Redemption, Records and Incrementalism

I’ve been thinking about this post for weeks, but haven’t felt as though there was a particular driving reason to wrestle with the ideas, but recent occurrences have brought these to the fore. This is going to be me synthesizing a lot of thoughts here, so it will likely run long, and may be messier than I’d like. But if you’re a reader of my blog, I assume you know what to expect.

So what happened. First, an article by Daniel Marans in Huffpost about the divisions within RI’s progressive movement came out which I thought was intriguing (though I think missed a lot of factors since no one on RI’s left can seem to remember past 2016). In response to Marans tweeting out some material he cut about ideological purity, I tweeted my thoughts about the legislative impact of legislators we might refer to as Anti-Leadership Hardliners; notably, that they have not got a lot done beyond a few liquor licenses (and while this was in response to an article on the Co-Op, I should note that I would include a number of non-Co-op people in that category; the ALHs are a diverse faction). And in response to that, Monday morning Options Editor-in-chief Alex Morash suggested I was a liberal who was offering only half-measures in response to real crises and I admittedly got a little testy.

A Liberal Digression

I have been observing and participating in RI politics for over a decade, about as long as Morash (by my reckoning). In 2010, I worked for David Segal, the Green-turned-Democratic state representative who often anchored the progressive-left wing of Rhode Island’s political spectrum prior to 2010 (back when it could fit into a shoebox) and took a shot at the open Congressional District 1 seat. I may be wrong about the timing, but I believe Morash was part of a bevvy of hires by the Anthony Gemma campaign. Gemma was a right-wing Democrat who did execrable things, like buy fake Twitter followers until he had more than Mitt Romney. Morash, who (if I remember correctly) worked on communications for the campaign appeared in a Gemma campaign commercial pronouncing the “w” in Pawtucket. Later in 2012, at a press conference where Gemma made false allegations of voter fraud against U.S. Representative David Cicilline, Morash was excoriated on WPRI’s livestream by the late Jim Baron of The Pawtucket Times, who wasn’t given a press packet and also lacked a seat on a hot summer’s day (Baron was a big guy, and my unwritten rule of press conferences during his lifetime was that there was always a chair for Jim Baron, even if no one else got to sit). This is my memory at least, I’m sure others remember these things differently.

I don’t write these remembrances to embarrass Morash but to give you an understanding of where I started in comparison to where he was when I first encountered him, and why him calling me a “liberal” raises my hackles. I currently don’t assign myself any ideological label more specific than “left” – but I think it’s fair to classify me within Rhode Island broader “progressive movement” and I’ve been with that progressive movement for over a decade, advocating for causes to eliminate poverty and fighting for real change here in Rhode Island (and once abroad), and backing those that do. I do think though, especially when it comes to political campaigns, it says volumes about who you work for. And if you’re mercenary enough to take a campaign job because it pays even if you find the candidate detestable or because you just don’t know enough about the candidate, I think it says a lot about your character (especially if that candidate traffics in right-wing conspiracy theory that still harms this country). It says to me you’re willing to commit much greater harm if it benefits you.

I do not believe I am or have ever been a liberal in the way Morash uses the term. I’ve fought about whether we should use the term “progressive” or “liberal” to label our movement (and always come out at least against the latter). I have not been a liberal, but I believe Morash has been or passed through it on his way to being whatever he is now (ostensibly a socialist), and I believe he has at least worked in service of someone far to the right of a liberal.

That said, I do believe in redemption. If someone is willing to support the causes I believe in, then I will work with them, even if I find them suspicious. But it’s a two-way street here – I don’t stop being where I am just because you decided to come on over.

The Fervor of the Convert

Earlier this year, we saw the RI Political Co-Op and the Brown-Mendes campaign bodied by old social media posts that revealed a level of past conservatism in some of the candidates, including Sen. Cynthia Mendes. In response, a lot of Co-Op aligned folks talk about how they hadn’t always held these positions, how they’d been on a journey, and how, you know, they were working-class folks and weren’t born into Ivy League-educated families and hadn’t always held to the “perfect [progressive]” positions.

