who exactly you are referring to. Again, I’d like to respond, but don’t want to misunderstand.


      1. jonolan says:

        Liberal vs. conservative is most likely how you think of the divide. The “them” are those you call conservatives.


      2. Dina Honour says:

        So in your argument those who hold liberal views, or those on the left, are not Americans. Americans are then, by default, those on the right, or what I would generalize as conservative (though I believe there is a spectrum that most Americans–and I include all Americans in the term, not just those of a certain political or philosophical ideology–fall onto, and that there is no absolute). And that you feel the “left” is denying what you class as “Americans” something. It can’t be a seat at the table since right now they own the table, the chairs, the room and seat cushions.

        Your argument also seems to be that the liberal left is denying the fact that the right has a house.

        But your comparison is flawed. When we are talking two diametrically opposed ideologies, we’re talking two different houses. On separate streets. In different cities. And in this case, neither one wants to have a sleep over, both want to completely demolish the other. Or so most on either side would like us to believe. I personally think there is–or at least there used to be–a lot more common ground than people think.

        Your critique of my analogy assumes that a liberal point of view is the newcomer and a leftist lean attempted to usurp a conservative one. I would argue there was always a spectrum keeping the fringe of each side in balance. The house wasn’t owned by either, but shared ownership. The problem is one one thinks it’s the rightful owner, in perpetuity.

        In my argument I’m talking one party, and a sub-set of the same party. In your response, you’re trying to force two opposing views into the same whole and sub-set grouping. It doesn’t quite work. But I do really appreciate your reading and taking the time to leave a comment, it’s good to get other views, even when they differ drastically from my own.


  2. Lynn says:

    Dina — Could I have your permission to share this post? It fits well and speaks to some conversations I have been a part of recently, and you’ve said it better than I can.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      Of course. If it’s on here, it’s available for public consumption. (And thank you. Yet again!)


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