Ken’s Take on the World

Progressive versus Conservative? Not So Fast!

Today’s political dialogue is framed in terms of progressive politics versus conservative politics.  Is this really the case?  Multiple studies and surveys have demonstrated that Americans have become more polarized, politically, over the past two decades.  This has become exceedingly apparent through the observations of the last two Congresses.  Members on both sides have been promoting legislation that the opposing side will not support in an effort to score points with their own political base.  The net effect is gridlock in Washington and in state legislatures across the country where elected leaders fail their constituents in an effort to maximize their abilities to reflect the vocal minorities of their base voters in an effort to become reelected.

While both of the main political parties, Republican and Democrat, are guilty of this, there are a number of underlying issues that need to be recognized and addressed.  While the numbers of Americans who identify as either Republican or Democrat is relatively unchanged since the 1950’s, those who identify as moderate Democrats or moderate Republicans has declined since the 1970’s.  The biggest changes of note are the loss of moderate voices in either party since the 1980’s which has intensified since 2000.  This has been much more pronounced in the Republican Party especially since the election of President Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party after 2008.

Two underlying factors have been associated with increased levels of political polarization throughout history.  These include immigration policy and income inequality.  These factors were in play during the first part of the 20th century and are currently at the center of our current polarization crisis.  Recent research has shown that the current polarization effect evidenced in state and federal elections is more significantly rooted in conservatives moving even further to the right on important policy issues while progressive politicians have not shifted much further to the left.  The current shift means that it is so-called conservative political positions have veered into more extreme territory while traditional progressive policy positions have not demonstrated a similar dramatic shift further to the left.

Today’s arguments are not so much a difference between progressive and conservative ideas.  The greatness of the United States has always been its embrace of change and forward advancements.  The United States, for nearly two centuries, was the powerhouse of innovation and creation in technology and knowledge.  Traditionally, both conservatives and progressives believed, and pursued change.  Conservative thought and progressive thought agreed on one defining thing.  The best days of America lay before her and each side promoted ideas and goals that would further this vision.  While the more liberal voices promoted grand, sweeping changes, conservatives were often a voice of reason, of caution, pursuing these objectives over a slower, longer timeframe.  This is one of the reasons that, for most of our history, politicians found the ability to work with their peers on the other side of the aisle to accomplish the things that would serve to benefit all Americans, and, American society.  Conservatives and progressives did not disagree so much on change, per se, but on the rate of change or how sweeping such change would be.

In the last century, Democratic and Republican politicians came together to establish Social Security, the Interstate Highway System, Medicare, Medicaid, public works projects, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Parks System, public university and college systems, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, FEMA, FDA, NIH, the defeat of Nazi Germany, the atomic bomb, the Arsenal of Democracy, the Hill-Burton Act which led to the building of hospitals to improve access to care, and many more great achievements.

Today, there are a number of voices within the Republican Party, as well as many voices outside of the party, who, while claiming to be conservative, are, in reality, regressive.  These regressive voices see America as a place whose greatest accomplishments reside in the past and would seek to return us to an era where Jim Crow laws ruled the land, where abortion was still illegal, where there was no income protection for senior citizens or the disabled, and where segregation was still completely acceptable.  These voices seek to overturn discrimination protections, access to health insurance, sensible gun regulation, and the foundation of every great society, our public education system.

Within the last decade, we have seen a surge in the number of white-supremacist groups, of so-called Patriot groups, and other hate-groups that actively challenge the legitimate authority of government agencies by threatening force and insurrection.  This weekend marked the 20th Anniversary of the deadliest homegrown terrorist act on American soil, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 Americans, including 20+ children.  These are the voices that are being reflected in the increasingly regressive candidates running as Republican candidates for elected office.

It is not a matter of progressive ideas and conservative ideas being in conflict with each other.  This is an issue of progressive, and according to many polls, mainstream, ideas clashing with a regressive ideology that renders compromise impossible.  We are nearing a dangerous tipping point in our nation’s history.  The trustworthiness of our elected officials is at its lowest point in recorded history, the favorability ratings of Congress are lower than certain types of insects, and while favorability ratings for both Democrat and Republican elected officials have fallen, the Republicans have fallen harder and faster.  Election results from the past several election cycles have consistently demonstrated that more people have voted for the Democratic, or progressive, candidate than voted for the Republican, or conservative candidate.  Gerrymandered election districts have ensured that candidates from either party cannot be readily challenged on the field of ideas in the way these districts are drawn.  This causes frustration among the electorate.

When you hear a political candidate talking about how he or she is the conservative candidate, simply know that they are most likely a regressive candidate.  True conservatives can work with progressives to get things done.  Until we balance, and reverse, this polarization that we are witnessing today, elected officials are not going to accomplish much in the way of benefiting the American people.


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