Many progressives have a conservative belief system — can we all come together?

Too little time is spent in these circles talking about the unifying values that undergird these policy issues

By Simon Greer
Published July 25, 2019 4:00AM (EDT)
 (AP/Matt Rourke)
(AP/Matt Rourke)

This article was produced by Face to Face, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The progressive movement has come to be understood as a diverse coalition of individuals and organizations who represent dozens of shared policy and issue interests, including economic issues like higher wages and increased funding for public education, more attention to climate change, expanded rights for LGBTQ people, and effective action to counter racism and xenophobia. These progressive stakeholders are broad and diverse. And often they are not on the same page about how to address these issues or what the movement’s priorities actually are.

Far too little time is spent in these circles talking about the unifying values that undergird these diverse policy issues. Yet when we do, words like fairness, justice and equality often rise to the top of the list. In many ways, the progressive values are reflected in the structural and systemic solutions that they promote. If you believe in justice, then you address economic injustice through structural solutions like higher minimum wages. If you believe in fairness, you address racial segregation through passing and enforcing the civil rights and voting rights acts. While progressives have won great victories with this approach, they have often also acknowledged that changing hearts and minds, or culture, is harder than changing laws.

I see a deeper problem. Progressives often focus on systems and structures to enact changes that reflect their values, but in so doing they underestimate the importance of people’s values and in particular values that might run counter to traditional progressive values even as those same people may support many of the systemic solutions progressives prescribe.

This is due in large part to the fact that progressives tend to miss non-structural solutions by thinking they are strictly in a fight over social systems and laws. Compounding this is that, lost in a reflexive tendency to brawl with conservatives, progressive political culture has lost sight of the breadth of appeal and the staying power of “conservative” values. The brick wall that many progressive campaigns and issues slam into is often comprised of important core values of the very people progressives think of as their core constituencies.

The truth is that, embedded in the hearts and minds of many who are counted as part of the progressive movement, who believe in progressive structural changes, there are also beliefs in some conservative ideas, philosophies and approaches that progressive organizations tend to line up against but that need to be part of a set of solutions if we are going to achieve lasting change.

First glimpse

My first glimpse at this was decades ago while working as a community organizer in South Carolina. One of the leaders I worked with most closely was a woman named Doris Grant. Doris had worked as a housekeeper in a number of Hilton Head Island’s resorts. She was a strong leader, and she taught me a lot. One day I was sitting in her trailer talking to her 17-year-old nephew, and we found ourselves discussing racism. Doris and her nephew are both African-American and I am white. In my youthful radical enthusiasm, I was energetically “explaining” to him how structural racism worked. I explained how the system was stacked against him and that he wouldn’t be treated fairly.

After a few minutes of this, Doris asked me to join her outside for a quick chat and I, of course, agreed. What happened next surprised me. As we walked a short distance from the trailer, she said, “You can’t talk to him like that. I keep telling him that he can be anything and do anything. That the world is waiting for him if he just goes to school, works hard and does his best. He can’t get ahead if he believes racism has already got him beat.”

I really wasn’t sure what to make of this at the time, but I had great respect for Doris. She was telling me to back off, so I did. After dinner, I drove back to my hotel wondering about that conversation. Doris, I thought, was echoing a conservative trope. She wanted her nephew to believe in picking himself up by his bootstraps and that through hard work he could get ahead. And while she believed in tackling the problems caused by structural racism as evidenced by the work she and I did together to change working conditions and expand workplace rights, the values she was teaching at home weren’t simply based in the progressive structural analysis but rather in a conservative individual responsibility narrative.

She wasn’t living inside false consciousness as some progressives would claim. And she didn’t think of this as a contradiction. But, in this tension, I caught a glimpse of a wedge that I would come to see confound progressives and progressive movements for decades to come.

Violence and the media

More recently, in early 2019, I met with Ronald Simpson-Bey, director of outreach and alumni engagement for JustLeadershipUSA. As we ate breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant, just minutes from the Detroit Metro Airport, Ronald shared his story — and what a story it is.

He served more than 27 years in Michigan state prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Eventually he was released, and now he is an advocate for criminal justice reform. As we got to know each other and shared stories about our different work and the range of tragic problems confronting all aspects of the criminal justice system, he talked openly about what it was like during the decades he served in prison.

Ronald has a strong structural analysis of the racial disparities in the system and of the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has had in communities of color. But as he got to talking about the younger folks in prison today, some of whom he mentored when he was incarcerated, he spoke passionately about the impact that violent video games have had on young people and the way it has desensitized them to life and death. He recalled when Scarface, the movie, was released, and that, he contends, was the beginning of the slew of terribly violent films that glorified gangs, drugs and killing.