Put aside that there are probably an equal proportion of Ivy Leaguers in both the pro- and anti-Co-Op progressive factions (and that they all support Ivy Leaguers at the top of the ticket with the exception of those who back Luis Daniel Muñoz), it’s also bad messaging, because it implies that the working-class is inherently conservative and that the Ivy League inculcates left-wing values. These are right-wing messages being put out by leftier-than-thou candidates and their supporters. At best, this the convert using their old paradigms to continue to view the world and at worst is left-wingers who have internalized right-wing rhetoric.

One of the many beautiful things about being on the left-wing of the political spectrum is the hunt for inclusivity. It is intensely challenging. I am always challenged, constantly forced to evaluate my positions, to measure whether they actually work in practice, whether that even matters, whether my language fails to be expansive enough or is too generalized, etc. It is a project (and I can understand why people turn from that project or reject it first), and we are always learning. So I don’t mind when people stumble, because we all do. A more inclusive world is hard.

But having continued to do the work to bring about that more inclusive world, I have little patience for those that show up (on homelessness for instance) and go “hey, you’re ending homelessness all wrong, in fact, you’re not even doing it. I just learned about this new thing called ‘Housing First’ and we gotta do that.” Housing First has been federal policy since end of the Bush administration. The folks who took on progressive positions or started referring to themselves as socialists following Bernie in 2016 and say, “you that have dedicated your lives to these things, you’ve accomplished nothing” aren’t doing anyone any favors.

Their hearts are in the right place, but take a step back for a moment, and listen. I think about everyone those folks are discounting, the lives that have been lost and saved, people I deeply cared for who have died, and I have trouble keeping my bile down.

The Recordkeepers

This is part of what has stuck with me since the Co-Op social media meltdowns, and what I was referring to when I tweeted about legislative records. Morash and others can say that anything that fails to totally solve the problem is failure, but I measure success in real people and don’t truck with the absolutist position. Think about former Rep. Aaron Regunberg; he’s kind of a progressive exile among the very online RI left now, but he helped win a tipped minimum wage increase in his first year as a legislator during Nicholas Mattiello’s first year as Speaker. This was no small task, a freshman representative, a freshly-installed conservative speaker who beat back the progressive challenger, and a powerful restaurant lobby that hates to pay its workers more. The General Assembly did not eliminate the tipped minimum wage, certainly. But there are thousands of people today who are a few hundred to a few thousand dollars richer than they would’ve been. Those people might’ve made down payments on cars, paid rent, paid for clothes for their children, took their partners out for an anniversary dinner, went to see Avengers: Infinity War. There are people today who are materially better off because Regunberg was in office, who got to be a little richer because he did the work.

The absolutist position that seems to say, “no, what he should’ve done was nothing, but very loudly,” is ludicrous. It ignores the reality of legislating. It gives supporters a false sense of how things go down in a legislature, and a false expectation of their representatives. I know the General Assembly is a corrupting influence filled with perverse incentives and twisted morality. But legislating is compromise, and this would hold true even if our General Assembly was run 100% ethically. Gordon Fox was corrupt, he was the Speaker, and it still took considerable effort on his part to win marriage equality (now-Sen. Euer helped too).

The day it became law, the person I think of as my mentor left work early and went and proposed to her partner. “I like working for causes,” she remarked to me once, “causes don’t let you down. Politicians do.” I turn that phrase over in my head often, thinking about it.

Politicians do, but you can recognize the good they do you when they do good – flawed people made it so she could propose and set an example about what love means. It doesn’t harm any of that to say that it was made possible by both the bad and the good – quite a few people who would let a lot of people down. And I believe progressive-left people let us down when they fail to recognize the work that has been done in service of the cause, even if small.

Those who say they look at records need to take a look in the mirror, because you keep denigrating good ones and telling those of us with records that you’re better than we are when you have nothing to show. And yet you’ve appointed yourselves the recordkeepers. The determiners of who is progressive, who is liberal, and who has failed.

You keep telling people who you’ve never heard of or bothered to care about until a political campaign came along to harness your energy that everything that has and is being done is worthless. How can you judge this if your political awakening only occurred when an old man came down from his mountain in 2016? How can you say who is redeemed and who is not?

