Where Have Progressives Gone?

Last night I moderated a “first of its kind” forum in Santa Barbara. It was an interactive, internet T.V. event hosted (for free) by a new company called, “California Streamin'” that brings high definition TV to the internet. (If you’re interested, I’ve included their spiel at the bottom of this post). This is exciting technology that may very well be the great equalizer we’ll need to combat the release of floodgates of big corporate money we’re seeing and will see even more of as time goes by, thanks to right-wing Justice led by John Roberts and Anton Scalia and their outrageous ruling in Citizens United—Although that’s not the point of this discussion, I just can’t stop railing on it for all its anti-democratic implications.
O.K. so, the City of Santa Barbara is known as a very progressive city; we voted for gay marriage, against Prop 8, for a livable wage, early recycling goals, etc. etc. Up until a year ago we had a city council that was 5 Libs and 2 lib-moderates. We’ve had forward-thinking women mayors almost exclusively for the past 25 years….. and I’ve won my elections in the City of Santa Barbara, always proud of my progressive values, by about 65% of the vote every time.
One of our stalwart progressives, City Councilman Das Williams (my protege, successor and very progressive guy) was just elected to the California Assembly. With 11 months left, the City Council is trying to fill his unexpired term. Forty-six people have applied and are being considered for the position. Of that number, I would say thirty are serious candidates (meaning they care, aren’t in this just to promote themselves or don’t think they’re Arnold Schwarzenneger).
It was a very lively and interesting forum where members of the public were invited to sign in and chat while watching the forum live. We took questions from the chat participants, asked many of the questions to the candidate/applicants, (who were all physically present together as if there were a real audience). The candidates responded in real time while folks at home were watching on their computers. We were able to create a very interactive experience for many locals who would rather sit at home and do their politics….maybe with beer in hand (or since this is Santa Barbara, maybe with their favorite Chard or Syrah).
Anyway, the point of this post is that when I asked the 11 applicants for a show of hands describing their politics with the simple question of “How many of you would consider yourselves progressives, moderates or conservatives”, NOT ONE of them identified him/herself as a progressive….NOT ONE! Ten said they were moderates and one said he was conservative. Perhaps a strategic decision, because the board is frozen at three/three at the moment but I can tell you from the answers these panelists gave that at least 70% of them were more progressive than anything else–wanting prevention and intervention over incarceration for our growing youth gang problem; providing treatment and housing for our ever-growing homeless population, etc, etc. Consider, too, that these were people who had sufficiently open minds that they were willing to participate in this unique event.
How far has our brand fallen, where a community that once prided itself in its strenuous opposition to oil drilling, commitment to environmental protection, renters rights, livable wage ordinances, voted for Obama by about 35 points, etc. etc. has scared away proudly progressive politicians????? As I said, many of them WERE progressives, as we define the concept, but not one would own up to it!
While California continues its blue tradition of the past 50 years, things haven’t always—or even that recently been that blue. (We’ve had one Democratic Governor since Jerry Brown was first elected in the 70’s). We’re likely considered the Lefty Capital of the world these days, particularly after this last election, but we are no less vulnerable to right-wing lunacy. I fear that we are looking at the canary in the mine at the moment if this experience is any indication. If long-time proudly progressive Santa Barbara is ducking the progressive mantle, you aren’t going to find it in too many places outside of San Francisco identifying with it.
The bottom line is pretty clear here: we’re in deep trouble if we don’t start to move quickly to rehabilitate our brand—or at least how we present it to the public. The next election isn’t far away….
Those of us who pride ourselves on believing in the common good, the importance of our government as a partner in our collective and individual success and the importance of equal opportunity and dignity for all, we’ve got to get our groove back….and quickly. Let’s start reminding people that progressive values are what has moved our state and nation forward. This is no time to retreat from our proud legacy and vision.

1 thought on “Where Have Progressives Gone?

  1. A generation ago they were called Liberals. Liberals gave us the “great society”, social security, medicare, and Medicaid. All of these programs have run greatly over budget. They have consistently overpromised and been overbudget. This is, of course, in those cases that the “unintended” consequences did not make the program totally dysfunctional. And, we are now entering a time when those programs are going to be unwound as being unsustainable. So, it was not too much of a surprise that the word “liberal” became associated with these failures. Pretty soon republicans used the word Liberal to “tar and feather” their opponents and because the failures of these programs were so obvious, it rang true to the average American.
    It is, therefore, not too surprising that liberals do not call themselves that anymore. Now, they are “progressives.” However, “progressive” programs are not inherently different then “liberal” programs. Indeed, what is happening in California is rapidly proving this. California has massive budget deficits and would have had a “come to Jesus” moment had not the federal government shoveled money to them and called it stimulus. But, the day of reckoning is coming and both the politicians and the body politic instinctively know this. Thus, the word “progressive” will, inevitably, become as vile as the word “liberal”. It is not surprising that the politicians you witnessed recognize this and want to avoid this label. I would, too.

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