Ronald knows about the structural racism that undergirds the criminal justice system, and in that way, he is a good fit with the progressive movement. But the critique of video games and violent movies could start to sound to the progressive ear like a more conservative take on the problem. It isn’t just systems, from Ronald’s point of view; it is also culture and the media that are teaching the wrong things and thereby creating a culture of crime and violence that is also at the root of the problem.

Personal responsibility

Recently I was in Los Angeles, California, visiting Homeboy Industries — an organization that began in 1988 as a way of improving the lives of former gang members and has evolved into the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world — where I met a former gang member named Jose. Jose revealed that he had spent nearly two decades in prison for triple attempted murder, and now, after having his sentence commuted, he has turned his life around through job training, therapy and a supportive community. As he described his attitude growing up without a family of his own and inside a gang “family,” he said, “In the situation where I grew up, we all felt like somebody owed us something. It was rough out there, and so we felt society owed us something.” Then Jose continued, “After I got out of prison, I was surrounded by this new community, and I realized nobody owes me anything. I need to do what I can to make the best of my situation because I owe it to myself.”

It is hard to imagine this point of view being expressed by a progressive leader or advocate. The progressive take would be that society does indeed owe Jose something. And maybe it truly does. But again, this individual responsibility theme has resonance for Jose. Jose asserts that gang life thrives because young gang members believe society owes them a debt, and so they will go ahead and take it. The hardworking Jose who has turned his life around and is now recruiting others out of gang life believes we are each owed nothing but owe it to ourselves to work hard, play by the rules and try to get ahead — in essence, a conservative narrative.

Culture of gun violence

Arnie Porret (not his actual name), a national labor leader, speaks plainly about his childhood and the years he attended high school in a small rural Midwestern town. He reminisces about the first day of hunting season when in some years school was closed. Other times, he and his classmates would arrive at school with their shotguns in their trunks, and teachers would join their students in the parking lot checking out the shotguns, looking them over and talking about hunting and the traditions passed on generation after generation. As Arnie reflects on that time, he is crystal clear that nobody ever would have dreamed of taking those guns inside and turning them against classmates or teachers or anyone for that matter.

But all these years later, as a dad raising his family in a similar part of Michigan, he sees his daughter worry about the threat of gun violence or classmates turned shooters wreaking havoc in the school.

In this community, it isn’t that guns are new, nor can the fear of a new reality be explained simply by the end of the federal assault weapons ban. He notes that something else has changed in the culture, and now it is in the imagination of high school students to think about using their guns against their classmates. It isn’t just that regulation has changed, but culture has too, and so to solve the gun crisis we’ll need to address both.

The progressive challenge

Does it need to be so hard to reconcile a structural analysis with an understanding of the crucial roles that social attitudes, cultural norms and personal values play in creating our society and changing it? Apparently, it is.

I was recently at a meeting of progressive leaders and activists. The meeting was meant to explore how we reach across lines of political difference and come to understand conservatives in new ways that might allow us to build common ground and turn the country around.

Late in the evening I offered that while it is hard for progressives to digest, it isn’t that we have a monopoly on the answers or that our values are the only ones that are valid. I said, “if we want to get at the heart of what needs to be addressed in America, then we must consider that there is some truth in the territory that has been claimed by conservatives. In fact, there is something for us to understand about the declining work ethic, culture of violence and breakdown of the family...” and even before I had finished my sentence a very well-known progressive activist interrupted and said sarcastically, “and gay marriage is to blame for it all.”

Of course, I don’t think that. And yes, conservatives, some of whom believe that, have taken control of concepts like the culture of violence, declining work ethic and family breakdown and too often used them as code as they construct a racist, fearful narrative.

But that doesn’t mean those things are not plaguing America, and it certainly doesn’t mean that making a joke of them is going to build a broader coalition. And as Doris, Arnie, Ronald and Jose remind us, it isn’t just that conservatives have duped bigoted white people into believing these lies. In fact, diverse working-class Americans, many of whom support much of the “progressive” agenda, believe that social, cultural and family attitudes and values matter a lot.

Yes, there is structural injustice, and there is also a moral or social fabric to our society that needs to be recognized and respected in order for it to be stitched back together to give ourselves a chance to live up to our promise.

Simon Greer

Simon Greer is a writing fellow for Face to Face, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been involved in social change work for more than 25 years. Greer is the founder of Cambridge Heath Ventures, a strategic advisory firm that works with private sector companies, purpose-driven organizations and governments to help them overcome their most pressing challenges. Greer is also a leading thinker, practitioner and speaker on organizational design, unconventional strategies and common good politics.

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