You have so much to prove to people, and so much potential to do so! Go out and prove it. And when you find an ally, don’t turn them into an opponent.

Incrementalism or Death?

Much of my work has been big but small in service of causes. Anyone who advocates in the Rhode Island General Assembly for causes must be reconciled to this fact; legislator, lobbyist and advocate alike. Nothing in RI is ever done perfectly. Great victories fall short.

Such is true of the minimum wage, which it will finally reach the once-impossible demand of $15/hour in 2025, when it is already grossly below where it needs to be. But there are people who are now richer than they would’ve been had this not been agreed to. People who will have more food than they would’ve, who will sleep more soundly. People will live who otherwise might die.

People will live who otherwise might die.

That is how I measure a politician’s effectiveness. When I say that those politicians who build their political identities around opposing leadership have done little more than win permission for their municipality to issue a liquor license, this is how I’m measuring you. What does permission to issue a liquor license bring? A liquor store owner wealthier and their family, maybe some nice experiences for some imbibers and maybe some deaths for other imbibers. If that politician also rails against the powers that be, and demanded a state-run health system and a carbon zero Rhode Island tomorrow, I’d say I think they’re right. But if asked to stack them against a politician who lowered insulin prices or instituted a strategy for achieving carbon zero in the future, I know who I think has accomplished more and had the more positive impact. Because I live in this world now, and I want others to keep living in it too.

The absolutist looks at the proverbial whale and says, “eat it all in one bite. Anything less will be a failure.” Everyone else knows there’s only way to do go about it. One bite at a time. Sometimes, maybe go home and rest and then come back for seconds tomorrow.

This is true of minimum wage. Just because it is set to reach $15/hr in 2025 does not mean we cannot make it go higher in 2022 or 2023. Sometimes you only get 20% of what you need, despite all your best efforts. You come back for the rest later. Call it getting less than a half-measure, but if the choice is between getting something for someone who needs relief now and fighting for the rest tomorrow or getting nothing and having to start from square one again, I know what I will do. You build off of each victory, even the small ones. They sustain you. Because you see your friends succeed, people who were unable to marry share their love with those who sustained them, or a homeless bill of rights passed, or a minimum wage raised, or the long-outdated “Providence Plantations” stricken from the state name. This is what builds movements, keeps our passions aflame, attracts new people to the cause who will carry it forward when you tire.

I cannot turn my back on that, because it is the choice between the path forward and the path to nowhere. It’s the choice between serving the cause and serving the politicians. I serve causes, and so politicians who make tangible progress on causes are worth keeping to me. I think the expressed absolutists serve politicians, and thus it’s irrelevant to them if causes see progress or not. I suspect they would say it is the other way around about who serves who and what.

More Alike Than We Care to Admit

The frustrating thing about all this is that while it’s been termed a “Progressive Civil War,” the more apt phrase might be the “Progressive Social War” – a war between allies.

I mean, who is being described if I say: “there is a progressive movement made up of people from all walks of life that seems likely to back an Ivy League-educated candidate for governor, and which advocates the end of homelessness, a green future for the state, stronger unions, and increasing taxes on the wealthy.”

No one on Rhode Island’s left disagrees about where we need to go, we disagree about how to get there (and apparently member of the elite should lead us there). We need never be satisfied with our failure to reach our goal. I know that I certainly never have been. But we don’t need to destroy ourselves before we get there, especially when there are plenty of others who are willing to do so.

Morash says he’s struggling with having lost his unemployment insurance and his terrible health insurance. As someone who has been in a similar situation twice, having been long-term unemployed with access to poor medical care, I feel for him. It’s intensely devastating to be unemployed in such a job-centric society as ours. Too many of us are just a missed paycheck away from homelessness.

But he’s wrong to argue that nothing our state’s progressive politicians have done up to this point has kept Rhode Islanders from the street or from death. They’ve kept a lot of people from reaching there. They haven’t kept everyone safe, or maybe even enough people, but there are people who are alive, there are people who are housed, who wouldn’t be without their actions.

And we talk about who gets to grow, who gets to be a real progressive, who gets to be judged on their record, that’s got to count.

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