You could set your alarm just a few hours ahead and then await the barrage—those on the Right jumping all over District Attorney Chesa Boudin's recall in San Francisco. They contended that progressive prosecutors nationally are in big trouble, an extrapolation that others cautioned should not be made.
Brett Stephens of the New York Times even used the recall as the occasion to attack progressives' writ large. In his acerbic "The Left Is Being Mugged by Reality, Again," Stephens claims that "destructive progressive ideology" has gotten it wrong time and again, most recently concerning inflation, energy, and (even) the world.
While 'gotcha politics' is nothing new, neither is thought-provoking academic research. An example is Professor Danielle Allen's Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus. Allen, the James Bryan Conant University Professor at Harvard University, does not include the word "progressive" in the book's index or table of contents. But it is clear from reading the text why our work is important.
Allen's book is about democracy in America during a national crisis, namely the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 1 million Americans have died from COVID-19—over 15% of all deaths globally in a country with 4.5% of the world's people. Allen uses democracy—our constitutional democracy system, specifically—to analyze how America and Americans responded.
For reference, a constitutional democracy helps democracy flourish by the way it is structured and operates—delineating, among other things, what it means to have majority rule and minority rights, checks and balances, and freedom of expression, and what is involved in exercising citizenship, including civility, open-mindedness, tolerance for diversity of thought and people, and compromise.
Our constitutional democracy did not serve us well during the pandemic. "The pandemic has taught us a dark truth," is the way Professor Allen puts it on p. 89. America was neither prepared nor capable. Americans were in jeopardy, including the least among us, with everybody, everywhere, trying to figure out how to cope and where to turn. Most noticeable was the lack of coordination between the Federal government and the states, and the inability to get needed goods and services organized and distributed to the public efficiently. And the harmonic balance among what Professor Allen calls "The Three L's"—Lives, Livelihood, and Liberty—was fractured (p. 5). Lives (safety and security) and livelihood (jobs and income) were conflict, as were personal rights vis-à-vis collective responsibilities.
Rather than draw on a wellspring of commitment and resolve in a time of crisis, our highly polarized America—a land of partisanship and differences—pushed and pulled in different directions. Public officials carped and squabbled, "contempt media" (p. 102) ruled the airwaves, and "Facebook Warriors" battled on social media.
How could this happen? The answer, I believe, is the book's greatest gift. And Professor Allen's use of the constitutional democracy frame makes it so. Here is my take on why.
America's founders went through the arduous process of figuring out what they wanted America to be and how it should function. Then they handed over the system, trusting that subsequent generations would protect, affirm, and improve it. Many Americans are committed to safeguarding and renewing what the founders created, but I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that others are not.
Professor Allen's treatment early in the book helps bring those competing dynamics into focus by how she defines/distinguishes negative and positive liberties (pp. 11-12).
- Negative liberties are "those rights of free speech, rights of association, rights of religion and so forth, that permit us to chart our course toward happiness, based on our definitions of the good."
- Positive liberties are "those opportunities we have in our political institutions (to participate) as decision-makers, as voters, as elected officials, and as people who contribute to the deliberations of our public bodies."
Through the exercise of negative liberties, we are free to seek outcomes that align with what we view as valued ends. Through positive liberties, "we have a chance to shape our collective world together" (p. 12). In a constitutional democracy, Dr. Allen continues, we should not choose one liberty over the other because "fuller flourishing," in her words, "requires the protection and exercise of negative and positive liberties."
Both liberties are rights, too, as in the right to free speech and the right to vote. And there is also the matter of responsibilities, as in using free speech responsibly and voting as a responsibility. But while those on the Right harp about the importance of rights (not all rights, mind you, but rights they view as priorities, e.g., the right to bear arms), they are relatively silent about responsibilities. In addition, through the means of a well-organized, -funded, and -coordinated effort, they seek to impose their preferences on the collective. Examples abound, including school children will not learn about Critical Race Theory, women will not have the ability to have an abortion, there will not be strong gun control laws, etc.
Worse yet, partisans are using structures and processes of our constitutional democracy to manipulate the system to achieve their valued ends. Examples include gerrymandering and restricting voting rights. Incursions come from within the governance system and from external pressure, all with the same intent—to undermine, subvert, and commandeer our constitutional democracy. The actions are justifiable in Machiavellian terms because the ends justify the means. Politically, as Saul Alinsky once put it (to paraphrase), "Do what you have to do and then wrap it in moral clothing." And they do.
What can be done to readjust America's constitutional democracy to align with our founders' intent? Professor Allen writes expressively about the importance of common purpose, which she defines as "an affective connection to a common enterprise" (p. 20). A socially galvanizing force, common purpose (and resolve) is what America had 80 years ago when it simultaneously fought wars on two fronts. A generation later, we had it again when America decided to go to the moon, "not because it is easy, but because it is hard."
But common purpose does not exist in America today. Yes, there have been times when America has come together; 9/11 is one, but not with a shared commitment to common purpose. The biggest threat to our constitutional democracy may be whether we, as a people, support the idea of common purpose, including whether America would be better off with it than (as we are today) without it.
Even if belief in a common purpose were to bubble up as a priority, I wonder whether we have sufficient leadership to pull it off. I say that for two reasons.
First, leadership these days is mostly about getting ahead ("winning," to be more specific). That is the way many people view "good leadership," and how and why leaders get selected. But common purpose is not about winning. Instead, it is about being, that is, who we are as a people, and what we see as our collective values, aspirations, and goals.
Second, while many of us complain about America's penchant for preferring "me" over "we," the pandemic experience reinforced a me-first ethic. That is the “dark truth” of which Professor Allen writes. Will and can our country keep us safe? Can we count on our country in times of crises?
Until enough Americans believe that is no way to live, the current situation is unlikely to change. The only viable strategy is to continue doing what progressives do. There will be setbacks and pot shots (the Boudin recall is a recent example), but staying the course is essential. That is why progressives matter.