Does it have any chance in this country, or can it only succeed to the limited degree “stealth progressives” can trick tightfisted, selfish voters into supporting government spending by convincing them they are acting in their own self interest?

In the way of explaining where I’m coming from, allow me to point to this interesting quote (thanks to V Botkin for pointing me to it, btw) from Jim Moran (D-VA) when he was interviewed on Democracy Now:

We need a national insurance system. And I think what President Bush is going to do is to means test it, which on the face of it makes a lot of sense, except that it will lose the political support of the people who have the power and the influence in this country.

The reason Social Security is such a popular topic now is that everybody participates. If he cuts the benefits for the middle class and upper class by 40%, which is what this plan entails, fewer people will really care what happens to Social Security…

When I parse this, it translates as follows (someone correct me if I’ve got it wrong): “If we were a decent, compassionate, progressive people, we’d definitely means test Social Security.  Rich old folks don’t need it, and it would be a much more efficient use of tax dollars to send SS checks only to low income senior citizens.  But since Americans are by and large a mean-spirited, selfish, money grubbing bunch, the only way we (that is, the minority of us who give a shit about someone besides ourselves and our families) can use government’s power to help the less fortunate is to spread the largesse around to affluent voters too, so we can lull them into allowing a pittance to go to those who depend on those checks for survival.”

Maybe Moran’s got it right (and I’d be hard pressed to completely disagree, after what I’ve seen in nearly 20 years of political activism).  But boy, is this a cynical and even defeatist tack to take.  How can progressives ever inspire anyone with a “vision” like this?  
And how can this approach be feasible financially?  If we have to bribe middle class and rich people every time we try to help the poor and working class, those programs are either going to require big tax increases (good luck), cause deep cuts in, or elimination of, other programs (some of which might actually put more than a fraction of their budgets where they are actually needed), or make the current BushCo deficit look like peanuts.

Progressivism can’t be about a free lunch for everyone, because there isn’t any such thing.  But I’m not sure Democratic activists get this.  Many of them say that it goes against blue collar “red staters'” economic interests to support right wing politics.  But that’s only so if we on the left keep a set of provincial blinders handy.  As long as we look at the U.S. and its people in artificial isolation from the rest of the world (except for a select group of similarly wealthy democracies), that holds up okay.  

But an honest progressive has to admit that on a worldwide scale, all Americans are an affluent elite, the global equivalent of Bush’s rich tax cut recipients.  If we stuck to our principles on that worldwide basis, we’d have to focus less on so-called “pocketbook issues” that benefit other Americans, and more on sharing our often ill-gotten wealth with poorer countries.  Put simply, I believe that for Americans (as opposed to, say, Nike’s foreign sweatshop workers), true progressivism is a selfless rather than a selfish philosophy.  Does anyone disagree with that?  If you do agree with me, I ask you: can a truly worldwide progressive philosophy like this ever have a chance to take root in the U.S., if we can’t even manage to provide our own elderly poor with a subsistence income–except by cynically bankrupting our budget, giving even bigger checks to rich old folks who don’t need them?  

And if a real progressive vision doesn’t have a chance here, even over the long term, what are we doing?  Can we justify our political actions in any fundamentally real, philosophically progressive way?  Or have we lost sight of this vision, in the interminable tug of war that is partisan politics?

I hate to sound like some holier-than-thou Naderite, who makes the perfect the enemy of the good.  I believe in being pragmatic, and understand that sometimes you have to postpone idealistic goals in order to get something concrete done now.  But I’d like to at least have a sense that the true progressive goal is on the back burner, and that something is being done to work people slowly toward appreciation of the need to get there.  I see just the opposite in the kind of rhetoric I quoted from Rep. Moran, and in what I see Democrats undertaking generally: a kind of “tactical retrenchment” that risks making us look as though we have no underlying values, no soaring vision of how things could and should be.  And what is progressivism without those things?

[Part of this diary was adapted from posts I’d previously written.]