Progressives are trapped between nostalgia for the past and a deep disgust with it.
The left’s legislative heroes—Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley—appropriate the language and rhetoric of a bygone era of American politics for their progressive agenda. Just look at the Green New Deal or proposals to reshape the Supreme Court. Both mirror policies advanced by FDR at the height of his progressive power in the early 20th century.
At the same time, modern progressives, epitomized by many Bowdoin students, are just as uncomfortable with the idea that government can be a force for good as some libertarian conservatives. For these students, even liberal titans like Roosevelt and Johnson’s use of federal power must be contextualized by their bigotry and war-mongering. Today, the Hill is seen as a revolving door of lobbyists, hacks and career politicians, not to mention unrepresentative of the American public. Real change in their eyes can only come from tearing down the system, which means there’s nothing wrong with irreverence or abstentionism as long as it is coupled with engagement on key issues.
But let’s all get out of our armchairs for a second.
As I write this, Joe Biden is stalling the passage of a traditional, bi-partisanly popular infrastructure bill so that the American Family Plan—complete with universal pre-k, free community college, paid family and medical leave and an expansion of Medicare—might pass.
What are we doing? Our president is sticking his neck out for real, tangible benefits for working people and instead of coming to his support we’re sitting on the sidelines. We’re allowing the sphere of influence to be filled by pining moderates scared about their reelection prospects instead of rallying under the banner of Bidenism, or Bidenomics, or whatever else we want to call a re-invigoration of the social safety net.
I’m not opposed to restructuring our institutions. It’s been done before. About a century ago, we decided that Senators should be directly elected, and few existing federal agencies predate FDR. But the American government is not just a mechanism for the will of the people. It is a complex and dynamic bureaucratic engine built to curb our worst impulses and empower our best ideas.
If we can mobilize for change within the framework of our democracy, we can champion a Green New Deal, legislate a modern civil rights movement and design a social safety net that guarantees housing, healthcare and a quality education to all Americans. But this can only happen if we stop treating the government as a roadblock to progress.