The Company We Keep

Several years ago, The American Prospect held a "What is Liberalism?" contest. The winner, Todd Washburn, submitted this definition: "Liberals believe our common humanity endows each of us, individually, with the right to freedom, self-government, and opportunity; and binds all of us, together, in responsibility for securing those rights."

The first part of that statement is easy to embrace. We call ourselves liberals because we share a certain set of beliefs. The second part -- about our responsibility to act together on those beliefs -- is where things get tricky. Progressives do not live in a bubble. Despite our commitment to equality and opportunity, the movement reflects the biases and hierarchies of the rest of the country. We might all agree that gay couples deserve marriage rights and women must have access to reproductive health care, but when it comes to devising a political strategy and policy agenda, these are inevitably issues that always seem to slide quietly to the back burner.

In the wake of the passage of the House health-reform bill and its attached anti-choice Stupak-Pitts Amendment, the conversation happening among progressive women was viscerally angry and palpably fearful. The broader liberal conversation was very different -- one in which the amendment was regrettable but unavoidable in the interest of the greater good. It is moments like this, with Democrats in control of Congress and a nominally progressive president in the White House, when it becomes painfully clear that in reality we do not all take on the same level of responsibility for securing the rights in which we claim to believe.

We rely on gay-rights groups to battle it out alone for marriage rights in Maine. We expect feminists to secure abortion rights in health-care reform legislation. We look to the NAACP to effectively respond to racist statements about Obama. And yes, those groups will work hard for those goals. But when they fall short, they are not the only ones to blame. It's fair to look at the entire progressive coalition and ask the hard questions about our movement: What's the use of having a community, a coalition, if you aren't going to fight for each other? Are we amplifying the voices of those whom we hope to empower or silencing them? Whose "greater good" are we really pursuing?

After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us. There is already some recognition of this. At the AFL-CIO convention this fall, several speakers referenced the rights of LGBT workers. NAACP Chair Julian Bond gave a keynote address at the National Equality March for gay rights. This doesn't mean everyone must be an advocate for every single progressive issue. Each of us has a different metric for separating the political negotiables from the nonnegotiables. But I do expect the liberal coalition to understand that these issues are interconnected. I expect a modicum of recognition that some issues seem to consistently be given priority over others. I expect progressives to consider why that is -- and who wins and loses as a result.

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?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote on his blog at The Atlantic, "How do you have responsibility without community? Perhaps, you can, but I can't really imagine it for myself. What so often keeps me in line, and has kept me in line over the years, is not my own expectations, but the expectations of family and friends."

It's time liberals expect more of each other.

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