In preparing for the 2010 midterm elections, we need a progressive summit, to compose a shared narrative and shared positions. Currently, progressive groups are pulling in different directions, favoring distinct tactics, promoting their own rationales. True, despite all the talk about a "progressive movement," there is no way to cobble the various progressive groups into one coherent force. However, one can find what political philosophers call "overlapping consensuses." That is, instead of seeking one agreed-upon platform and strategy, progressives should identify major points all can agree to promote. Participants in the new coalition would understand that many of their agenda items would not be supported actively by many of the groups involved—and, in turn, they would not be expected to promote the entire agendas of other groups. Each group in the coalition would avoid adding its desiderata to the common pile, making it unwieldy and apolitical. Only those items all groups favor will be accommodated: above all, a shared narrative and a shared strategy.
The Missing Narrative
Successful movements have a narrative that usually takes a historical form. The narrative provides an account of the forces that got us into our predicament and the rising forces that will save us, and an image of the more perfect union we are going to reach once we put our shoulders to the wheel.
The most effective narratives follow the same pattern, one that is found in the Bible and in Marx. Once, we were in a state of grace (the Garden of Eden, the early commune); we sinned (took a bite from the forbidden apple, technological developments advanced a new ruling class); we must atone for our sins (pray, organize); and we will return to nirvana (the Garden of Eden, a stateless commune). Call it the U-turn of the human narrative. (Obama followed this script when he pointed out, during his first State of the Union address, that in 2000 we had a budget surplus; we were doing well. He then found a great deficit on entering the White House and was forced to increase it some; we sinned. But he promised to lead us back to virtue, by lowering the deficit. Not a very ennobling and a rather minor narrative, but one that conforms to the tried-and-true pattern.)
I could not agree more with Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert L. Borosage ("Change Won’t Come Easy," Feb. 1) that we need to pay more mind to values and ideals and less to policy-wonking. Narratives are a way to explore values and ideas, often in a historical (real or imagined) context, or in the form of an evocative allegory that reaches people who would not join a policy debate even if all football games were canceled and all the soaps were turned off.
Conservatives have two such narratives that have been highly successful. This is of much importance because, for decades, there have been at least two self-declared conservatives for every American who identifies as a liberal. According to the economically conservative and libertarian narrative, the United States was doing well until the government expanded, first under Franklin Roosevelt and then in the 1960s. Cutting it down will solve our problems. Social conservatives hold that American society was doing well until the sexual revolution of the 1960s. If we just return to the good old days, when divorce was restricted, abortions were illegal, etc., virtuous America would be restored.
The fact that these narratives are terribly familiar is a reflection of their strength. To conservatives, they need not be spelled out or justified. They are taken as established truths. Moreover, they provide a ready-made context for numerous specific positions.
When I recently scoured the major progressive publications and interviewed a few progressive leaders, I could not find a progressive narrative. I was somewhat prepared for this finding, given that the movement includes groups with different agendas, such as gay, environmental and minority groups. What did surprise me was that, as far as I could determine, not a single one of these groups had a streamlined narrative of its own, one that at least most of its members shared—and that might be shared by others.