What is pragmatic progressivism? Musings about Bernie’s run

I’ve often been in conversations with lefties in which, when the name of a politician is brought up, someone quickly lists an objectionable thing or two that politician has said or done — and then the speaker sits back with a conversation-stopping self-satisfied glare in their eyes, as if to say, see?  I knew all along that person was no good. They’re imperfect, therefore they’re worthless.

Whatever this habit of thought is, it does not reflect a realistic or materialist approach to life and politics. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her lively critique of cranky left negativism, “What we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude . . . The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing.”

So what’s the alternative? I’ve already argued that Bernie’s campaign is about a many leveled long struggle for hearts and minds, not an election or two. I truly believe the world can be a better place, more just, more democratic, more productive, more free. But only if folks work hard for it; there are no guarantees. One needs a practical plan for how to get from here to there. And while I don’t think elections by themselves are nearly enough, given the current lay of the land, I can’t imagine achieving serious change for the better without taking electoral politics seriously.

So what’s to be learned from Bernie’s ongoing political career? These are just a few thoughts, for starters:

1) Learn to listen outside your ordinary circles. Bernie’s extraordinary political successes — he’s won elections by overwhelming margins over and over in a state where Republicans still on occasion win statewide office — come from tireless efforts to hold town hall meetings and otherwise get face-to-face with folks from all walks of life, and developing policies that directly address their needs. He’s long been a champion of free local health clinics, improved day care, better care for Veterans, and other policies that emerged from listening to folks, and that generate trust and respect from people who’ve never read The Nation. As he once said at a campaign kickoff  to a bunch of us NPR-listening Burlington liberals , “to win, you need to get outside your comfort zone.” Get out in the state, in the rural areas, in other towns, talk to people, listen to them, figure out what you can do for them now, not just in some utopian future.

2) Run government very well, and transparently. If you’re going to do bold new things with government, make damn sure you do them effectively and right, and make sure that people understand what you’re doing. The bar is higher when you’re trying things that others don’t; you’re out on a limb in the public eye. When Bernie was Mayor of Burlington, budgets were balanced, the streets were well plowed, the impact of taxes on businesses and homeowners was carefully considered, and his more daring experiments — e.g. waterfront development, the Burlington Community Land Trust — were very smartly managed. (The US Democratic party clearly did not understand this when they set out to implement Obamacare; yeah it’s starting to work, but the website disasters were avoidable and a big political setback.)

3) Make the right compromises, and behave in a way that communicates your principles. Bernie is currently a thorn in the side of Clintonians, because he’s living proof that principled progressives are not just starry eyed idealists who don’t know how to get anything done. But as Stuart Hall once said, “the only given of history is compromise.” So Bernie is not above working with Republicans, and he’s made some controversial decisions, like supporting the stationing of the F35 fighter plane in the Burlington area; his argument was that this expensive, noisy boondoggle of a war machine was going to be stationed somewhere, and Vermonters might as well get the jobs that come with it. One can reasonably disagree with his position on this and on other issues; politics can be complicated. But the point is that while he’s famous for taking outlier positions — for most of his career refusing to become a Democrat because they make the wrong compromises, voting against the invasion of Iraq, refusing PAC money, etc. — his political strategy is not to refuse all compromise, but to make creative compromises that keep him within his principles and move the political ball in the right direction.

I think a President Bernie Sanders would be a good thing. But to get to a better world, we’ll need lots of Bernie Sanderses, of a wide variety, working at many levels throughout society. So let’s get to it.

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