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Moderation is a virtue. Compromise signals maturity. Reasonable people vote for centrists. Working across the aisle is the only way to pass legislation in Washington. In a fiercely divided Congress, incremental change is the best we can hope for. But to all those who complain that progressives are asking too much too quickly, I’d like to point out that zero is not an increment.

Increment

The claim of success would be false, even if incremental change was in fact taking place. But all that “realistic” Democrats have gained us lately are fewer Supreme Court judges, fewer district court judges, fewer appellate court judges.

“It’s not our fault!”

And yet Democrats blast Republicans for never taking responsibility for anything.

The last Democratic president ordered more deportations than his Republican predecessor. In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the Oval Office. And yet couldn’t even muster the courage to put single-payer healthcare up for a vote. Virginia is currently led by a Democratic governor, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate, giving Dems the power to do virtually anything they want. Yet, according to Oxfam, Virginia is still 51st out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia in the arena of workers’ rights.

51st place out of 51. The incremental advance there is zero, as it is in far too many places on far too many issues.

Remember the episode of I Love Lucy when Lucy and Ethel bottle their own salad dressing? They tell Ricky and Fred they’re making money, but it turns out their profit is just three cents per jar, “and that three cents goes to Caroline Appleby” for getting them an advertising spot at her husband’s television station.

“But we’ll make it up in volume,” Lucy declares bravely.

Basic math quiz: what is 3,957 times zero?

I remember a particularly dry summer in Mississippi during my early teens, when everyone’s corn crop was shriveling in the heat. One afternoon, I told my dad excitedly, “It’s raining!”

He looked outside and gave a dismissive grunt. “Not enough to do any good.”

I didn’t understand. Surely, a little water was better than no water, right? But my father was correct. While technically a five-minute light drizzle isn’t “nothing,” its effect is. We can’t get caught on semantics. “Something” has to mean more than a trace, it has to mean “something that changes the outcome in a meaningful way.” .034 inches of progress isn’t “zero” but it may as well be.

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When criticizing Republican distortions of the truth, Democrats like to quote Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels—“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Those terrible, dishonest Republicans.

Odd that complaining about Democratic inaction is bad but complaining about progressive goals is just fine.

And yet Democrats keep telling those of us on the left a Big Lie as well: “Keep voting for us and we’ll finally get you what you want. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. We’re working behind the scenes for you. Just trust us a little longer. Only 10 or 20 years. It’s not forever. We’re really trying. Have patience, and little by little, we’ll save you. As long as you keep the faith and stop complaining. Complaining will destroy everything we’ve accomplished so far.”

Explaining that what we need isn’t what we’ve been given is apparently more powerful than Democratic legislation, stronger even than Republican opposition. Those idiots who demand the capacity to pay their rent are the real reason we don’t have more progress.

Odd that complaining about Democratic inaction is bad but complaining about progressive goals is just fine.

The federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than 50 years ago. From 1968 through 1974, the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, which as of January 2020 was equivalent to $11.65. The actual minimum wage in January 2020 was just $7.25. That’s -$4.40. I suppose a negative number is an increment, if we don’t mind the increment going in the wrong direction.

But has there really been no progress in the past several decades? Of course there has. A black man can now become president. While a jogger can still be shot just for being black. Lesbians can get married. While a woman impregnated by a rapist is still forced to bear the child. And grant the father partial custody.

When an energy revolution is needed immediately to limit greenhouse gases to levels that keep large swaths of the planet even marginally inhabitable, an incremental approach to lower emissions by 2050 just isn’t going to cut it.

No human society will ever be perfect. But it’s not unreasonable to expect more in the U.S. than we currently have. Other nations have had universal healthcare for 70 years. Some have had tuition-free college for decades as well. If Democrats still can’t provide these basic needs for us after all this time, do even measurable increments really matter?

Might that be the reason more and more people give up and vote for Independents and Democratic Socialists and the Green Party and, when profoundly desperate, even someone like Trump?

The claim at election time is always the same. We’re facing an emergency. We need to get the terrible Republicans out first and then we can worry about moving forward later. But a rallying cry of “We can’t do anything just yet but we honestly intend to one day” isn’t effective, even if it were true. And, finally, by small increments over many years, our faith in empty promises has grown too large to ignore.

Johnny Townsend

If Democrats want to lead, they must take us where we actually need to go.

Johnny Townsend

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