July 19, 2022
In 1968, when I was a graduate student, I was deeply involved in protesting the ongoing war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, working to make the economy work for all, and the effort to hold my university accountable for its displacing the Black, Brown and poor residents of a Harlem neighborhood in order to build a gymnasium for its own white and privileged students and faculty to use. In many ways that was a time that felt very much like today.
Then, like now our political system was in turmoil, with the nation split between those who see the need for change and those who fear it. On both sides of this division, people agreed that the economic system is failing them but disagreed about causes and solutions. The streets were regularly filled with protestors and counter-protestors, both peaceful and violent. Then, like now, the future of our society seems to be in play.
In 1968 I remember vividly, fervently arguing about the strategy for the movements I was a part of. With progress slow and facing an energized and better-funded opposition, we were debating whether our political system could be meaningfully changed by playing the political game more skillfully. Could we find the places where compromises could be made that would move society forward, or would it only be through more radical action that we could bring the changes we saw were so desperately needed?
In 1968 I was on the side of working the system more effectively. I thought then that incremental change, year by year, election by election, would happen if we just kept on with the work. I believed that the arc of progress did bend upward. I was convinced that we could make this society the one I thought it could be by working from within the system. I rejected the pull of more radical and more violent actions; ones designed to break the system and replace it with something new and possibly better.
I think back in the midst of these depressing days when we seem to be moving backward faster and faster and wonder if I had reached the right conclusion.
More disturbing today than any one symptom of stagnation or singular defeat is the seeming lack of concern by those in power, those who say they represent progressive change, those who we have, reluctantly or enthusiastically, supported election after election. It is unclear if they are reflecting back and wondering, as I am if their strategies are wrong if their faith in the system is wrong.
From Joe Biden to Chuck Schumer to Nancy Pelosi to my own senators and congresspeople there is a belief that we just need to keep playing the game by the rules and the tide will turn, and we will begin to meaningfully address the challenges that have not been solved in decades. They continue to act like we are not in a bitter conflict between two very different visions of what this country is and what it can be. They continue to work from the belief that we can make progress through slow, incremental compromises with those who seek to keep a status quo that has given them wealth and political power. They seem to cling to their faith in a system that is not working with a fervor that leaves me unable to comprehend any longer what they are seeing that I do not see.
To me the evidence of a failed strategy is so very clear.
In 1994, like today, there was a national concern about violent crime and gun violence. A Democratic President, armed with Democratic House and Senate majorities, was set to act. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was enacted. Its very framework was a compromise. Rather than recognize the need for economic reform in order to address the conditions that made crime attractive, it gave Conservatives what they wanted by toughening our criminal laws and making them more punitive. Then Senator Joe Biden, speaking for the Democratic leadership said in this bill “we do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill.”
The bill did recognize the growing threat of rampant gun ownership and mass shooters using automatic rifles; Democrats were able to include a weapons ban as one provision of this bill. But, as great compromisers, as believers that we can only take small steps, according to NPR “the ban’s sponsors agreed to allow those who already had these guns to keep them….Sponsors also accepted a ‘sunset provision’ by which the 1994 ban would automatically expire after 10 years unless renewed by a vote of Congress. Even so, the ban only got 52 votes in the Senate on its way to inclusion in the overall crime bill…”
In 2004 the ban in the 1994 bill evaporated as its sun was allowed to set. And in 2022 we are still trying to solve the same problems and remedy the harm done by the compromises that almost made jaywalking a capital offense.
In 2022, after a series of mass shootings, a Democratic President again with control of both houses of Congress was able to enact the ‘‘Bipartisan Safer Communities Act’’. In 1994, according to a report by the National Institute of Justice, “ 44 million Americans owned 192 million firearms, 65 million of which were handguns. By 2021, according to American Gun Facts, “Over 393 Million…guns are in civilian hands, the equivalent of 120 firearms per 100 citizens. The average gun owning American has 5 firearms.” We are again concerned about a rise in gun violence and the growing frequency of mass killings by shooters armed with automatic weapons able to fire rapidly and lethally.
The leaders of our “progressive” party were unable to reach another compromise about gun ownership; they were unable to find the “middle ground” that was there 30 years ago. They were unable to see that that middle ground no longer exists, but they kept struggling to find it.
It was clear to me that those seeking to keep the nation’s arc from moving toward increased equality and shared prosperity, those who are the base of the Republican party, have shifted so far to the right that compromise is actually defeat. And the leaders of the Democratic party just don’t get it.
In 1965 the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land, protecting the voting rights of those who had been structurally disenfranchised. “The House approved this…. bill on August 3 by a 328–74 vote (Democrats 217–54, Republicans 111–20), and the Senate passed it on August 4 by a 79–18 vote (Democrats 49–17, Republicans 30–1).”
In 2013, a Supreme Court that had been shifted rightward by concerted Republican actions issued its ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v Holder, Attorney General, et. al. and eviscerated the Voting Rights act. Voting rights were less protected for those who need protection the most and our country’s arc of progress was stepped on. The Democratic party has been unable to do more than whine and bleat. With the Federal government’s power clipped, state after gerrymandered (the politically driven drawing of legislative districts designed to keep one Party in power that this Court has said is ok) state has made voting harder for those who the 1965 bill was created to protect.
The Democrats, with control of Congress and a President eager to agree, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement (JLVRA) Act and the For the People Act both passed the House, but only by party-line votes (and with a handful of Republican compromisers). Neither bill could get even 10 Republican Senators to agree to have them debated in the Senate and have a vote taken. Nor could the Democratic Party get all of its 50 Senators to agree to eliminate the filibuster in order to allow that debate and hold a vote. The Bipartisan middle that had allowed action to be taken is gone on this issue too.
Issue after pressing issue finds the same story. What was possible thirty years ago, is no longer possible in 2022. Progress made is eroded or dynamited away. And the supposedly progressive leadership that is the Democratic Party does not seem to be able to recognize that just doing what they have been doing will not lead to a different result.
From my perspective, the search for “compromise,” for the middle ground has required us to hide our values and our visions. In order to make the system work we have been unwilling to be clear about the things we believe about this nation, the things that we think must shape its laws and policies. This has led to a “leadership” that wishes to muzzle those who disagree. While the Conservative base is obvious that CRT(Critical Race Theory) is criminal, racism is not disqualifying and white privilege is to be protected, Democratic leadership is afraid to call racism and privilege, fearing the loss of votes from the “middle.”
Leaders need to lead. They need to be willing to risk their next election. Or they need to get out of the way. The strategy of continuous compromise has been justified by the fear that there is not really political support for progressive positions. Those who are eternally seeking the middle ground fear they cannot win elections advocating for what they say they actually believe in. They cling to the hope that they can make incremental changes in the face of little evidence that this strategy works, that it is better to govern from their fantasized middle. The Democratic leadership has shown us that the play for the middle does not work; at best it gives us gridlock, and at worst it gives us disasters like the recent Dobbs decision.
We need an honest discussion about the failure of compromise. We need a discussion about who this nation really is. It will not a pleasant conversation, but it will be a critical one.
If progressives do not believe that they can win elections fighting for what we actually believe in, then we have to face that bleak reality and keep on fighting to win the votes we need. We should have learned by now that we are not winning by being the great compromisers. Let’s try to actually challenge this nation to get done what must be done and pay the cost of making the changes that need to be made. If not modern history is telling us we will not act on the climate, we will build a more equitable society, we will not ease the pain and suffering of too many of our neighbors.