The American Left lost its way, and most of its persuasive power, when it gave up making strong moral judgments. This happened, probably, in the 1960s and ’70s when the Left’s ideal of tolerance came somehow to mean even tolerance of positions that were antithetical to tolerance. The Left, by the 1980s, was being accused of censoring Right-wing speech simply because the Left had traditionally spoken out against it. The Left’s attempt to make its language more culturally sensitive, so-called “political correctness,” was used by the Right to shore up its case: these people are hypocrites, conservatives said; they preach tolerance but will not tolerate speech they find offensive.
Those on the Left didn’t have a ready answer. In the name of radical pluralism, they surmised, the voice of the Right must be heard without judgment.
The problem with this position was that it made the Left look weak and ineffective, even absurd. This allowed intellectual lightweights like Rush Limbaugh to float in and kick the nearly inert body of American progressivism almost to death. I say almost to death because a few mildly liberal politicians like Barack Obama are still able to eloquently if not forcefully articulate progressive positions. They lack credibility, though, because they are unable or unwilling to act on their rhetoric, making that rhetoric seem even more useless and empty.
Most of this mess could be sorted out if the Left were to rediscover its moral voice. In the past, the progressive voice in America has been tied to humanism, both secular and religious. Even though we remember him only as failing to end the teaching of evolution, William Jennings Bryan was a powerful force for progressive change, deeply concerned about issues of social justice backed up by a deeply felt Christian humanism. In fact, the major worry about Darwinism during Bryan’s time was that it denied the human exceptionalism that kept people moral: without the ability to perfect oneself, to be more like God, human beings could not become the moral beings they needed to be in order for a more just and equitable society to exist. This strong strain of American Christian progressive humanism managed to survive WW2 and saw its apogee in the post-war Civil Rights movement, the most successful and effective parts of which were practical applications of Jesus’s ideas about non-violence.
Secular progressivism also developed its own strong voice—one that can be found everywhere from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to mid-20th Century Existentialism. The secular brand is rooted not in the notion that we must be moral to reflect that we are created as an image of God or that we must be moral because we will be eternally judged. Instead, secular progressive humanism postulates that human life is worthwhile because it is the only thing we have; we have developed culture and civilization to make things better for ourselves.
I contend that what distinguishes us as a species is the ability to intentionally build societies and that those societies exist to help human beings survive, to improve the lot of humans, not to degrade it. Culture in this sense is a continually adaptive adaptation, but one that requires us to always mind its purposes, since the tools of culture can also lead to inequality, injustice, war, slavery, genocide.
We have a felt sense of this need for bettering ourselves. People yearn for freedom, agency, safety, connection. People feel slighted when they are not dealt with equitably, and people despair when they see no hope, no opportunity, when they feel no control over their directions and fates. This felt sense goes deep; it provides the motivation for revolution and reform, for compassion and for resistance. We may be able to intellectualize injustice, but when we suffer under it, it makes our lives worse. Because of this felt sense, we need not rely on a single religious system to inform our culture, but we’d still do well to acknowledge the ways the various constituent faiths inform how we deal with the social problems that lead us to it. We need not even universalize a particular set of values to deal with them; it is enough to ask whether or not they are working to give the people in a society a shot at living without undue suffering. Further, we do have good, empirical evidence that people who live in more egalitarian societies live longer and report happier lives.
As it appears in our current culture, in an extreme form, American conservatism advocates inequality and economic uncertainty for the vast majority. It promotes a system that denies basic health care to millions of people, promotes stress and overwork for those who do have jobs, and protects a privileged few at the expense of the underprivileged masses. To live in the nation the American conservative movement has created is, for most people, to live shorter, poorer, less happy lives than the ones that our material prosperity should be able to support.
It is not unfair to judge the conservative movement as a bad thing for America. It is not censorship to speak out against it; speaking out is merely practicing the same right to speak freely that the conservatives claim not just for themselves but for the corporations they run. In fact, speaking out is the means we have of being intentional about what we want as a society. The only way we can demonstrate how things can be better is to show how bad they are now and how wrong-headed are the plans of those who would make things more difficult. We are, in fact, duty bound to expose injustice and inequality if we want our society to live up to its purpose and its promise.
This is exactly what the American Left should do. In doing so, it should make peace with progressives of faith. It does not matter why you want to dignify human existence; it just matters that you do. It should articulate, clearly and forcefully and without apology why the ideas of the Right are mean-spirited, degrading, unjust, and wrong. The Left should regain its moral voice and let it ring loud.