Ideology From The Bottom Up

Ann Friedman has an important contribution to the longstanding discussion in progressive circles about the tension between “interest group” concerns and some idea of a more generic “common good”:

We can’t work from sweeping visions of liberalism on down. We have to work from concrete rights and opportunities on up. Think of it this way: White men are the least likely Americans to identify as progressives. The people most likely to identify with the liberal worldview — women, people of color, LGBT people, disenfranchised workers — are those who have experienced a lack of freedom and opportunity themselves. They are then motivated to broaden their scope and see how injustice also affects other Americans. It is the progressive movement’s commitment to these people — its base, its core — that will ensure its long-term survival. If we continue to compromise on the concerns of those people, or dismiss them as “special interests” working against an imaginary greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of liberalism totally meaningless. After all, if each group within the coalition is actually just in it alone, what’s the point of subscribing to a common ideology at all?

I think that’s right. And I think in some ways the real challenge for relatively prosperous straight white intellectuals attracted to the political left by an abstract affinity for postwar social democracy is to broaden their conception of what matters politically. You often hear a narrative in which the past forty years—a period of welfare state retrenchment and growing income inequality—have been a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics. But these past forty years have also seen enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism paired with a major increase in the level of actual racial and ethnic diversity, the creation of substantially more international peace, wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians, etc. These aren’t just incidental add-ons to a program that’s “really” about comparing income percentile ratios—it all fundamentally goes back to the same core belief in human equality.